June 8th, 2009
One good thing about not posting for a while: you’re subjected to so many things to react to that you start to wonder if, taken together, they might add up to something. There were lots of little things that made me think they do, but the big things were The 6th Annual Blended Learning Workshop in Chicago and WordCampEd in CUNY just a couple weeks ago. (For the latter, I’m linking to a recent blog post which is also an omnium gatherum of other posts and commentary on the event.) The former I’ve been in on (as a conference planner) since the beginning (almost since the turn of the century), but it was my first WordCampEd. And I might not have seen what they have in common if we didn’t have the Call for Proposals coming out for our own CUNY IT Conference (the 8th Annual). The test is to come up with a theme that is a big enough umbrella but still says something about where we are and/or where we are headed. For why this year’s theme felt like a no-brainer, I have to go back to CUNY’s problems with Blackboard.
As should be common knowledge by now (and this has certainly been dealt with elsewhere), many if not most of CUNY’s problems with Blackboard were not actually problems with Blackboard (but washed-out bridges to it). That, as far as I’m concerned, is part of the point. The really interesting thing is less the problem(s) than the inadequacy of any single-shot solution. In the wake of the Blackboard outages, a lot of the talk was focused on leaving Blackboard 8 for some other version of Blackboard (versions 6-9) or some other commercial course management system (Angel, Desire2Learn, etc.) or some open source CMS (Sakai, Moodle, etc.). And the problem with these ways of addressing the problem(s) wasn’t really that getting CUNY to switch would be as easy as getting an elephant to do backflips in a closet. It wasn’t even that, at least with commercial platforms, Blackboard (aka Blackborg) could go on assimilating the competition, as when it ate Angel recently. It was that switching CMSs meant trading Tweedledum for Tweedledee. There would be no real gain in functionality. (If you don’t believe me, go comparison shopping at EduTools.)
But that is moot. What the two conferences taught me was that it isn’t about platforms anymore. Well, it is — has to be — but the game has changed. It’s about managing myriad tools and choices now — the flavors of social media you can use with students, the various disciplinary dispensations and constraints, the divergences even and especially within disciplines according to pedagogical style, the powerful centrifugal forces introduced by the students (what they know, want to use, have been exposed to). Decisions about these happen at so many levels — institution, department, instructor, student — that there can be no one ring to rule them all.
If I’m looking for a CMS now, it’s no longer a course management system; it’s a complexity management system. There are a million plates spinning on poles that we have to keep jiggling. There’s the need to balance innovation with resource management, flexibility with planning, choice with some sense of a shared landscape, especially one where effective practices don’t just emerge but can be recognized. (We can only get so far with random acts of innovation.)
Like everything else I think about here lately, this takes me back to the (necessity of the) CUNY Academic Commons. If there is any way we are going to handle all that we must — keeping up, connecting up, sorting out what works (if only for some, or in certain contexts, or whatever other conditons you want to attach) — we have to do that collaboratively. There is no other way. To keep a million plates spinning, you need a lot of pole jigglers.