Course Mangement Systems as the Gentrification of EdTech

Gentrification Even Better than Cocaine

Image thanks to Lulu Vision

Here at UMW we have been going through a CMS Review. It has been a pretty interesting project, and while I only tangentially involved, I have been following the basic rhetorical thrust of the sales pitches from companies like Desire2Learn, BlackBoard, and Angel (well be getting in-house demos of Sakai and Moodle next week).

As any faithful reader of the bava may have already guessed, I’m not particularly a fan of Course Management Systems. But, at the same time, I am beginning to understand the perceived need for them in higher ed. I find it interesting that most of the questions in a CMS review center around issues of the gradebook and quiz functionality, which seems to really highlight—as Jerry would argue rightly, I think—that these systems are predominantly about administrative management of courses rather than teaching and learning. Fair enough, I should just swallow my medicine then, right? Maybe, and I’m trying to become more amiable and compliant. I really am, I swear.

Image of CHUD posterBut humor me for second. This evening I was thinking about a particular strand of NYC movies such as The Warriors (1979) Times Square (1980), Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981), C.H.U.D. (1984), Alphabet City (1984), Crocodile Dundee (1986), Bright Lights, Big City (1988), State of Grace (1990), New Jack City (1991), and several others. While these films represent a wide range of genres, they have something in common in my mind which is a filmic framing of New York City as a wilderness, a frontier of crime, violence, and more generally fear. A vision feeding upon the perception of New York City during the 60 and 70s —with the white flight to the suburbs—as a reflection of the state of general “decline” of urban centers (we can understand that decline in a whole host of race and class-inflected ways). Just think about the title of the film Fort Apache, The Bronx, which alludes to John Ford’s Western classic starring John Wayne titled Fort Apache (1948) (though Ford’s film is far more sympathetic and complex a look at the Native Americans than Fort Apache, The Bronx is of the inhabitants of the South Bronx), it is a self-defined frontier film relocated back to the cities of the East Coast. During the late 70s, throughout the 80s, and into the 90s (when the process is just about complete), a new battle for a return of “civilization” in America’s “once great” cities emerges. It is the rise, in several different forms, of the “urban jungle” film, a space that must be exposed, condemned, and re-conquered—and film was one place this happened.

Image of Neil Smith New Urban FrontierNeil Smith’s The New Urban Frontier does a phenomenal job of examining the details of “urban renewal” as deep-rooted shift in both the political economy and culture of U.S. cities during the late twentieth century. The very language of the process of gentrification of urban areas has taken on the frontier imagery of the West: urban pioneers, urban homesteaders, urban cowboys, etc. Films like those above trace this shift in myriad ways, and capture the cultural impact of re-framing American cities as frontiers of crime, violence and difference that need to be both civilized and assimilated, which more often than not means the undesirable element of any given city need to be made invisible, hidden from public view, which C.H.U.D. does a wonderful job at suggesting with the transformation of the displaced populations of NYC living under the city in old Subway tunnels (also known as Mole People, a reality compounded in the 80s when President Reagan put the majority of America’s mentally ill patients from clinics, hospitals, and treatment centers around the country on the streets) into monsters that were created by the very government that tried to hide them (I love this movie!). And there is more to say about each of these films, I mean Paul Hogan as Crocodile Dundee is just the kind of rough and exotic cowboy needed to fight the rampant crime in NYC, and ultimately he liberates the city and himself from the violence that often characterizes any frontier (frontier, in my mind, proving a a very different linguistic formulation than the more nuanced and complex idea of a borderzone which examines the flow of fluid identities through space). And I could talk about all these movies at length, but that is another post, or series of posts, about New York City gentrification in the movies. Suffice it to say, you can read movies as social, political, and cultural traces of the re-imagining of the urban centers as frontiers that need to be subdued, and which are re-claimed and occupied by the middle and upper-classes during the late 90s and 00s.

So what the hell does any of this have to do with educational technology and CMSs? Everything, in my mind. Course management systems as we know them today emerged roughly 10 to 15 years ago (with the watershed year being 1997) as a means of creating virtual learning environments. The very logic of these environments was to create applications that could manage the administration, delivery, and discussion based components of a course online. About this time the CMS became ubiquitous in higher ed as a possibility for managing document distribution, rosters, forums, etc. Companies like BlackBoard emerged as all-in-one solutions for managing courses online due to the relative difficultly of using the open web in the late 90s given the unilateral nature of content delivery, limited access to the web, and the general difficulty designing and maintaining one’s own space. Course management systems fit a need, they were designed for a learning environment that posed a high threshold of difficulty for two-way participation.

Yet, over the the next ten years the web becomes a far more conducive space for dynamic interaction and participation, while at the same time internet penetration throughout the Western world becomes more and more ubiquitous. At the same time applications that offer similar functionality as course management systems begin to emerge at a fraction of the cost of centralized, proprietary systems. And the interest in emerging technologies with different approaches begins to appear, the early interest in learning object repositories and metadata might be understood as a foil to the parallel interest that emerges a bit later on with blogs, wikis, RSS, etc.—with the ease and simplicity of the later seemingly winning out over the labor intensive and static model of the former (I am treading on unfamiliar ground here, so feel free to fire away). So what we have here is a failure to communicate the emergence of a frontier in educational technology, the space of harnessing the possibilities for teaching and learning on the open web that are no longer limited to the logic of an outdated system like the CMS that provides a controlled space for basic interaction online around course materials given the apparent limitations of the early web. Yet, the logic of such a system morphs into a logic of institutional control, security, and convenience. What changes is not the actual underlying technology of CMSs as outdated systems of delivery and management centered around a course, but the general sense that the internet is a dangerous place (which it is) and teaching and learning needs to be cordoned off from that (which is questionable). The design of CMSs don’t change over this period of time, but their logic and raison d’etre does. And while the power of tools such as blogs, wikis, and RSS for creating engaging, interactive spaces for collaboration and discussion made simpler with syndication technology like RSS is amde more and more apparent, the rhetoric of fear, terror, and a protected and centralized space for teaching and learning becomes vocalized more and more.

So, what happens? The companies that make the CMSs gentrify the frontier, they try and assimilate the power of these tools within a controlled space that is safe, closed, and convenient. It is two pronged attack exploiting fear and protection of the students and teachers along with a promise of a centralized convenience and peace of mind. So, like the artists that moved into SOHO and the Lower East Side of NYC in the 60s and 70s, their pursuit of an affordable and diverse alternative to mainstream logic ultimately paves the way for capital to roll in and develop and gentrify these neighborhoods, eliminating most, if not all, of the original spaces that made them interesting and compelling to begin with. This is the lot of educational technology right now, those professors, IT folks, and instructional technologists who pioneered the field of educational technology on the open web over the last decade are watching their work be incorporated into a machine that is selling them back the fruits of their experimental labors as a shiny product that elides the very context of its relevance. Course management systems are the sterile environments of gentrified and wealthy cities like New York’s Manhattan that has very little left of its original luster, and what can be discovered comes at a cost that is prohibitive to the everyday citizen. The machine is, indeed, using us!

Are there alternatives? Is such a move irreversible? I don’t know, but when I read Barbara Ganley and trace her thought I do have hope for different models of thinking about teaching and learning within a digital framework. There are new frontiers emerging, and I want to be on them.

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26 Responses to Course Mangement Systems as the Gentrification of EdTech

  1. Martin says:

    Not since I forced an analogy between football (proper football, not US) and VLEs ( have I seen such fantastic shoe-horning of interests and ed tech! Who else would talk about CHUD (I’d forgotten that movie!) and CMSs?
    I think you may like a metaphor even more than I do Jim, and that’s saying something.
    If I understand you correctly, then this posits gentrification as a bad thing, right? I don’t think this is necessarily the case. The gentrification of city centres in the UK (Manchester, parts of London, Birmingham), has been on the whole a good thing I think. They had become no-go areas for a lot of people, and now they are pleasant, vibrant places to be. I accept that this may have seen some of the original residents move out, but if we take the ‘broken windows’ theory that Gladwell uses in The Tipping Point, then it is the small signs of gentrification (a Starbucks here, a sushi restaurant there) that actually change people’s perceptions of their _own_ neighbourhood. So, arguably it has been good for those who live there too. In this sense one could argue that CMSs are a good thing – they’ve made the scary internet seem acceptable for academics.
    At the risk of pimping myself – in my VLE book (which I know you read everynight Jim) I suggest the metaphor of plant succession. The key is that each wave of colonisers changes the environment it is in – think moss growing on stony ground, which breaks up some pebbles, and itself dies to form a loose soil, which now some grass can grow in.
    Each wave of technology does this – the CMS was needed because educators needed to feel that it related to their everyday practice. However, the very existence of the CMS makes educators begin to think ‘I could try something different’. For my analogy to work though you need to allow those conditions whereby the next wave of colonisers can move in to flourish. Otherwise it is the equivalent of continually weeding the area so nothing can grow.
    One could argue that the financial, legal and administrative constraints placed on educators by institutions and CMS vendors are an example of trying to prevent the succession process.

  2. lucychili says:

    The business of learning is in a quandary.
    It has embraced efficiency, scale and visible reportable outcomes.

    But some people embrace learning, the ability to go somewhere
    unexpected or to think something or try something which is not predetermined. Those people and places are where our society is learning.

  3. Reverend says:


    I appreciate your recognition of just how outlandish the driving metaphor of this post is. But, like you blogged here, incorporating those things that interest you into the learning process is key to making it valuable. And I must admit, drawing parallels between CHUD, Ronald Reagan, Mole People, and BlackBoard puts a big, bright smile on my face, kinda like this: 🙂

    But as for your larger question—and a damn good one—is gentrification a bad thing? I don’t know, it depends where you sit, doesn’t it? If you are part of the upper middle class, or even the elite, it is wonderful. Exactly what the cultural doctor ordered. If you are part of the unlanded lower middle-class, the working class, or the disenfranchised it ain’t so pretty. In fact, the rhetoric of crime, decline, and violence is something most people can rally around when talking about renewal, rejuvenation, or renaissance (just a few of the euphemisms), but the people who are displaced by the workings of capital are often not simply parasites, they are also people how can’t make a livable wage or are struggling.

    The speculation that has fueled the current rejuvenation of cities has made everyone feel rich and part of the movement, resulting in a general turnover of solid working class areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn, for example, that lost many of their original inhabitants to rising rents, taxes, etc. Gentrification as a good thing may be just as dangerous as my over simplification of it as a bad thing. So, this is a point I have to think through in more detail, and examine the specific movement of capital and social forces that pave the way for its colonization of space.

    Which brings me to the metaphor from your book of plant succession. While I see and understand the operative logic you are figuring here, I often get scared when we conflate natural processes with specifically social processes. I don’t always see this grafting as all that useful, and sometimes as flat out dangerous, as with the meme. The naturalization of the social, and in this case educational technology, frames a larger question for me about the idea of some positivistic logic of evolution and language, that I have some really deep skepticism about. I don’t think that capitalism is necessarily a teleological evolution in terms of human nature or social processes, I think it is a social condition that has been naturalized in order to explain away its inevitable “nature” linked directly to the other great fallacy known as “human nature.”

    I make a point of avoiding thinking about educational technology in scientific terms (or the natural world) because I think by its very “nature” it is “unnatural,” or de-natured. It is a space of difference that needs to reflect the social, political, and cultural diversity of the landscape it inhabits (like cities) rather than be contorted and conformed into some box like a course management system that empties out just about everything interesting about this new space. In fact, making the natural metaphors that much more problematic, not unlike the naturalizing of the city during the 70s and 80s as a frontier to be conquered, it is this space that is naturalized and explained away in Jared Steele’s Guns, Germs, & Steele that makes the decimation of an entire population almost palatable–somehow natural viz-a-viz science -scary really.

    OK, how’s that for a response? 😉

  4. Alan Levine says:

    Oh what a wild metaphor you weave, Rev! Brilliant.

    Now just waiting to see where CMS and Sex and the City overlap 😉

  5. Matt says:

    Get this man a book deal!

  6. They’re also marketed as Learning Management Systems (LMS).
    Is there an art to teaching/learning using a CMS/LMS? To build a new analogy, I am thinking specifically of poets who write into form. The most post-modern poetic expression is, perhaps, free verse. Does that mean that sestina, sonnet, or haiku are in some way archaic or worth less? Sometimes when we bound our praxis in specific ways (i.e. working within the parameters of blackboard/angel or write poetry into form) we stretch ourselves in ways we hadn’t realized possible.

  7. Reverend says:

    I can always count on you for an example of how this stuff is happening, and that’s what I like about you. You have the action, I just mouth off.

    I’m working on the Sex and the City post now. Check your reader about 3 am.

    You;re too kind, but we both know I can;t write worth a damn. The blog was made for me cause you don;t need proof and you can disregard spellin, punctuation, and every other rule out there. In fact, it is why I feel so comfortable with the form 🙂

    I think that’s a really good point. Thinking of form as a self-imposed limitation is one way to imagine this. And given my background in literature, I love the analogy. I think the idea of an agreed upon, communal form for writing within bounds make a lot of sense, I just wish there was a logic behind it besides the questions of profit and scale that dictates CMSs. Point being, and agreed upon artisitc tradition like the Sonnet has an agreed upon space to work within. I’m not sure the CMS is so muh an agreed upon space, as one we inherited due to a design we became stuck with. But I don;t know, I like the figure and I have to think about it. It’s a good one.

  8. Brian says:

    I love the metaphor work here, and will take a cowardly turn away from the gentrification and scientific model debates…

    But I will say those 5th and 6th paragraphs articulate beautifully a recent history I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Kudos for a post that launches that topic with characteristic Bava bravado…

  9. Reverend says:


    I have this strange feeling you are sparing me the sword. I know I’m over-the-top, and could use a good come uppance from someone who is far more gifted in metaphor, subtlety and complexity. I may have no self-control, but I can say at least this: I do know my betters!

  10. Brian says:

    No, honestly, it’s cowardice. I’d like to push back a bit on Martin’s point, but he’s so damned articulate I dare not do it in a half-baked fashion. The science thing similarly would require a bit more time and lucidity than I have on hand these days.

    And with that, I run away…

  11. Martin says:

    Ok, Jim, I’ll take you up on your challenge and defend the honour of the scientific/natural metaphor.
    There are two arguments in your response as I see it: the gentrification as bad social force one, and the problems with natural metaphors one.
    To take the gentrification one first. I don’t think it was just upper and middle class people who benefitted. Certainly in UK systems it wasn’t just that we had different communities living in inner cities – we had largely derelict areas where no-one was living. Turning disused warehouses into yuppie flats may not sound like a drive for social justice, but sometimes the incidental effects of selfish actions (on the part of the property developers) can be beneficial. This has rejuvinated city centres. But you are correct in that sometimes self-sustaining communities have been undermined.
    In Cardiff we have had the bay area developed recently (you’ll have seen it in Doctor Who if you watch that). It used to be mostly derelict, but there was also a lively multi-cultural community in Bute area near it. This wasn’t quite what it used to be with the decline of the docks industry, but nevertheless it is still an area that adds character to Cardiff as a whole. The redevelopment has put up restaurants, a great theatre, bars, flats, etc. It’s a great place to go (especially for families). But one feels as though the original community is now being squeezed out, or isolated. So overall, I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing – the bay area has benefitted the whole of Cardiff (not just upper and middle classes who might live there), but I’m sure if you asked some of the residents they might say it had lost its soul. Then again some would say they liked living near it.
    My point is that gentrification is one of those things that it’s hard to defend, and one can have romantic notions about the communities that exist in inner cities, but it is a complex picture. Even if gentrification is driven by purely selfish, capitalist motives, it may have good consequences. And to bring us back to CMSs (I’d almost forgotten) the same is true here – BB etc may not have the interests of education at heart, but their presence _could_ be a necessary step towards getting educators to engage with technology. It becomes a negative influence if they then gain so much power that they prevent further development (as with the BB patent case).
    Now, onto natural metaphors – you’ll probably know I like a metaphor from nature, be it talking about ecosystems, evolutionary approaches to the creation of content or succession. I’m afraid I just don’t buy this scientific metaphors are dangerous argument. All metaphors are dangerous if you take them too literally. There is nothing special about scientific ones. For example, take ‘war’ as a metaphor (which you could argue is a social one) – a war on cancer would imply certain actions from government, probably good ones. A ‘war on terrorism’, or even ‘war on drugs’ is too simplistic, combative and overlooks some of the social context. It ends up being ultimately self-defeating IMO. So the same metaphor may have different outcomes when applied to different settings.
    A metaphor is essentially a psychological mapping from one domain (the known, metaphor one) to another (the target, less well known one). In any metaphor you only map across certain elements – if I say ‘John is a bear’ you would imply certain bear like characteristics to John – maybe he is strong, big and hairy. You wouldn’t assume he hibernates through the winter. Metaphors are dangerous when people (particularly politicians) map across the wrong elements. All metaphors are prone to this – one could argue that Stalinist Russia was based on an incorrect mapping of society as village community for example.
    Why can I never just leave a comment on your blog that says ‘Nice post’?

    @Brian – come on man, fight me!

  12. lucychili says:

    Gentrification is often a change of property value for a region which increases its cost in a monetary sense. Frequently the communities which happen in areas which are ‘offpeak’ in terms of monetary value are specifically the areas which are rich in innovation, experimentation, creativity. Perhaps yes also populations of people who are more on the edge of things generally than those in areas which require more financial wherewithall in order to occupy the space.

    Education globally is currently in a phase where people are examining the commoditization of education and its impact on learning, experimentation, innovation, unpredictable and perhaps immeasurable kinds of relationships and practice.

    I think the tension between education as business and learning as culture/participation is a very real area of contention.

    The metaphor regarding CMS as gentrification is useful in that it
    does parallel the kind of exchange which happens when learning which might happen in a distributed fashion without scope and with mess and tangential participation is exchanged for a context with more control, uniformity and defined value propositions.

    It is not that creative things cannot occur in a suburb which is
    neat or valuable, but there is a relationship between mess, creativity and learning which does find ready substrate in spaces with materials and ideas which can be recycled and spaces which can be used freely(in both senses).

    Kat Jungnickel discusses the relationships between space mess and creativity with regard to community wireless in her blog:

    There are few public spaces in our modern communities which are specifically designed for citizens to make collaborative mess; to be makers. There is far more space allocated to consumption.

    The same correlation might be made regarding educational architecture. Curriculum also walks the line between commerce and creativity and it is often the educator in the room who finds ways to make latitude or opportunities for risk and unpredictable outcomes.

    What would happen if the learning spaces were less formal and more like Geetha Narayaran’s small spaces recovered from disused buildings.

    What is gained and lost? What if learning was something which happened in these mashup districts? Who would we be there?
    What would we learn differently?

  13. Great metaphor!
    (Isn’t there a scene in CHUD where someone derisively hollers out “Call Ghostbusters!”?)

    The gentrification argument brings to mind Jane Jacob’s distinction between organic and planned urban growth. CMSes are clearly the latter.

    Plant succession… why not imbrication? Or parallel development, CMS on one planet, Web 2.0 on another.

  14. Andy Best says:

    Great comments.


    Reading your defense of gentrification I think there’s some confusion there between ‘gentrification’ and developing a, as you mention, derelict area.

    For me, gentrification means a concious explotation of people who are excluded under the capitalist system (which itself is most certainly not ‘natural’).

    A section of society is without local jobs, their own land or the means to adequately support themselves, they are abandoned by society through their agents (in a ‘democracy’) the government – who claim the best government is to do nothing in their neo-liberal rhetoric.

    The area, is consumed by poverty and then crime and becomes run down. But under the capaital system it becomes cheap too. Humans with their pesky ‘culture’ and natural sense of community start to rally round. They start community groups, stick up for themsleves …students and artists move into cheap spaces – and then developers with money see the profit margin on the land deal.

    They start to move in and economically drive out the poor – who have to stay poor to maintain the 90-10 balance in ownership and profits in society.

    This is what the word gentrification describes specifically and it’s negative to me. It means putting people down – then kicking them when then try to get up.

    Attaching metaphors to this that suggest ‘natural’ is quite dangerous and learning towards social darwinism (for want of a more accurate term).

  15. While I appreciate Martin’s response, he did, via the Gladwell reference, cite the “Broken Windows Theory” of crime reduction. And as the self-appointed referee of such things, I have to issue a yellow card.

    It’s simply not true:

    From here:

    A 1999 study of the 17 largest cities compared each city’s most recent drop in homicides. New York’s rate of decline was the fifth-largest, behind those of San Diego, Washington, St. Louis and Houston.

    San Diego, seated along a major drug smuggling corridor close to the Mexican border, is particularly interesting. In the late 1980’s, its police department began adopting a very different style–a problem-solving, community-oriented approach. While recording impressive drops in crime between 1993 and 1996, the city also posted a 15 percent drop in arrests and an 8 percent decline in complaints of police misconduct.

    I know this is tangential to the argument, but hey, I got to fight the myth when I see it. Having seen what presidential candidate Giuliani proposed as “serious” solutions to crime and terrorism in America it should be very obvious to us that this myth has not only serious implications for the minor offenders we lock up, but for the world at large.

  16. Reverend says:

    @ Martin, Lucychili, Andy, and Mike,

    It is really a privilege and an honor to have commentators who are compassionate, empassioned, and far smarter than the humble proprietor of this blog. In fact, I just want to say thank you all for sharing this much here in the comments, it’s amazing to me. I say this as I prepare to respond in-depth to each of you, and keep a kind of placeholder that I am reading and thinking, because when folks like you step up, I have to further m game, which is meager to start with, but you all make me better. How much better, well check out Andy Best’s comments on the Prom Night post from a week or so ago, he and Brad Efford and Sebastian6 took a throw away post and made it one of my favorite forever given the running commentary.

    I’m gushing here, because I feel rich thanks to my community, and you all make it so. Thanks for taking my nuttiness seriously enough to turn it into something valuable and real (is there an emoticon for crying?).

  17. Lanny says:

    “Companies like BlackBoard emerged as all-in-one solutions for managing courses online due to the relative difficultly of using the open web in the late 90s given the unilateral nature of content delivery, limited access to the web, and the general difficulty designing and maintaining one’s own space.”

    I’m not sure that reading of history is entirely accurate. There were other “closed systems” than CMS. This one survives even now.
    But there were also stand alone grade books, quiz tools, including quite a few non-browser based systems. Many of these were home grown.

    CMS addressed a support-provider issue – how to sustain the environment given what was then an explosive growth in use. Support providers also seem to have a preference for closed systems, primarily to have an institutional approach to addressing FERPA and Fair Use issues.

    10 years later, the question is whether any of this still makes sense or whether CMS is sustained mostly by institutional inertia. But that question may be too hard to answer. Perhaps a better first question is whether we should have more openness. While the answer to that may seem transparent to you, most campuses haven’t resolved the issue.

  18. Reverend says:


    I definitely think this history is a bit streamlined and generalized, so your point is well taken. In fact, this is far more impressionistic a reading than academic in that regard.

    Also, I think your last paragraph gets to the heart of the matter beautifully. Re-framing the questions to an institutional logic of openness is key. Yet, the idea of openness seems to be one of the terms that is being bandied around liberally these days. I’m not always so sure what it means, and the terms along which campuses go about resolving this issue will remain extremely imporant.

    But, I think there is something else here. Whether or not institutions decide on a policy of openness, the fact of the matter is that the web as a loosely coupled institutions for learning has arrived in many ways. And I find it less and less compelling to think for and through edtech on an institutional level. I think part of what makes many of these tools compelling is that they still remain in a kind of interstitial space between the institution and the individual, erring more towards the latter than the former. I mean, how can an institution dictate to a student how much they want to share or not? Same for a professor? I find the tools build the infrastructure through these policies ar made implicit rather than explicit.

    Take for example UMW Blogs at Mary Washington, where I work. We have no explicit policies about how open or closed students and faculty need to be with their online learning. We follow rules of copyright, FERPA, etc., but the bulk of the material is sharing one’s thinking process freely in an open space. But the tools a faculty member or student choose makes all the difference in terms of the level of openness they will engage. UMW Blogs will permit far more possibilities for sharing than BlackBoard ever could, and that is a basic architectural and philosophical difference between these two systems. As with either of them, education about privacy, rights, and protecting oneself is essential (and that is a large part of my job), but the very act of stepping out beyond the university and exchanging ideas with others has never been easier, because of the very design and logic of these new tools. I guess that why the incorporation of these elements into a closed, centralized system scares me so, it promises a marriage between unfit bedfellows.

  19. John says:

    John & the Reverend in Fredericksburg … Picard & Dathon at Elandril … Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra … Penn and the Delaware at Shackamaxon … Petty and Irwin in New Hampshire … Publius, nay Madison, on Angels … Donne, listening … Aristotle, in the middle … Voltaire, nay Hall, on defense … Amazon and Riverby … Candide to Pangloss, in the garden…

  20. I don’t know much about gentrification. I’m curious about the CMS-as-prison concept. As an Instructional designer, I have to scratch my head and go huh? Does everyone not know how to insert a link into their CMS? Well, of course I know they do – maybe some of the problems with CMS come from some people’s ID theories? Just stick a link to your blog in there and be done with it.

    We do need places to adminstrate courses – and therefore, I think the acronym should really be CAMS. You need to be able to get a class role, post grades securely, maybe a few other details. Also, some courses touch on sensitive subjects that shouldn’t be exposed to the wide world. So, yeah – stick a discussion board in there.

    The big question should be – why do these things cost so much? There isn’t that much complexity behind what they do for crying out loud!

    To me, the CMS should be adminstrative only, a place to touch base and then launch in to the wide world of learning. But I currently do that with BlackBoard, WebCT, and Moodle.

    Of course – there is a danger with that. Say you want to use a cool new blog site for posting course reflections. You run a class like that. Some student does a poor job and they fail. Course is over, you move on. The student challenges that grade, it goes through massive admin channels, and then to you. You go to pull up the student work to show why they were failed – and that blog site has bit the dust and gone out of business. That student’s work on that blog was part of the records your required by law to keep. So now, you are fired and part of a big lawsuit. Its gonna happen someday unless people start thinking this one through some more!

    I don’t know how to answer that one, but we need to get thinking on it soon.

  21. Reverend says:


    You are wild, I see the pattern emerging and it both thrills and frightens me 🙂

    I agree with you entirely that the Course Management Systems as we know them are primarily administrative tools. And for the most part that is how it is used. The idea of using the various free and online tools for teaching and learning brings the question of archiving into sharp focus, and I think your point is an excellent one. One of the things we have been doing with UMW Blogs, as a way to manage this, is to archive an XML file with all of the faculty, students, and staff posts. This way, even if a professor or student deletes their online work after the fact, we have a record of it for at least three years, which the current guidelines suggest. And it is easily searchable.

    So, we can keep there work private if they delete it, and have a copy on hand should we need it for the very reasons you mention. But that is our local UMW Blogs installation at Mary Washington, as for the bigger issues with all these third party tools? Well, that is something else all together. However, I might add that as it stands now do we archive student papers? No, and professors return them their work with comments often. So, I’m not sure it is always the case that it’s the professor’s responsibility to preserve student work. A professor needs to have a record of the grades the student got, but it is often the student’s job to produce a copy of the work in question. And to that end, these tools work quite well with placing the responsibility on the student, not the institution. Which is where it should be to some degree, I mean this is their education, they are defining it,and they must be the caretakers of their digital lives.

  22. Reverend – excellent thoughts. Another example of why the XML file is an excellent invention.

    I think this also shows how some people are placing unfairly high standards on distance education. Like the new movement to get online students to prove they were the one doing their work. A f-2-f student can walk in with a printed paper and doesn’t have to prove that he was the one that wrote it. In the same way, some try to place the burden of keeping student work on the instructor or institution rather than where it belongs – on the student. I think I will start having our professors add a little statement to classes that state that they are going to use tools off of the school server and just like papers that are returned – they will have to keep track of those materials. Those sites could go out of business, so be ready, blah, blah…

    Of course, it is interesting to note that some of the people that are crying out “student work is being kept on a foreign server out of our school’s control!” are also using Blackboard… hosted on BB’s server, that is. Which would put it all in the same boat. Of course, few doubt BB is going out of business soon. One can always dream….

  23. Michael says:


    I’m glad I stumbled upon this. I’m definitely going to have to come back and read it all over again one more time to make sure I got it.

    One thing, though I’m not so sure about: you write, “What changes is not the actual underlying technology of CMSs as outdated systems of delivery and management centered around a course, but the general sense that the internet is a dangerous place (which it is) and teaching and learning needs to be cordoned off from that (which is questionable).”

    I am in a graduate degree program even as I write this (hey, it was free), and we’re using Blackboard for our courses. I’m certainly no fan of Blackboard’s platform, but it is hardly the fascist state you describe here. Sure, no one in their right mind would ever use the library links that Blackboard provides. But there’s nothing in Blackboard preventing anyone from opening a separate window and running a quick Google search. The instructors never know the difference. My personal access to the internet remains uninfringed.

    So how then do you mean Blackboard cordons us off from the rest of the web?

  24. Reverend says:

    Hi Michael,

    So how then do you mean Blackboard cordons us off from the rest of the web?

    I guess this is part of a larger questioning on my part, and I have to admit I am hard on BlackBoard consistently, and many have pointed out perhaps too much so.

    Fair enough, that may be true, but I don’t think it is in the long run. I also don’t think BlackBoard is the sole problem with edtech, but they are a kind of perfect example of how the corporate designed, proprietary management systems do indeed estrange us from the very resources and openness that should characterize education. And to be fair, educational institutions and government more generally are an integral part of this equation as well, and a major aprt of the problem.

    So, with all that said, what I mean by BlackBoard “cordons us off from the web” is that we are conducting web-based learning for classe (whether as an online component to f2f course, hybrid, or totally online course in silos? This is not just about sharing within one course, but how about between courses, or disciplines, or even schools? How do you know what is happening in other courses in terms of teaching and learning? —and might it be beneficial to start thinking about educational institutions as transparent learning communities? Right now, the web is exactly what you suggest, another window separate from the institutional IT framework. It’s as if it doesn’t exist within the logic of most educational CMSs. It is something to be shrouded in fear when it involves teaching and sharing online, and I think these system illustrate how divorced most class-based discussion and sharing has become from all the amazing tools and publishing options we currently have. Moreover, Bb’s ability to keep up with these tools is doomed at best, open source projects like Drupal, WordPress, etc. outpace software like Bb so entirely when it comes to integrating the web by making syndication and publishing so easy, that soon enough educational institutions will be paying 100s of thousands of dollars to be effectively irrelevant when it comes to teaching and learning technologies. Which ar radically different than administrative technologies, which is basically what Bb is, and that a lot of money to post a syllabus, share some documents, and email a group of students–wouldn’t you agree? Moreover, most instructional technology divisions at universities have been straddled with Bb and that is supposed to be their teaching and learning tools, what a joke—it makes their jobs not onl boring and monotonous, but it does not forward the mission of the university when it comes to innovating within our moment and introducing students and professors to relevant tools for this day and age. Does this make sense?

  25. Jon says:

    Love the post, but I think the metaphor’s wrong… CMS is less gentrification than suburbanization or even “white flight.” It’s the construction of gated communities some distance from the city center.

    After all, it’s not as though the rough-and-tumble world of the web’s inner-city doesn’t continue on (albeit in different ways, as time passes). But CMS actively removes edutech from those developments.

    The only difference between CMS and gated communities is that the security cameras are all pointed inwards; but then, that’s the insularity of the model and its drive to control and administer.

  26. Reverend says:


    I like the turn you take with this, and I think in many ways your reading is more apt. Oddly enough, the trend in NYC while I was there was that more and more of the poor and disenfranchised were being pushed out to borders of Nassau County (or suburban communities) as prices in Brooklyn and Queens became more and more outrageous. In fact one of those suburbs (Valley Stream) is where the security guard was killed on Black Friday in Wal-Mart. And the town I grew up in, Baldwin, has in many ways reflected this changing reality. whereas the middle class and wealthier populations on Long Island were doing one of two things—heading back into the city or going further out on the Island. Kinda like the Girdle of the invisible class Engels talks about in The condition of the working class in England in 1844 and the housing question. There was even the case that the homeless were pushed out to no mans lands like the swampy bay surrounding JFK airport, further imposing that invisibility.

    But even that fails as an analysis, because with close to two million people on Long Island alone, there are all kinds of exceptions, gated communities, and insular class-centered developments. All this to say while my metaphor here is admittedly flawed and over-generalized, this post was very fun to write. And yours still gets at the heart of the matter with CMSs beautifully. Now I have to watch some gated community films, let me think: the Stepford Wives, ET (though not really gate), hmmmm, I’m at a loss here.

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