First Monday has an interesting article by Lisa Lane (Insidious pedagogy: How course management systems affect teaching, First Monday, Volume 14, Number 10 – 5 October 2009) that starts off with an interesting quote:
But lo! men have become the tools of their tools.
— Henry David Thoreau
Lane continues with a couple of other interesting observations:
Even after several years of working with the CMS, faculty requests for help focus on what the technology can do, rather than how their pedagogical goals can be achieved. They want speed and ease of use rather than more features (Ioannou and Hannifin 2008). Carmean and Haefner (2008) argue that any CMS can provide a deep learning experience and can be used for multimedia and in–depth communication with students. Educational technologists look at a CMS and see its many features, but faculty see an inflexible system that cannot be customized (Teles, 2002; West, et al., 2007) . Even experienced instructors continue to use Blackboard/WebCT primarily for grade administration, e–mail and presenting static content (Lane, 2007; Gastfriend, 2005; Morgan, 2003). This does not mean that online teaching cannot be improved through ongoing use of a CMS, but Morgan notes such improvement as a “side effect of the use of the software rather than a direct result of its use” — those willing to play around with the features tend to discover new directions for their teaching.Few instructors are consciously aware that CMS design is influencing their pedagogy. Most colleges survey faculty in some manner about their CMS, and feedback is overwhelmingly positive. This allows an institution to insist on the use of one CMS: if the pedagogy were being controlled by the system, surely faculty would be unhappy with it. But novice users do not have a framework for expectations. An instructor seeking an easy way to post Microsoft Word documents, enter grades, receive papers and assignments through a digital “dropbox”, and run a traditional threaded discussion board will tend to show great satisfaction in using Blackboard or WebCT (Tufts University, 2006). Those taxing the system more, and using the most complex features, show lower levels of satisfaction. The vast majority of complaints about CMSs come from innovative, heavy users of Web technologies, those accustomed to customizing applications to make their work more effective. They also come from behaviorists and constructivists who face significant limitations in many systems. Novices happily use the high–tech CMS as a glorified copy machine (Dutton, 2004; Walker and Johnson, 2008).
It looks to me that Lane has hit the nail on the head on one point and has perhaps missed on another. Instructors want speed and ease; how many times have ID or other support people out there heard “I just want it to work, I don’t have time to spend on it”? EdTechers who often have time to explore tools, but who often do not teach see nothing but possibilities and they try with all their hearts to get instructor to try new tools in an attempt to help the instructor expand their use of the system to something more than a glorified copy machine. Those who are wanting to do more than the CMS allows on the other hand are often not limited by the CMS in my experience. They are able to simply link to their more advanced setups from within the CMS while they use the CMS for the basic grade delivery and document storage functionality.
In my experience, instructors complain because they are time limited and not feature limited. They may use a simple HTML folder on a server to dump off their files because that is all they have ever been shown and that is all that they have time to learn to do (they learned that X years ago and it works well enough and there is no real advantage to changing). Others may use other systems or personal homepages for the same reason, as they learned to edit HTML or use some application to get what they need done. Granted, these complaints come mostly from older instructors, but younger instructors are often strongly influenced by their peers who, in their best intentions, steer them away from tools that might actually help save time. Outside instructor issues, there are also issues that relate to departmental politics, where departments may want/need to justify the existence of/investment in servers/support and “encourage” the use of non LMSs which are essentially “drop boxes” that are connected to the instructor’s login via the network. When these instructors see the “features” of an LMS boiled down and see that it is nothing more (outside of a secured space) than what they have right now, with the added headache of having to login to yet another system.
Lane concludes well:
One solution to the CMS pedagogy trap is to support novice online instructors differently than advanced instructors. With Web novices, pedagogy must be emphasized before features and tools. Starting with the CMS features creates a backward process. When faced with a CMS for the first time, faculty begin by experimenting with one or two tools that they already understand, then adapting the tools gradually as they gain more experience using them (West, et al., 2007). Most training encourages this approach, because it gets faculty using something in the system, even if they don’t understand the whole structure of the CMS. But creating a course piecemeal means that the pedagogical goals are left behind in the interest of mastering a few tools. That replaces the instructor’s main strength (their expertise in their discipline and their teaching) with their main weakness (technological literacy). Teaching faculty to consider their teaching approaches first, before they enter the CMS, could help prevent tool availability from limiting their pedagogy.
This is how I try to support my instructors to get going with the either the central CMS or with our new WPMU installation. My unit has developed a number of templates and resources that follow the “slowly turn on the tap one we know what you want to do” idea. Having instructors operate from a position of strength rather than disadvantage is certainly a best practice that should be encouraged and it’s nice to see that there is work out there that supports this. So as Thoreau suggests, if one operates from a disadvantage, then they become a tool of the tool… limited to thinking about what they know in their limited functional vocabulary of the system that they find themselves in.
Edit: For another take on this article (also positive), check out Inside Higher Ed.