Friday, August 31, 2012

Amelia from Abilene Sings the CMS Blues, And Prays to the Great Google Gods.

I spent 12 hours last weekend getting one of my three courses this fall into our shiny! new! course management system (CMS). Why? Because everyone else now has to use it, so the students will expect me to. And "professor uses instructional technology appropriately" is one of our student evaluation criteria. So what they expect is what they think is appropriate. Even if it isn't. Anyway, to be fair, here's how the new system breaks down.

Good things:

  • It's open-source, and therefore, less expensive than the proprietary system we used to use.

Bad things:

  • Other faculty use it, so I feel like I have to, instead of using something that would be easier and make more sense, both for me and for the students.
  • It requires no fewer than 7 clicks to do pretty much anything.
  • Most of those clicks require a round trip to the server. This eats huge amounts of time (nothing like spending 10 hours (!) this weekend just uploading files for one of my 3 courses).

I would like to officially request that Google develop a courseware package that annexes to the Google Apps packages that so many universities (including mine!) already use.

For the love of all that is decent and respectable in the world. And for my sanity.


  1. Is it Canvas? We switched to that last year, after being on the old CMS for three years. I suppose in ten years, we will have tried 3-4 different ones.

  2. We've still got one of the many versions of the expensive privately-owned LMS not-so-fondly known around here as Blackholeboard. It's annoying, but reasonably fast, and I've figured out how to make it work for my courses, and I'm not really anxious to switch anytime soon (though if we do, I hope it will be to an open source system. Even if we have to hire more people to support/customize it, it should be genuinely customizable, which would be nice. Heck, we could even put the computer science students -- with supervision -- to work on improving the thing).

    It seems to me that if use of the CMS is required (an addition to your duties), but slow, the school ought to pay you by the hour for course setup (which tends to take place outside the 9 months when many of us are paid). I'm sure they have an easy way of tracking the time spent. Of course, they probably don't have a way of paying you (it all went to that spiffy new dorm, or gym, or perhaps the tutors who are doing the star athletes' work for them, or wooing an administrator who promises to save millions by taking courses online).

  3. "Even if we have to hire more people to support/customize it, it should be genuinely customizable, which would be nice."

    It would be nice, but I wouldn't get my hopes up if I were you.

    Our campus moved to an open-source model just over a year ago, and like you, I was looking forward to being able to really make my site look how I wanted, and to having a level of functionality that improved on the previous, for-profit system. I even installed a version of the open-source system on my own computer at home, and began to play with it in order to learn the best way to change the look, feel, and functionality.

    The problem was that, once the open-source LMS was adopted by the university, the folks in the administration and/or the tech department apparently decided that faculty could not be trusted to customize our courses for our own use. Apart from a few fairly basic selections that we can make, much of the software has been locked down to prevent changes. I can't even change the background color of my courses.

    The system works fine, but it really isn't any more flexible or customizable than the for-profit software we were using before.

    1. Realistically, though, if everyone were allowed to customize it, the whole system would soon come crashing down. Anarchy only works for Robinson Crusoe -- before he meets Friday.

    2. I was thinking more of a situation where faculty would request features not already included (or tweaks of/options for those that were), and somebody would create them and make them available to all. But I can easily see that some proffies would want to play with the code themselves (in fact, if my course load were less crushing and/or my position more secure, I'd probably be one of them. As it is, I just want the tea-partying LMS to work, so I can get on with things). And that could, indeed, result in chaos. I'm sympathetic to the idea that students don't want to use a different, or different-feeling, LMS for each class; in fact, that's one of the reasons I use Blackholeboard (that and the fact that if the server blows up halfway through the semester, the problem is at least as much my university's as it is mine).

  4. The solution is actually fairly simple: treat BlackholeofCalcuttaBoard as a shell, and use it to display content hosted on your personal website. You'll retain control of everything, you'll never lose the materials (unless your own archive crashes), and students will be able to access the course materials even when the CMS is down for maintenance. I started doing that, and I've cut my time wrangling the CMS to a fraction of what it used to require.

  5. If you have google apps, you can pretty much avoid BlackholeBoard. Except if your uni, in its wisdom, decides to implement everything BUT google+

    Another option might be University of Reddit, which is all new and hot and popular with the kiddies and the U of South Florida.


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