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.
But 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.
Neil 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.