All Courseware Sucks

May 19th, 2010 |

Really.  All of it.  I think Blackboard is one of the most poorly designed systems ever built for the Web, and I’m rarely challenged on that opinion.  Problem is, even the good ones (Moodle, Sakai) suck.

But why do they suck?

In general, these systems are too heavy, too buggy, require way too much administration, and suffer from the most extreme form of featuritis imaginable.  They try to be all things to all people while pursuing desktop metaphors that remain awkward on the Web.  They commit the abominable freshman mistake of thinking that since “teachers are used to paper gradebooks” we should have e-GradeBooks ™ that work just like the paper ones.  They can’t decide whether the electronic classroom should be like a social network, or a room, or like Twitter (and so they end up being like 4Chan).  Students hate it, teachers hate it, administrators hate it.  It’s a bloody disaster.

I propose that we discuss — and if possible sketch out — some solutions to this morass.  Maybe that involves coming up with some very thin portal software that hooks up existing services.  Maybe we design a highly minimalist courseware system as a foil to systems like Blackboard.  Maybe we design a few of them for different kinds of teaching situations (large Chem lecture, small grad seminar, etc.).  Maybe we develop highly nuanced arguments for why “courseware,” as such, shouldn’t exist.

Now, we want to be clear about what’s not working with these systems, but this can very quickly descend into an angry mob of people eager to vent about Blackboard.   Perhaps we can think about limiting or constraining that discussion (using some clever mechanism) so that we can get it all out on the table without getting overwhelmed.  Whatever we do, I’d like to get some concrete suggestions and even schematic designs for Courseware That Does Not Suck.

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20 Responses to “All Courseware Sucks”

  1. Zach Whalen Says:

    This is something I’ve been thinking about — why does courseware suck. And you hit the nail on the head with the persistence of print and desktop metaphors.

    At last year’s THATcamp, I talked about using Drupal for doing all my course stuff. And even though I use it in even cooler ways now (I think), it’s occurred to me that its advantage over, say, BlackBoard is not that it’s Drupal, but that I built it myself. In other words, it works for me, because when it doesn’t work, I can fix it.

    So when you say “highly minimalist courseware system,” I think “Drupal,” but maybe that’s just me being a fanboy. 🙂

  2. dancohen Says:

    The upcoming Sakai 3.0 takes the lightweight view, assuming that everything is content (like Drupal) and being very modular. I suppose the larger question is: do we need courseware at all? Anyway, +1.

  3. Boone Gorges Says:

    I’m particularly interested in this topic as I’m mentoring a Google Summer of Code project wherein a student will be setting up a learning environment inside of BuddyPress. I have mixed feelings about it: while I think Stas (the student) is going to do some outstanding work, and I think that WordPress/BuddyPress is, as far as these things go, a nice to use and flexible platform, I still worry about lock-in. “Building a better x”, where ‘x’ is Blackboard or any other platform, usually ends up being an exercise in futility, where you develop a new system that is only slightly less crappy than the one it was modeled on.

    It’d be helpful to go back to the drawing board and think about the extent to which it’s even possible to provide a single framework that would serve a majority of courses without being so wide-open as to be vapid. Is there such a thing as a feature set that is truly common between (almost) everyone?

  4. sramsay Says:

    “Building a better x”, where ‘x’ is Blackboard or any other platform, usually ends up being an exercise in futility, where you develop a new system that is only slightly less crappy than the one it was modeled on.

    Yeah, that’s exactly right. And I think it explains why even the good ones suck.

    And that’s why I really want to radically rethink the whole thing by asking some basic questions — not just “how do we make it lighter?” but “What are we trying to do again?” Really, I feel like we have some underlying assumptions about what we’re trying to do (and that some of those ideas might suck).

  5. Chad Black Says:

    I like this idea as well. I’m generally using WordPress to run my classes, and like Zach, I pick/design the things I want to use and so I like it. I share everyone’s hatred of Blackboard, but the answers I get from my IT people is that Blackboard offers a means to sync with the campus LDAP, satisfies administrator’s FERPA and Copyright fears, etc. They hate it too, but higher ups like it for those types of reasons. Given that type of institutional culture, I wonder to what extent the notion of building more courseware is a useful rabbit hole to enter.

    That said, conceiving from scratch the types of things we need, what we need to accomplish with the place our courses live on the web sounds like a conversation I want to participate in.

  6. Jeffrey McClurken Says:

    I’m in on this one as well, for many of my own concerns about the imposed CMS (some of this is clearly about the features of the tools which overstructure teaching, and some is simply a resistance to that which is imposed on me).

    I wonder, however, if we might also try to keep in mind as we have this conversation those people for whom the ease of a structured CMS is appealing, though not seductive or all-encomposing.

    I’m not talking about the administrators who like these packaged systems for the ostensible control/FERPA-safety/copyright freedom that Chad mentions above, and I’m not talking about those faculty who live entirely in (for?) those closed Bb and other worlds.

    I’m talking about keeping in mind those faculty who use the courseware in front of them because it’s there and because it meets basic needs and because it doesn’t require learning a new tool all the time. I’m also talking about addressing the needs of the few students I’ve begun to hear from who are tired of the sense of tech DIY in so many of their class. [A student in the school newspaper actually called for faculty to use Blackboard more.]

    I bring this up because regardless of what THATCampers might be willing to put up with/create/do, widespread change is likely to require those faculty and students in the middle of tech curve.

  7. karindalziel Says:

    As an online grad student, my best online experience was in Sakai- possibly because the instructor was an instructional technologist who really knew the software. I’m really interested in what Sakai 3.0 has in store.

    Also, this showed up in my feed reader this evening: an instructor who teaches using drupal shared some of her student’s comments (in short, they love it).

    What Jeffrey says is worth consideration too- it is nice as a student to log into one place and see all your “stuff.” I’m hoping one day there will be a way to make back end tech transparent to students while giving teachers the freedom to use the features that fit their classes.

  8. ethan.watrall Says:

    I’m in (of course). I’m a very dedicated WP/WPMU user – for all of my classes (and have been so for years). All of my classes exist out of MSU’s CMS ecosystem (except for the gradebook – and I’m hoping to change that over the summer). If people are interested, I’d be happy to show some of my classes (both online and face-to-face) and talk about how I use WP/WPMU

  9. Hugh Cayless Says:

    I think Chad hit the nail on the head: courseware sucks because it’s Institutional Software. It responds to the the needs/desires/fears of the institution, not the individual teacher. It’s “Enterprisey.”

    What are some of the things that teachers actually need? A way to share files with students (and auditors!) only, space for (semi) private discussion, optional extras like wikis, blogs, etc. None of these things are terribly hard, but when they’re bundled together into one package that makes your choices for you, they become oppressive for anyone who knows better.

  10. ethan.watrall Says:

    there is a desire to have a LMS/CMS all bundled up into one happy platform. Why? Why can’t we pick and choose open source/forward facing tools that meet our various needs. Twitter for micro communication, media wiki for an assignment repository/collaborative workspace, WP for a discussion platform/centralized site…whatever.

  11. Mark Sample Says:

    Somewhere between Listproc and Blackboard Global Extreme Edition it seems we forgot to ask the question: what do we as teachers want courseware for?

    At least on my own campus, Blackboard seems to be like that foul smell coming from the biology lab down the hall: nobody finds it pleasant, but we all put up with it. (Though some of us do don our own protective gear, e.g. WordPress, Drupal, etc.)

    I like what Steve is proposing, and I think the most productive schematic would actually be a series of schema. There are general pedagogical goals, more specific disciplinary goals, technological goals, community-building goals, and perhaps one or two other categories. Most courseware seems to be devoted to technological goals (file-sharing, communication, etc.) to the exclusion of other goals, and this may be the fundamental cause of their suckiness.

    Maybe a good initial question for us to consider, then, is not what do I want courseware to do to help my students’ learning? but what do I want to do to help my students’ learning? Before we can begin to design a courseware system that does not suck, we need to take the courseware totally out of the equation, and design goals that do not suck.

  12. Jeremy Boggs Says:

    As someone who wrote a Courseware plugin for WordPress, and is co-mentoring the ScholarPress/BuddyPress GSoC project, I don’t think “all” courseware sucks. 😉 I definitely interested in this, and think all the comments are right on.

    The thing I’ve often said about the ScholarPress Courseware plugin is that it isn’t “learning management.” It helps do the often tedious, but necessary, logistical stuff: set up reading lists if you want, add assignment if you want, make a public schedule that’s easier to ingest into other systems and applications. It says or does little with regards to what actual learning takes place. You can use other plugins if you want. And I think that approach has helped, but the plugin itself can be greatly improved in all of these areas. And I’ll be the first to admit that SP Courseware can be greatly improved. It was really written, as is most open source software, because I had an itch a few years ago, had some needs when I started teaching my own class for the first time. There was little user testing, surveys, etc. I definitely agree with Mark’s last comment about coming up with “design goals that do not suck” before even talking about courseware in general. This is something ScholarPress Courseware has not really done.

    I’m also wondering if there some room to discuss the possibility of reorienting courseware from a portal to a network. I love Jim Groom’s notion of “a domain of one’s own” for each student, and think that courseware that a student actually controls, for her/his own needs, would be much more valuable than one imposed on an instructor by the institution, or even one imposed on students by the instructor.

  13. Boone Gorges Says:

    On Jeremy’s last point – about moving toward individual infrastructures as opposed to institutional ones – we might think about guiding the conversation toward data standards rather than interface issues. The “ideal” courseware might end up being not a piece of software at all, but an XML standard like RSS that can read whatever software client the user chooses.

  14. ethan.watrall Says:

    I love the idea of “a domain of one’s own.” However, that approach has implications for open courseware (which is incredibly important to me). If the materials are distributed, its much more challenging to present a unified forward facing course unit.

  15. ethan.watrall Says:

    standards are good (and important). However, at the end of the day, you do need a piece of software, or a platform, or a family of tools…whatever…to implement those standards.

  16. Jana Says:

    In my experience managing Bb for a SLAC, the problem with implementing anything other than Bb is that faculty are terrified of the software. They don’t want to look stupid in front of their students, and they often need a hand to hold as they do the simplest of tasks within the LMS because they afraid that they’ll mess it up. Most faculty don’t hate Bb for its lack of flexibility, they hate it because they don’t know how to do the most basic of fxns within it (and I don’t blame Bb’s interface for this, it’s all abt the faculty’s fear of tech).

    While I’d love to see a more dynamic and customizable LMS system, it’s got to take into account the fact that few faculty can handle anything more than a basic dropdown menu interface.

  17. Boone Gorges Says:

    Jana – This consideration was at the center of our discussion yesterday. I’m working on a blog post where our ideas will be revealed 🙂

  18. Teleogistic / A distributed, multi-client LMS Says:

    […] Courseware Sucks”. You can read the blog post that served as the inspiration for the session at the THATCamp blog. Steve started the session by framing the issue in a way that ended up being quite helpful: he had […]

  19. Bruce Says:

    Ditto dancohen on Sakai 3. As for his question “I suppose the larger question is: do we need courseware at all?”: yes, I think we do. There are all kinds of issues with privacy (really hairy, legal, issues here for edu) and grading and so forth that are really awkward to deal with absent courseware software. We just need an LMS that doesn’t suck. Sakai 3 promises just that in my view.

  20. Jeremy Vest Says:

    I love this topic and think that it’s not just courseware that sucks, Online Education in general currently sucks.

    We need to rethink the next generation LMS and online course. I do believe that online education can be better than classroom education for many reasons. Mostly because we all learn at different speeds and engage at different times. I’m very interested in WordPress and Buddypress. I think a very light simple elegantly designed courseroom can be created using WordPress.

    Think about how the smart phone looked before the iphone came out. The same opportunity exists with the typical old school LMS.


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