cc licensed flickr photo shared by The Pug Father

LMS. CMS. LCMS. La La La La La. Will they be toppled by a Wave?

I feel rather blessed I have not had much responsibility or even been inside a Course Management System for a looooooong time. I aonnot say I find them inherently evil, but more inherently stupid. It’s been a while since I ranted on it, but after all this time the mere fact that the main organizational unit of a “learning system” not being the learning, nor the learner, but the course– is just plain programming design laziness It’s done that way because it is easier to put learning into neat mailbox slots, ones that can be tidily emptied at the end of a term.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by Dean Terry

The concept reminds me of the specious things very common n Phoenix called Master Planned Communities. This are housing developments of factory stamped homes, surrounded by walls, and fronted by a security gate. Residents agree to live in these places and not violate the rules by painting their homes from a non-approved palette or using unofficial roof shingle or not even putting a bench in their front yard (this was a news story in Phoenix a few years ago). People in these places walk around and spy on their neighbors to report acts of non conformirty.

I cannot really associate any sense of “community” in the real world like this except for the WG kind (Walled Garden).

The sheer irony of Course Management Systems, and my own minor guilt, is that I had a hand in ushering them in to the Maricopa Communty College system in the late 1990s. I saw these new things coming out (remember “Web Course in a Box”? Yep. Ms PacCMS ate them long ago) at the same time I was seeing the futility of thnking faculty could author their own web pages (I tried to shine a light). These early systems had a lot of potential, I thought, for teachers to create web spaces for learning through a simpler interface. Had blog software been there, I would have gone down a different path.

And in those days, the people making Course Management Systems were these young hip academics coming out of Cornell and University of British Columbia. They were the precedents to Web 2.0 entrepreneurs. Heck, I once even managed in 2000 to get Matt Pitinsky (then Blackboard CEO) and Murray Goldberg (then WebCT CEO and founder) to speak head to head at a Maricopa Ocotillo Retreat. It was actually rather civil, and they agreed with each other more than disagreed.

Fast forward to know, where these companies company seem woefully short of user admiration, maybe even hated on campuses more than the Redmond Orcs. What an accomplishment. The best attribute they can claim over the Open Source / Small Pieces Web 2.0 Joined approach is… “a gradebook“.

A gradebook.

What an expensive and unwieldy gradebook.

Last February, I attended an WordCamp-ed in Vancouver, and was pleasantly startled to see (a) so many people show up; and (b) how many were from places setting up institutionally serving instances of WordPress MultiUser, something un heard of a year earlier except at a few bleeding edge schools. The discussions skirted into infrastructure, management, identity, and I recalled having a brief tinge of deja vu that I brushed off.

No, Clover, it could not be happening.


I am not saying that WordPress is the…. the… (I am not going to use the noun) “farm resident” that are moving into the Big House, but what an creepy thing that would be.

It was a source of great satisfaction to him, he said-and, he was sure, to all others present-to feel that a long period of mistrust and misunderstanding had now come to an end. There had been a time-not that he, or any of the present company, had shared such sentiments-but there had been a time when the respected proprietors of Animal Farm had been regarded, he would not say with hostility, but perhaps with a certain measure of misgiving, by their human neighbours. Unfortunate incidents had occurred, mistaken ideas had been current. It had been felt that the existence of a farm owned and operated by pigs was somehow abnormal and was liable to have an unsettling effect in the neighbourhood. Too many farmers had assumed, without due enquiry, that on such a farm a spirit of licence and indiscipline would prevail. They had been nervous about the effects upon their own animals, or even upon their human employees. But all such doubts were now dispelled. Today he and his friends had visited Animal Farm and inspected every inch of it with their own eyes, and what did they find? Not only the most up-to-date methods, but a discipline and an orderliness which should be an example to all farmers everywhere. He believed that he was right in saying that the lower animals on Animal Farm did more work and received less food than any animals in the county. Indeed, he and his fellow-visitors today had observed many features which they intended to introduce on their own farms immediately.


I am just playing this out as a metaphor, not claiming the WordPress will be the pigs walking on hind legs drinking beer with the Farrmer.


But should the Farmer be replaced or die what would happen down on the farm?

Post script- I wrote this post in ecto the desktop blog editor than can post to many blog platforms; I used to to write most of the post while on a plane. I’d not used it in a few years, but like its ability to compose, preview, and use many other nifty tools (e.g. a url copied is automatically inserted into the right field when you use the link tool)

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so)


  1. Yeah,

    That is the real fear, and it is something I struggle with. In many ways the whole idea of “A domain of one’s own” project at UMW is an attempt to see WPMu as an interim step designed to encourage people to take control of their personal web, get their head around syndication, and simply illustrate how simple tools like WordPress are for web publishing. I hate the logic of UMW Blogs as “enterprise,” as much as it has become that to a degree, and one of the things we have been adamant about is not integrating it into the campus identity management systems.

    I think it would be far more powerful to see it as a aggregation point for their faculty and student work around the web, or even just a prototype of the syndication bus which suggests folks can do what they do anywhere, while at the same time we create a mecahnism to aggregate archive, and make some connections. Not to mention directories, lists, etc. Moreover, I’d like to see it as a space for the larger discussions and idea of literacy for the 21st century, focusing on digital identity, questions of copyright, re-imagining academic publishing, etc. I think those are the idea that still drive the experiment at UMW, and when they get lost, that’s when we are in trouble. Whenever any given system becomes dominant, that is when we are all in trouble, so I couldn’t agree with you more in that regard.

    I think the power of WPMU and its ilk is grounded in the fact that it was not designed and imagined for education per se, but on re-imagining the power publishing and re-publishing on the web. That is still the hook, once it becomes a system of permissions and control, I think it begins to look a lot more like the pig in the picture 🙂

  2. I remember that head-to-head BB vs WebCT event at Maricopa. Sometimes I even tell people about it. Amazing what those little start-up companies morphed into.

    You skipped the part where reusable web-objects were the new holy grail for teaching. Digital libraries are now coming under scrutiny too. In the end, maybe it comes down to a lack of discussion of what we are really trying to DO in the classroom. Or a disagreement on that point.

    If you are just trying to fill up heads with “content” and meet “standards” then the whole discussion of the best tools is not on the radar.

    It’s late and I may be incoherent and not know it. Time to go to bed. 🙂

  3. Your dejá vu is kinda creepy, Alan. But at least one difference between something like WPMu and the Bbeast is that, while installations of WPMu might become larger, more centralized, more (ugh) enterprise-y, the basic logic of the user experience doesn’t change all that much. That is, as long as users are able to set up their own blogs in the system, and as long as they are given a relatively robust set of syndication and customization plugins to work with, they will always be relatively free to explore different kinds of learning models on the individual level. Thus, while the way that the software is *managed* from the university’s point of view might become more monolithic, the learning that happens inside doesn’t, at least not necessarily.

    Contrast this with the Bbeast. Not only does it share this software-as-enterprise-behemoth mindset from the administrator’s point of view, but it embraces the same kind of top-down logic even at the user’s level. Individual student users (and even faculty users) really have no freedom whatsoever to explore different ways of learning.

    It might be the case, of course, that the enterprisization of a given piece of software *necessarily* has an enterprisifying (sorry for all the made up words) effect on the learning that happens for individual classroom uses of the software. I can imagine this happening, for instance, if certain useful plugins are deemed unstable when the system is scaled up. But it seems to me that this doesn’t necessarily have to happen. At least in theory, it might be possible to imagine the centralized management of a software that allows for classroom-level freedom.

    An enterprise-style installation of something like WPMu is, on the other hand, directly at odds with the broader goals behind Jim’s domain-of-one’s-own idea. If the goal is to teach our students to engage in a rich way with the participatory web throughout their lives, then holding their hands within the confines of a university-wide install of WPMu might work against the goal.

    1. @Jim I think the Magic Syndication Bus will do a lot to keep this space from being walled and conformed; keep driving the bus!

      @Liz I wish the video from that event were still alive. I recalled when I left Maricopa that there, like most places, the were using the same CMS they started with.

      @Boone you’ve stated the differences eloquently. I’m not worried about history doing a repeat loo

  4. You guys live in the rarified air of Ed Tech Land. And I mean that in the kindest, most “in awe” kind of way. There are still a ton of faculty who have yet to embrace even the concept of a CMS. That could be good news–maybe they can leapfrog it all together!

    I’ve always followed Cogdog. Now on Twitter, but before that (and still) on his blog and before that by email and whatever classes and online resources he was providing at the Maricopa MCLI. Learned what little I know about html from him back in the 90s. Loved that giant eye on Web’s Eye View and the the Bag of URLs. (

    The CMS for me was a tool to solve some large chem class problems. I bashed it into doing my bidding–sort of.

    1. Let students see grades online (waited till MCC tied WebCT to class rosters before trying it out – no typing of names!) – circa spring 2001?

    2. Post homework assignments and exam topics – circa F01

    3. Collect student background info/surveys

    4. Provide links to multimedia visualizations

    5. Provide opportunity for multiple attempts at practice problem sets (with credit – let me provide multiple versions for each student and attempt – and record highest score out of 3 tries) – circa 2002?

    I was a beta tester for the first Prentice-Hall CMS back in the mid 90s. They even sent a guy to MCC to interview my students. It was HORRIBLY clunky!

    But that lead to me being able to ask for their content – a zillion chem problems – which I could use to make up the multiple sets of weekly problems and use over multiple terms.

    6. Give credit for student annotated links in a class set (tied to weekly topics) rather than me providing links

    I never used the forum capabilities (too clunky). Used the statistics functions to track how students did on specific problems.

    If I were still teaching a large lecture, I would want some of these functions. I don’t think that WordPress can provide this kind of resource. Things like WebAssign (tied to textbook problems and varying the numbers) are a possibility. Not free though.

    Spouse tried a version from their textbook publisher in biochem (to get their question bank). But it was not as functional as WebCT or BB (such as that is) and many of the problems were lame. So what to do? How to provide useful tools and at the same time promote creative thinking and change in how we teach science without it all seeing too time-consuming for faculty to consider.

    Just some musings…

    I agree that slavish adoption of the CMS as a college is deadly. Particularly if it’s a home-grown one that provides a bad interface and 10 year old functionality–don’t get me started! At least the BB interface is not horrible. It didn’t provide the problem randomization and number variation features that WebCT did, at least the last time I checked.

    I hope you guys can figure this out, and that you can get the message out to faculty and administrators when you do. 🙂

    Liz D. – formerly at Maricopa like Alan, now at Wash U in STL

  5. What an interesting chain to read. As I was reading CogDog’s post, I was thinking to myself, “Ah yes, Dog-Meister, as much as I agree with you about the wonderful, creative freedoms of a WordPress MultiUser, there’s still the real world of college faculty teaching to hundreds of students at a time…” (and I was really trying hard not to sound cynical). Then I kept scrolling to read Liz’s second comment and found myself (as I usually do when I’m listening to Liz), vigorously nodding my head. She gave me the confidence to throw in my own two cents.

    Yup, slavish adoption of any system breeds trouble. Yup, CMSs like BB and WebCT suck the energy out of room faster than you can say “dystopian allegory”. But they did (and still do) serve a purpose. As I travel around the country, the professors I talk with claim these advantages: gradebook (I know, I know…), easily and economically confirm how many students have done what, assignment/scheduling, easy way to dispatch (and then track) practice problems/quizzes, and integration with publisher-provided content (course cartridges, testbanks, etc). I think the key factor in these data points of mine is class size. When an instructor has 500-1000 students in an introductory bio or general chem course, that gaited community starts sounding helpful.

    I too hope you guys can figure this out – and I’ll be an eager Snowball, to spread the word when you do.

  6. Cog. I am digging this blog post, as it is inline with my own personal beliefs on LMS/CMS as being inherently evil and archaic.

    I do hear Robin’s point, about college courses needing tracking and integrated classroom functions, but those of us in the corporate learning world have the freedom to use some of the more social technologies for education and knowledge sharing.

    I also feel that LMS/CMSs are still revered because they give institutions the data that they feel shows the benefits of their educational endeavors, and the type of tracking tools that traditional classrooms use. I feel if/when the shift occurs to acknowledge knowledge sharing and discovery (much like the items Liz listed above) in a system that allows the aggregation of content across classes, we would be on the right track.

    Alan, This is a great blog, and you’ve got a new follower!


  7. Fascinating post and comment thread. I have a few random thoughts to contribute, fwiw:

    1. I don’t think courses are the problem, necessarily. A course is a curriculum in miniature, and I don’t think curriculum is necessarily the problem either. The problem is bad courses, bad curriculum, learning designed to be bucket-filling instead of a series of experiences that prompt the learner to build the true domain of their own–their minds and their wills to learn.

    2.Bb is an evil thing because it codifies and perpetuates a whole series of worst practices related to courses-as-containers. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we have Bb because in a deeply perverse way it’s exactly what higher education wanted. I didn’t want it, you didn’t want it, but higher ed did, because it codified and perpetuated a model of business-as-usual that played into higher ed’s worst tendencies, and most injurious sets of unexamined and unspoken assumptions about learning. The emergence of the web gave higher ed a chance to rethink some things. The emergence of the LMS meant higher ed didn’t have to rethink anything. And so higher ed breathed a sigh of relief and went back to its trough.

    3. When will higher ed get out of the business of managing information systems for learners instead of helping learners to design their own information systems? I think it’ll take recognizing that the web is truly a new medium–and that recognition will be forced on higher ed sooner rather than later.

    Dunno if the above makes any sense, but it’s the best I can do right now. I think teachers and courses are important ideas, important agents, just as I continue to think that the book is an important unit of argument, exploration, and expression. But book doesn’t mean print, and course doesn’t necessarily mean the accounting unit of credit hours, etc. that means “course” in the modern university….

  8. That’s right (and I deserved the pun, thanks). We must choose a different path. We must.

    The other big issue here is that Bb’s vision is not just about LMS’s. It’s about capturing and monetizing every single digital transaction on campus. Assessment, washing machines and student vending, e-portfolios, etc. etc. I wonder what’s next: Banner buys Bb, or the reverse?

    Sew ’em all into a bag and dump ’em in the Thames. 🙂

  9. Amen, brothers. Completely agree, “of course”. And isn’t it interesting to see how large, amorphous organizations (like higher ed – but there are others) “find” solutions that save them from re-examining?

    But back to my struggling (I think it’s on life support now) point for just a moment. When I talk with faculty about participatory media, I seem to have the most success when I can point to specific examples where using new tools with their students in creative ways, entering the networked knowledge pool can save time and help them “track” their students (aka, know where they are). If they end up connecting those affordances to what they benefitted from with their particular flavor of LMS, is that a bad thing? They still need to find efficiencies and ways to make a 500-student course work.

    Or maybe we all just need help making the transition from the notion of “course”, as exists today, to something finer, personal, and connected…

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