If you teach, you’ve probably heard for years about the revolution the Internet would bring to teaching and learning. As with so many promises of revolution, the changes haven’t materialized. Instead, a new suite of tools, called course management systems (CMSs), can be used to enhance your teaching by taking advantage of the Internet without replacing the need for a teacher.
CMSs are web applications, meaning they run on a server and are accessed by using a web browser. The server is usually located in your university or department, but it can be anywhere in the world. You and your students can access the system from anywhere with an Internet connection.
At their most basic, CMSs give educators tools to create a course web site and provide access control so only enrolled students can view it. Aside from access control, CMSs offer a wide variety of tools that can make your course more effective. They provide an easy way to upload and share materials, hold online discussions and chats, give quizzes and surveys, gather and review assignments, and record grades. Let’s take a quick look at each of these features and how they might be useful:
Most CMSs provide tools to easily publish content. Instead of using an HTML editor and then sending your documents to a server via FTP, you simply use a web form to store your syllabus on the server. Many instructors upload their syllabus, lecture notes, reading assignments, and articles for students to access whenever they want.
Online forums and chats provide a means of communication outside of classroom meetings. Forums give your students more time to generate their responses and can lead to more thoughtful discussions. Chats , on the other hand, give you a way to quickly and easily communicate with remote students. They can be used for everything from course announcements to entire lectures. I know one professor who, unable to speak due to throat surgery, held his entire class using online chats and readings. Student workgroups can use online discussions for class projects.
Online quizzes and surveys can be graded instantaneously. They are a great tool for giving students rapid feedback on their performance and for gauging their comprehension of materials. Many publishers now provide banks of test questions tied to book chapters. A professor teaching a marketing class at San Francisco State uses weekly mini-tests to keep students engaged with the lectures and reading. He then uses proctored online testing to give the final exam using the same question banks.
Tracking student assignments is an annoying and bulky task. Online assignment submissions are an easy way to track and grade student assignments. Also, research indicates that using an online environment for anonymous student peer reviews of each other’s work increases student motivation and performance. One of my colleagues teaches a course where students review each other’s written work at every stage of the writing process.
An online grade book can give your students up-to-date information about their performance in your course. Online grades can also help you comply with new privacy rules that prohibit posting grades with personal identifiers in public places. CMS grade books allow students to see only their own grades, never another student’s. You can also download the grades into Excel for advanced calculations.
While you could find or write programs to do all of these things on your own site, a CMS combines all of these features into one integrated package. Once you’ve learned how to use a CMS, you’ll be free to concentrate on teaching and learning instead of writing and maintaining your own software.
Over the past five years, CMS systems have matured rapidly and are now considered critical software for many colleges and universities. The CMS market is now a multimillion dollar market and is growing quickly. One of the biggest vendors, Blackboard, has recently gone public.
Good question. After all, we’ve run classes for thousands of years without the use of computers and the Web. Chalk and talk is still the predominant method of delivering instruction. While traditional face-to-face meetings can still be effective, applying the tools listed above opens up new possibilities for learning that weren’t possible just a few years ago. Currently, there is a lot of research into how to effectively combine online learning and face-to-face meetings in what are called “hybrid” courses.
Hybrid courses combine the best of both worlds. Imagine moving most of your content delivery to an online environment and saving your course time for discussion, questions, and problem solving. Many instructors have found they can save time and increase student learning by allowing students to engage the material outside of class. This allows them to use face-to-face time for troubleshooting.
Online discussions give many students the opportunity to express themselves in ways they couldn’t in a regular class. Many students are reluctant to speak in class because of shyness, uncertainty, or language issues. The ability to take their time to compose questions and answers in an online discussion is a boon to many students, and instructors report much higher participation levels online than in class.
There are a number of other reasons to think about using a CMS in your courses:
Students are becoming more technically savvy, and they want to get many of their course materials off the Web. Once online, they can access the latest information at any time and can make as many copies of the materials as they need. Having grown up with instant messaging and other Internet communication tools, online communication is second nature to many students.
With rising tuitions, many students are working more hours to make ends meet while they are in school. About half of all students now work at least 20 hours a week to meet school expenses. With a CMS, they can communicate with you or their peers whenever their schedules permit. They can also take quizzes or read course material during their lunch break. Working students need flexible access to your course, and a CMS is a powerful way to give them what they need.
If used well, CMSs can make your classes more effective and efficient. By moving some parts of your course online, you can more effectively take advantage of scheduled face-to-face time to engage students’ questions and ideas. For example, if you move your content delivery from an in-class lecture to an online document, you can then use lecture time to ask students about what they didn’t understand. If you also use an online forum, you can bring the best ideas and questions from the forum into your classroom. We’ll discuss lots of strategies and case studies for effective practice throughout the book.
You probably heard all of this in the early 90s as well. So what’s changed? Today, CMSs are more mature and easier to use than they’ve been at any time in the past. The underlying technology is becoming more robust, and programmers are writing good web applications. In the past, most systems were built as departmental or even personal projects and then commercialized. The two leading commercial packages, WebCT and Blackboard , both started out as small college projects and have since grown to be the market leaders.
However, market leadership does not automatically mean that a given application is the best, or most reliable, piece of software. In fact, the market leaders have struggled to manage their growth, and some would argue that product quality has suffered as a result.