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What is it that these tools do do?

I’m late posting this–it started as some thoughts growing out of our CUNY WordCampEd, which is now (how time flies!) weeks past.  Others, notably two of my co-organizers, Luke Waltzer and Mikhail Gershovich, have already posted some terrific thoughts on the event and its implications.  My other co-organizer, Matt Gold, has been great about keeping up the CUNY WordCampEd blog itself with other posts and responses. Of course Jim Groom is always looking beyond.  And George Otte has taken the thinking in other, connected directions, too.

So I think it’s my turn.  With some time now elapsed since the event, and thinking about all these responses, I keep stumbling across some questions that I want to deal with.  I guess it really started with a conversation I had with Jeff Young of the Chronicle, as he was preparing his article on our WordCampEd.  Jeff’s headline was “Colleges Consider Using Blogs Instead of Blackboard.”

But, really, the more I thought about it, the more I thought that what we were about at our WordCampEd really wasn’t much about Blackboard at all, or much about blogs, either.  Yes, I did say (quoting Jane Wells) that some were talking about WordPress as a “Blackboard Killer,” and I did say (referring only to the CUNY Online BA) that Blackboard being down was like the door to the classsroom being “nailed shut” (and I might have been quoting George Otte when I said that).  But I also said (and really meant to make more clear) that I had considered a subtitle for the WordCampEd to be “it’s not just about blogging anymore.”

In conceiving the CUNY WordCampEd, and in planning it, and in hosting it, I wanted to bring together people throughout CUNY who were interested in WordPress, or using it already, but not because WordPress could replace something else (Blackboard).  I was more interested in letting people come together to see and think about what WordPress could do differently–and even more than that, even beyond WordPress, thinking about what kinds of online tools people were using, and what they wanted to do with them.

Your standard, generic, LMS (Blackboard being the biggest and most widely-used, but really not a whole lot different from any of the others–Moodle, Sakai, Angel, WebCT, etc.) has some very standard parts.  There’s an area for posting announcements, an area for “lectures” (modules, units, whatever), discussion forums, live chat (usually), some mechanism for submitting and returning assignments, some mechanism for testing and quizzes, and a gradebook.  (There are other elements–notably communication–some kind of messaging/email system–but those are the major ones).

The elements that WordPress lacks, out of the box, are the gradebook, the assignment submission system, and the testing/quizzing mechanism.  That’s about it.  And what are those three elements?  Those are the sine qua non of a Learning Management System.  They’re what makes an LMS different from anything else, to the point where if it doesn’t have those, it’s not an LMS.

But (here I’m maybe being a little stronger than is called for), those elements are not about learning.  They’re about managing.  Cole Camplese and Michael Feldstein (among many others) have been challenging–rightly–the idea of Google Wave as the “death of the LMS,” and in doing so Cole refers to the LMS as “Learner Management System.”  I think I’d even go beyond that and think of the LMS (especially Blackboard) as a “Learner Management System.”

The LMS really offers nothing unusual or particularly useful in terms of learning, or in terms of learners.  Its strength is in managing learners.  Assessing, enrolling, record-keeping, attendance verifying, assembling and collating assignments–those are all management tasks, not learning tasks (again, I’m being a bit too emphatic about this–I think the lines might actually be blurrier, but I do think it’s an important distinction).

The actual learning activities–discussing, exploring, engaging, thinking, collaborating–those are not assisted by Blackboard any better than they are by WordPress (or many other platforms).  In fact, in those areas, Blackboard is often worse.  Often much worse.  Because Blackboard is built for management, it privileges closing and limiting.  Open platforms don’t.  (To be more specific, I’m talking about the model of the class and the semester and the assignment for a grade, all of which are absolutely central to Blackboard, to the point where multi-class and multi-semester and public self-evaluated or peer-evaluated work is almost impossible within the system).

The Biggest Swiss Army Knife Ever
The Biggest Swiss Army Knife Ever

The whole reason for CUNY WordCampEd was not to show how to replicate what Blackboard already does.  The management tasks are already done by Blackboard.  It was to see (and to show) what else we can do with our students.  Outside of a learning management system, or a learner management system, or any kind of “management,” what happens when students (and faculty) have ways to connect with each other, with other classes, with themselves at later points in time (after a semester is over), with the wider online community?

That’s what was exciting at CUNY WordCampEd–what Zoe Sheehan Saldana’s students are doing, what the Academic Commons is doing for CUNY faculty, what Baruch faculty and students are doing, and mostly (he says modestly) what Macaulay students are doing with the Macaulay Eportfolios and Macaulay Social Network.  None of that has anything much to do with Blackboard, none of it has anything at all to do with “management.”  There was nary a mention at our WordCampEd of assessment, enrollment, testing, submitting assignments, or keeping track of grades in a gradebook.

In fact, what all these projects have in common, what WordPress as a tool encourages, is almost exactly the opposite of management.   I conceived the CUNY WordCampEd to showcase (and I think it did showcase this) innovations in teaching and learning.  Not management.  I think that the best learning and the best teaching really can’t be managed.  They can be supported, they can be encouraged, they can be scaffolded.  But managing them tends to kill them.

The Matsumura Chisel
The Matsumura Chisel

When I think about what teaching and learning with technology can be, how it can be different, I never think (although I recognize that many teachers and students do say this), “it makes it easier to check my grades and find my syllabus and take my quizzes and turn in my homework.”  Making managing learning more efficient is just plain not interesting to me–and it’s certainly not innovative or revolutionary.  The revolution that teaching and learning with technology makes possible is in the areas of exploration and engagement.  It’s when students are able to publish and see their work as a meaningful beyond the assignment for the class.  It’s when they’re able to collaborate incrementally and be fully present for all stages of a project.  It’s when they’re able to follow a discussion far beyond the boundaries of what would be possible in a 50- or 90- or 120-minute class session–or even a whole semester or year, and to research and think about that discussion because it matters to them, because they have a responsibility to a real community and they have learning that they want to do, and to demonstrate, and to have evaluated, beyond what a professor or grade might require.

If an LMS is a tool, it’s something like the giant Swiss Army Knife.  It costs $1,000, weighs almost 3 pounds, would never fit in your pocket, has 85 blades, and can absolutely manage every task you throw at it.  It can’t manage any of them in any artful way, or any creative way, but it’s always there, comes out of the box sharp and doesn’t need sharpening, and every one in every box looks the same.

When I think about the tools that I wanted CUNY WordCampEd to show and spread, I was thinking more of something like the white steel 2″ Matsumura Bench Chisel, which is hand-made, needs hand-sharpening and care, doesn’t hammer nails or pull ingrown hairs or open wine bottles, but is the absolute best tool for the job it is designed to do.

I think that what we showed at CUNY WordCampEd was some models for creating tools that are specific to the specific needs of the specific campuses and even classes and even individual students and faculty who are building them.  That’s what I want these to tools to do do.


  1. I found the WordCampEd to be nothing short of inspirational and would love to see some of students in the CUNY Online Baccalaureate have the opportunity to develop sites like the Macaulay Honors College students. But for most, it will be a challenge to create something on an easy template like Digication. It’s always a struggle between having something to say, which takes a great deal of time, and finding a venue for it. But I’m preparing my first blog for the Commons (I haven’t had a writer’s block since undergraduate school, but for some reason this is intimidating). But in the blog I will link to one of our recent graduates who had both — she introduced me to WordPress.

  2. ..oops–I think I accidentally posted before I finished (either the post went up or disappeared into the ether). So, finishing the thought: …like most of us on the CUNY campuses, we’re not able to go down the open-source road quite as quickly or freely as Joe can at Macaulay–bureaucratic processes and psychological needs are part of the landscape. But like a lot of others, we are following along, a couple of steps behind, moving in the same general direction, and grateful to have pace-setters in front of us.

  3. Blackboard (along with its various precursors, and some of its small number of remaining competitors) was invented to coax faculty online by offering them an organizational structure similar enough to the traditional, in-person classroom that they would feel comfortable. It also reassured administrators that the online environment was academically respectable. I think it still serves those purposes to some extent.

    For some students also, the fact that Blackboard more or less mirrors the control model of the traditional classroom, is reassuring.

    But any instructor (or administrator, or student) who has strong reservations about the traditional classroom is going to feel somewhat constrained by Blackboard and most other versions of the CMS or LMS. We are attracted to teaching and learning tools that stretch the envelope, break out of the box, help us do things beyond the limited set of alternatives that are possible when the teacher stands up at the front of the class and talks while the students listen (or pretend to listen)…

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