On the CMS

JD asked me the other day about my experiences using Sakai, and how I liked it as compared with something like Moodle. This is something I’ve been thinking a fair bit about, not only because Sakai marks my school’s third primary course management system in perhaps four years, but also because I’m speaking at a NITLE symposium on such systems in mid-October.

The reasons my institution has changed CMSs so many times of late make sense, though they don’t ameliorate the difficulty for most faculty in having to learn a whole new system. (Me, on the other hand–I’m always happy to tinker with new software, so changing systems isn’t automatically a bad thing.) We began using one of the large commercial CMSs a couple of years ago when one of our consortial partners got a big grant from a major foundation designed to get the thing set up and help get faculty up and running on it. This school offered all of the faculty in our system training and access to the CMS, hoping that as many folks as possible would get on board. I, frankly, refused, because I find that particular commercial system to be unwieldy and overloaded with features, not to mention generally unattractive and clunky. Instead, I became part of a pilot program through my own IT department, which recruited a small number of faculty (call me “guinea pig”) to test out an installation of Moodle. For a couple of years, I ran most of my courses through Moodle, which I found to be lightweight and flexible. You answer a couple of basic questions– for instance, do you want your course site to be organized by week or by topic?–and Moodle then lays in a basic template that you can fill with various resources. The main Moodle page for each class can thus become a multimediated, hypertextual form of the syllabus, with all of the readings, assignments, quizzes, discussion questions, and so forth laid directly into the schedule. Moodle also comes with a host of modules and plugins and extensions and the like, such that any given instructor can add threaded discussion forums, wikis, synchronous chat, etc., to the class site. Best of all, Moodle is open-source, with an active development community, and I felt strongly about supporting my institution’s impulse to move away from commercial educational software and toward the communally developed and supported open-source model.

So my experience of Moodle was great, and it really began to gain purchase on campus, particularly after our consortial partner informed the faculty that their grant had run out, and that those faculty who were not employed directly by the original grant-getting college would no longer be supported in their use of the commercial CMS. It’s expensive, after all. So the faculty at my school who’d been using that system migrated to Moodle last year. But in the course of the year, the council of deans at our institution finally decided that the consortium should have one common CMS, and that the CMS should integrate with our student information systems, both for populating classes and for LDAP purposes, and so forth. One of the institutions was heavily invested in Sakai, another open-source package, and one that promised better integration with our other systems. So while Moodle is still supported around here this year, there’s a big push on to begin moving people to Sakai.

My experience of Sakai has thus far been much like my experience of Drupal, which I’m using to support the interactive side of both my classes this semester. That is to say, they’re both an interesting combination of lightweight and powerful, which I found utterly perplexing at first. As I described my initial experiences of mucking about in Sakai to our director of instructional technologies here, where Moodle gives you a recognizable framework to begin building from (this weekly structure reminds me of my syllabus!), Sakai basically hands you a big empty box, and a bunch of tools. And then says, make whatever you want! And perhaps it’s just because I’d already put so much effort late this summer into learning Drupal in order to support those class sites, but when I was faced with the big open box of Sakai, I kinda froze, and just wasn’t sure what to put where or how to structure things, or frankly even what the possibilities were. I suggested to our IT folks that they bring someone in who’s been using Sakai for a while, to show some examples of how it’s actually being used, and to demonstrate the more innovative and exciting possibilities that I’m pretty sure are there, but that I just can’t quite imagine yet.

I’ve also got another reaction, though, to the entire CMS question, which is what I’m going to be talking about at that symposium in October. I feel pretty strongly that most CMSs are designed for faculty to be able to manage their courses–and thus the emphasis on things like automated quizzes and gradebooks and the like. What I want the CMS to do is to leverage (sorry) the technologies of the web to get my students involved and invested in active learning–not content delivery, but interaction. Which is why I’m running the Drupal experiments with my classes this semester; I want to argue that the CMS needs to become not a means for faculty to organize their end of courses, but instead a form of social software that gets students interacting, thinking, and writing collaboratively.

But that’s a whole other rant, about which I’ll no doubt be writing more later. Once I’ve finished the BlogTalk talk.

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