One Size Will Not Fit All

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Clothing manufacturers often claim that one size fits all, but astute consumers know better. People of different sizes might wear the same garment, but rarely does it fit any of them well.

A similar question about “fit” relates to course management systems, designed to serve the diverse needs of people teaching in different disciplines and environments. Touted by their marketers as “one size fits all” solutions, these systems actually meet the needs of a few people well, many people adequately and some people poorly. But custom design in technology, as in couture clothing, is time-consuming and expensive. Most software consumers are restricted to what they can purchase off-the-rack, in spite of the fact that they know the program won’t really fit when they put down their money.

Yet the trend toward course management systems persists, even in the face of the documented liabilities (e.g., or a comprehensive review of WebCT, see Foreman (2001). [take a look at and let me know if you want to include a reference to it as well.] And the trend persists for good reason. The relatively accessible presentation of these programs helps to smooth the transition from traditional teaching to teaching with technology. Pressured to incorporate technology quickly, many teachers are forced to rely on readily available, commercial products. We have neither the time nor the technical expertise to develop the capacity we envision, and so we endure the glitches and imperfections of “off the rack” programs.

The Dangers of the Current Crop of Course Management Systems

Putting aside the assets and liabilities of any single product, however, these systems represent a threat to the future of teaching and learning. As tempting as it might seem to slip into something the software designers have done their best to make comfortable, discomfort is an important part of the change process. Even though we’re operating at an extremely fast pace, the quick fixes being thrust at us often lack the depth and sophistication of those that will develop with more experience.

They cater to the lowest common denominator

The most egregious problem with course management systems is their appeal to the lowest common denominator, features courses in many different disciplines share, including presentation of material, testing, and grading. Efforts to make online courses as similar in design as possible to “traditional” courses, and thus easy to transpose into the new environment, have lead to a focus on reproducing what we already know how to do rather than improving it. Although the designers of course management systems seem well-intentioned, we are left wondering, as Gary Brown has pointed out (, what do course management systems do to foster improvement. Why spend precious time and resources replicating a flawed model? More innovative teachers have looked at course management systems skeptically. Those with good technical support and a spirit of adventure have moved on to find more satisfying methods of incorporating technology into their teaching.

Although to some college administrators the identical look of hundreds of courses mounted on a platform like Blackboard may express desired conformity, from the instructor’s point of view the template represents a loss of individual identity and freedom of expression. The characteristics that distinguish one course from another and one instructor from another must be re-invented. Experiencing the satisfaction of a well-crafted and carefully presented syllabus requires that the instructor approach the task with different expectations. The capacity to alter the shape and color of the buttons on the left side of every course homepage in Blackboard does not rise to the level of “individual expression,” at least not for me. In addition, teachers with no knowledge of html may have to give up their capacity to control formatting and model the kind of presentation standards they expect of their students.

They insist on a uniform pedagogy

If we look beneath the surface features of course management programs, we find assumptions about pedagogy embedded in them. If you don’t teach the way the program assumes you will teach, then the program becomes difficult to use. Blackboard, for example, offers buttons on its course homepages titled Announcements, Course Information, Course Documents, Assignments, Communication, External Links and Student Tools. The separation of assignments from course documents presented a challenge when we first confronted it. We assumed that assignments were best presented in the context of what might be defined as “Course Documents.” To accommodate our teaching to the program, we broke out the assignments and created internal links back and forth between the two sections so that students could easily relate the relevant assignment to the relevant course document and vice versa. Later that year, when Blackboard was moved to a different server, all the internal links we created were broken and had to be repaired, a painstaking process. The program, a technical support person explained to me, was not set up to encourage internal linking. Then how, we wondered, could we ensure that students would read assignments in the context we created for them?

There are some types of pedagogy that both Blackboard and eCollege, the programs with which I am most familiar, do not seem to envision. For example, both programs enable file sharing so that students can upload papers and professors can download them and return them. That presumes that instructors will prefer to read papers off-line and will want to insert notations and comments into the student’s text, which requires the aid of word processing. In our writing groups, however, we want to encourage collaboration, and we find it works better when papers can be more easily accessed and when peers as well as instructors can post their comments in public space. For our purposes we find it more convenient to use the threaded discussion feature as a forum for posting and reviewing papers, but it wasn’t set up for that. When students cut and paste their papers, they lose formatting and cannot, for example, add italics or underline unless they know html. Their capacity to present a “finished” text is limited.

Creating a collaborative working environment also presents some challenges. In Blackboard, instructors who divide their students into groups and want to review the discussion boards of each group are forced to exit the group pages and click on the Communication button to re-enter in order to move from group to group. You also cannot re-form groups without losing material posted on the previous group pages, so you have to create new groups and leave the old groups intact, which creates a long list of groups that students and instructors must scroll through to find the one they are seeking.

These hurdles might not seem insurmountable to a determined instructor, but they certainly have a tendency to point those with little exposure to instructional technology in a pre-determined direction. Especially if they’re confronting Web-based instruction for the first time, resisting the configuration presented seems futile. If instructors are encouraged to incorporate technology into their teaching, and they’re offered a specific system to facilitate the process, it’s likely that they will accommodate their teaching to the technology. In order to ensure the most productive uses of technology in teaching, however, the opposite should be true: the technology should be changing to accommodate the teacher.

They constrain innovation

Teachers who have access to good technical support or who have mastered the technology themselves are inventing innovative ways of communicating with their students. As a small example, I am particularly proud of the “slide shows” I created for my on-line Advanced Non-Fiction Writing course to illustrate visually concepts of design and structure in writing. Others have been much more ambitious. I have heard, for example, about multi-media simulations of experiments or phenomena in engineering and science that make it easy for students to grasp previously elusive concepts. Such creative uses of technology to enhance instruction can be displayed on a course management program, but the programs themselves do nothing to encourage creativity, nor do they empower instructors to innovate.

In many respects, the decision to use a specific course management program has a lot in common with the decision to adopt a textbook. The motivation is similar. Someone else has already thought this through successfully and brought it all together. Why should each individual instructor need to re-invent the wheel?

Recently, however, the technology that created bulkpacks has cast the decision to use a textbook in a very different light. Certainly, no one expects every instructor to write his/her own book, but suddenly it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask instructors to put together an updated collection of materials and sources of their own design when they teach a class. Following the same line of thought, it makes sense to expect faculty schooled in educational uses of technology to use technology to develop their own course structure and materials. The resources of technology empower individual instructors to choose the pedagogy and practices that work best for their subject matter and their teaching style.

Finding a Program that Fits

In a recent article in Liberal Education, Steve Ehrmann (2000) of the Teaching, Learning and Technology (TLT) Group, documents the difficulty of forcing educational change through the adoption of instructional technology, creative or not. He cautions against moving too quickly and too readily embracing new technologies as they relentlessly appear. In some ways, course management systems represent a compromise between ignoring technology and spending considerable time and resources on custom design. But that will only work to bring about positive change if we view them as a stage in the process and not an end in themselves.

Course management systems are a valuable tool for learning about educational technology and sampling its potential. The average instructor gets the benefit of some firsthand experience teaching with technology, which for many instructors will probably whet their appetites for more and better uses of technology in instruction. But then what will we do with all these instructors hungry for more sophisticated technology and greater control?

The answer lies in changing the development process for educational technology. We need to take our time, try out different options, and address the challenge collaboratively. In order to utilize the power of technology to enhance learning, we need to envision possibilities that don’t yet exist, not rely on what’s already been tested or proven commercially viable. Perhaps most importantly, we need to involve as broad a range of educators as possible, along with technologists, in the process. Between one size fits all and custom design, there is a range of opportunities. By proceeding carefully and conceptually, as well as practically, we will find something that fits.


Brown, G. (2000, January/February). Where Do We Go From Here? The Technology Source. Retrieved February 24, 2000 on the World Wide Web:

Ehrmann, S. C. Technology and Educational Revolution: Ending the Cycle of Failure. Liberal Education, 86 (4), 40-9.

Foreman, J. (2001, January/February). Trading Mules for Tractors: The Pros and Cons of Adopting a Course Management System. The Technology Source . Retrieved February 24, 2001 on the World Wide Web: