Trading Mules for Tractors: The Pros and Cons of Adopting a Course Management System

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Imagine a world in which the online course management system (CMS) is as ubiquitous as the chalkboard. If the hype of the major CMS vendors is to be trusted ( cites 3,300 institutional licensees and WebCT claims 6 million student accounts), such a future may not be far off. The investments of venture capitalists, such as the Carlyle Group and Kestrel Venture Management, are working to realize this vision. Based on my four-semester experience as a WebCT user, I provide a reality check for this trend, highlighting some of the benefits and shortcomings of WebCT and speculating about the advances required to make the course management system a standard in every class.

Registration and Retention

On a positive note, Web CT features a course registration process that has significantly boosted the retention rates in my distance courses.

Before WebCT, I always scheduled face-to-face (f2f) orientations with my online students that, contrary to my expectations, produced more problems than solutions. Some students decided that the distance technology was more than they wished to handle. Some were convinced that they could manage it but discovered that they couldn’t and dropped out in the first few weeks of the course. Some missed the required orientation and could not add the course after the semester started. All of these factors produced one unintended consequence: a low retention rate.

After adopting WebCT, I solved the retention problem with online enrollment that eliminated the need for a f2f orientation. The online enrollment process begins with a handout that students pick up from the English Department. The handout directs them to access George Mason University’s WebCT site, enter a username and password, go to the course homepage, and send me some personal information via the system’s internal mail function. I estimate that about 10% of the applicants fail to negotiate these procedures and give up. Another 15% have problems but resolve them by emailing me for help. The end result is that the students who succeed with the enrollment are eased into the digital world of the course management system, have their efforts reinforced, and are inclined to persist when they encounter other technological challenges.

Perhaps most importantly, the retention numbers suggest what we have been expecting: with each passing year, students are more computer literate and thus able to benefit (without undue anxiety) from a complex CMS.  Now we should ask the following: At what point will those students start to pressure their schools to provide online systems for most or all of their courses?

Automation and the Cost of Time

Should such student pressure become a force for change, most teachers are still not likely to respond by adopting a CMS until the systems are as easy to operate as the tools (paper and f2f classroom) of conventional pedagogy.

The WebCT feature that best demonstrates that operational ease is the registration process.  Once students register with a simple login procedure, their names simultaneously appear in the grade book, internal mail system, bulletins (an asynchronous discussion database), and student homepages. Having the student names in place thereafter enables the automation of each of these sub-systems. This automation of multiple functions produces very specific and significant savings in instructor labor, which is what we should expect from a powerful course management system.

However, WebCT demands far more effort than is required of a conventional instructor. The grade book is a good example of this complication. Its best and simplest component allows students to track their grades; students enjoy this feature because they like to have a record of their accumulating grades. Advanced users of the system can program it to calculate final grades and to show students their grades relative to others in the class. The problem with the component is that setting up and maintaining the system takes much more than does a paper grade book. 

At the root of this and other time management issues is the cost of accessing the WebCT course space. Getting access requires five steps of users: going to GMU's WebCT homepage, clicking on “course listing,” selecting the semester, selecting the course, and entering their usernames and passwords. These repetitive steps add up significantly when one calculates how many accesses are required in the course of a semester. On a typical day, a few student inquiries require that I go online to check a grade, change a password, review an assignment or part of the syllabus, review an asynchronous discussion, or upload and download files. Not a single one of these actions is required of conventional teachers.

Under ideal circumstances, a CMS user will have the course space online at all times, allowing him/her to go into it quickly when needed. This is possible if the user is linked to a LAN or has a DSL line or cable modem (as is the case for me). Still, having the course space available all the time is not always enough to limit the effort required for annoying and repetitious processes that sometimes have little to do with student learning. 

Here is a case in point: I teach two different WebCT courses, a graduate course on organizational learning and a business writing course, and I teach two different sections of the latter. Each course and section requires a separate login procedure and a different access code. Thus, if I have WebCT open to the site of one of my English sections, and I need to go into the other section, I have to repeat a time-consuming multi-step procedure that only ends when I key in a username that looks like this: ENGL302B17S00. Day in and day out, this process gets tedious.

File Exchange System

Perhaps the most costly feature of WebCT is the file exchange process, which remains the most necessary and time-consuming part of a distance writing course. My students send their Word documents to me via WebCT’s internal mail system, and I return them via the same route. The main problem with the file exchange is the amount of time and the number of repetitive steps required to download or upload documents. Returning 40 documents takes about 20 minutes if the system is working at peak speed. In this case, being able to hand a paper document to a student is far better than carefully performing 6–8 mouse clicks to send or retrieve a document. WebCT's file exchange is mindless work at its worst: boring and repetitive, requiring intense concentration. The problem is compounded when the system hangs up between mouse clicks, requiring the user to stare at a dead screen for as many as 30 seconds before the server responds.

Asynchronous Discussions

In contrast to the file exchange system, WebCT's discussion database (called “bulletins”) strikes me as as good as any I have worked with in the past. For my graduate course, “bulletins” house numerous ongoing discussions (called “forums”) that students initiated. Creating the forums is easy, forum access may be limited to specific participants; WebCT efficiently manages the process. When the course manager indicates that a forum will be private, the system quickly produces a list of the class members from which to select. For the purposes of grading, I use the “compile” feature to select some or all of the contributions and compile them into a continuous text. This technique avoids the excess labor involved with opening each contribution separately, a task that gets tiresome when performed 50 times.

For my business writing course, I use the bulletins to manage student peer reviews. Forty students are placed in teams, and each person reviews the work of his or her team members, producing 120 reviews. To organize these reviews, I create a limited access forum for each team. Students post a review in a message box and route it to the right forum with a drop-down menu. The system works well for students because it is extremely directive; it simplifies the path they must follow either to post or to read a review. The system works well for instructors for two reasons.  First, the forum set up is automated; second, the select and compile feature allows instructors to single out any subset of student review (e.g., the three reviews written by a single student) for easy reading.


As the above example suggests, WebCT already provides significant powers that are unavailable to conventional teachers. The trade-off, of course, is time, time that most teachers do not have or do not wish to expend on digital instruction. Given this key constraint, what will it take for teachers (like farmers trading mules for tractors) to adopt CMS tools en masse? As a representative of the current generation of course management systems, WebCT suggests an answer to this question. 

First, the future CMS will entail very little wait time for any of its processes. A mouse click will produce an instant reaction, and system functions will require the absolute minimum number of clicks.

Second, more of the system functions will be automated. The prime candidate for such automation is file exchange. since the education system probably will continue its dependence upon writing to evaluate learning, the inevitable conversion from paper to bit-based documents will require a simple and powerful tool to support the submission, review, and return process. Newer versions of the CMS do have batch downloading systems, which is a step in the right direction, but it still falls short of the proven simplicity of paper exchanges. The CMS of the future will have a data management system that, with a single mouse click, uploads or downloads a batch of documents and routes them directly to the desired recipients’ hard drives.

Third, the CMS will incorporate the document-sharing and group-editing technologies developed elsewhere so that students and teachers do much of their work without ever having to leave the system.

Fourth, to satisfy the needs of teachers who feel limited by imposed systems and structures, the future CMS will plug and play a broad array of independently produced learning modules and will allow individuals to customize much of the system (e.g., the GUI [GUI is not a common term. Please spell it out]) in other ways.

For now, the potential CMS market consists of teachers who do not know about or are avoiding the technology. For the former, the systems are far too complicated.  For the latter, those who would rather build their own sites, the CMS is complicated in the wrong ways; it does less elegantly what these teachers can do themselves. But all of this will change. When a truly advanced CMS arrives, it will be friendly enough to attract teachers who do not know any HTML, and it will be powerful enough to attract technology savants who recognize that their own web sites cannot compete.