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A Fresh Look at 
Course Management Software
by Gail Terry Grimes and Claude Whitmyer
FutureU USA
All around the world right now, colleges, universities and even K-12 schools are gambling big time on a new kind of product they think will make their work easier, their budgets fatter, their reputations hotter, and their teaching better. This classroom wunderkind is course management software.

Course management software is the brainchild of a couple dozen entrepreneurial educators who have parlayed their skill at computer programming into an entire new industry. It's an industry with a huge market world wide. In the United States alone, thousands of schools have put computers in classrooms, libraries, and dorms. Most American institutions of higher education now have at least one server in the basement. Many are purchasing a computer for every faculty member. Some are even bankrolling laptops for students; at the very least, they now require incoming freshmen to arrive with a sleek new machine tucked in with their dopp kit.

The sheer size of this investment has got chancellors, deans, trustees, and superintendents scrambling to make full use of what they've bought. Inspired by the potential of unlimited Internet resources, colorful graphics, and novel methods of communications, they have been tempted to mortgage the campus in order to join the revolution.

Washington has been a willing accomplice. In fact, the computer boom might not be happening in American schools at all if it weren't for all the federal and state government grants available for technology-related projects. Private philanthropy is involved as well, led by corporate donors with an interest in the proliferation of technology. The computer lab is the hospital wing of modern charitable gifts.

Not just in America but around the world, schools are now wired. Fully wired. Completely and forevermore…wired. 

There's only one problem. 

The Emperor is a Luddite
(See article at http://zhao.educ.msu.edu/aera2002/conwayzhao.pdf)

Engineering and science professors aside, teachers do not tend to be technologically inclined. They like books. They like the subjects they were hired to teach and they like getting to those subjects without obstacles. Most of all, they like helping students, not needing help themselves.

Here we are, then, with a room full of machines that only a handful of adults really, truly, know how, let alone want, to use. Oh, they can turn the thing on, rev up a program or two, maybe even download something. But program an extensive course Web site with useful  navigation and graphics that do more than take up space? Construct a spreadsheet of student enrollment data and connect it to a central processing system? Design a self-correcting online test with instant feedback and secure grading? Not likely.

Enter course management software: the messiah, come to simplify it all, do it all, make it all so very, very easy.

Course management software uses templates. The professors "pour" their syllabi, lectures, and quizzes into pre-programmed windows on the computer screen, click "Go," and, voila! Instant course authoring! Then they "pour" their students' vital statistics into another window and, zip, zip, Instant Online Enrollment and Grading! Tantalized and relieved, college administrators have bought course management software by the tub load. There's only one glitch. 

Can You Spell Learning Curve?

This past winter, 25 faculty members at one university "volunteered" to spend nine six-hour days learning how to use what is currently the market leader in course management software. In between these three three-day workshops, the professors attended frequent Friday afternoon tutorials coached by a couple of their colleagues recruited to lead the way. Presumably the faculty-in-training spent some time at home at the keyboard as well. The project started in January but, despite everyone's best efforts, by May 1 most of the group had still not completed a course Web site. Furthermore, the campus had yet to choose a method for enrolling students electronically; hands-on training in that process was still to come. None of the professors had ever participated in, let alone facilitated, an online discussion or chat, the two basic formats for text-based online group communication. Nor had they ever run or even seen a video or audio teleconference. Few, if any, had gained more than a superficial understanding of what it really means to teach online.

In all, each faculty member had invested at least 100 hours of preparation --not including the time spent organizing, writing, and designing the actual course content. All this for modest results at best.

Worse, this was the group's second attempt to master a course management software package. The first effort, launched the year before, had fizzled when that software company was devoured by a bigger fish. Now the faculty was starting over, this time with a more "comprehensive" package chosen by a committee impressed by  the software's "power."

This story is repeating itself in institutions across the land. These professors were the volunteers, mind you-- the cheerful few who WANTED to give it a try. They were smart, dedicated, and hard working and still they struggled. What happens when the less eager get drawn in? And what happens to "Group One" when their newly minted skills no longer apply because the campus has traded up to yet another product. Even if the same software remains on the table a year from now, what happens when those valiant early adopters try to roll out a second online course and then a third? Are they going to remember the 14-step process they learned last winter for putting a quiz online? Will they remember that the instructions on page 47 of the manual fail to mention a key step? Will they know enough to shut down and reboot when their mouse goes catatonic?

Pass the Spray Can Honey! These Bugs Are Getting To Me!

Although a few aspiring entrepreneurs still enter the field every year, a handful of American companies now dominate the course management software market worldwide. 

Insiders call the top two contenders the Sharks and the Jets. Maybe it's the contrasting colors of their company polo shirts. Maybe it's the boy wonders who wear them. Maybe it's the way these kids roam the aisles at trade shows, brandishing statistics at the competition's market share. Whatever the impetus, the result is clear: There's a gang war going on out there and the damage is all over campus.

New, more elaborate "versions" of the leading packages emerge every year or two, always with a flourish and a discount incentive. Luckily for the sellers, every rollout means an "upgrade" and a renewed demand for pricey training. Unluckily for the hapless faculty, these latest offerings are no different from any other software, because "new" invariably means "unproven" and that means bugs--bugs that bite late at night when you're hunched over your keyboard trying to figure out why the calendar dates you so carefully entered aren't showing up on your browser.

Tech support costs a dollar a nanosecond. Help menus fail to include the obvious. IT staffers work 80 hours a week and still can't cover the territory. Servers are "down" twice a day. Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. And the opening bell hasn't even rung yet.

 So, What’s the Alternative?

Yes, there is another way. Your school can save money and enjoy a much better return on investment by following a different path. Even if you have already invested in software, you can improve your results with relatively little additional expense. Here's how:

1. Experiment with free or low-cost resources. The Web is loaded with "shareware" and inexpensive products that function just as effectively as their high-priced cousins and often better! We have had great success with these alternatives and highly recommend them for schools that want to try a conservative approach before investing heavily in something so new. 
2. Train faculty in transferable skills for Web site development. Rather than committing hundreds of hours to the specifics of a software package that may not exist a year from now, provide teachers with an introduction to the basics of Web page construction. Use a “wysiwyg” editor if you have to (such as Netscape Composer or Microsoft FrontPage). The results won't be fancy, but they will do the job without breaking the bank or sucking the faculty dry.
3. Give faculty a generic introduction to the process of teaching online. There's a lot more to teaching online than building Web pages. An entirely new pedagogy is involved. The most complaints about workload and drop-outs come from teachers who try to apply traditional teaching methods to the online classroom. The major software vendors provide only a cursory introduction. For long-term success, put your money here. 
4. Offer to pilot promising new software. We call them "garage bands," the up-and-coming companies (such as TimSoft ) that are combining the best features of big-name platforms with their own innovations. Because they are starting from scratch, these companies don't have to make their new ideas fit into a "dinosaur" package. They can usually adapt quickly. And, they are eager for customers so they may strike a better bargain, and will almost certainly provide better service, than the big guys. When it comes to choosing a software company, technical support is more important than market share. A small company is no more likely to go out of business than it is to be gobbled up by a bigger player. Either way, you will have to switch platforms. If you deliver on item 2 above (transferable skills), your people will be better prepared to weather any change, so you might as well support a smaller, newer vendor in exchange for better support and more responsive tailoring. The Internet marketplace is extremely volatile, but who knows, your choice of upstart vendor may just create a permanent market niche that you can rely on for years.
5. Invest in student orientation. Your courses may offer the best Web experience imaginable, but if students don't take it seriously, or have uneven skills at such things as online research and online group participation, then dropout rates will be high. Provide a serious orientation to online learning as a prerequisite to every course that has an online component.
6. Invest in faculty buy-in. Ask teachers what they think and want. Show them options. Use online surveys, discussions, and meetings to expose them gradually to the new model of teaching and communicating. Integrate the new tools a little at a time into current processes, so the whole online experience is less threatening, more intriguing. The more time and effort you invest now in making faculty comfortable with technology, the less resistance you will face and the more quickly you will see widespread adoption and satisfaction.
Does this mean there's no place in education for course management software? Not at all. The basic principle is sound: Provide templates to help faculty. But there is an awful lot of hubris at the top of this industry food chain for such an imperfect product. Schools have no money or time to waste. They are better off taking a more generic, and ultimately less costly, approach to e-learning, at least for now.

About the authors: Gail Terry Grimes and Claude Whitmyer are co-founders of FutureU, a vendor-neutral seller of training, research, and consulting for distance education, where the motto is: It's not the technology; it's what you do with it. Visit FutureU for more ideas and help in implementing any of the six recommendations above.

Copyright © 2002 by Claude Whitmyer and Gail Terry Grimes. 
All rights reserved.


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