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Why Wave Won’t Replace the CMS

October 15th, 2009 jonmott Comments

Last week, Jeff Young added to the Wave hype with his frequently Tweeted and Re-Tweeted post “Could Google Wave Replace Course-Management Systems?

From what I’ve seen of Wave so far (I got my invite this week), I’d have to say, “No chance.” I have three reasons for making this conclusion:

1. Wave doesn’t replicate core CMS functionality.

The CMS has become the dominant technology of choice for instructors in higher education because it allows them to easily create course websites which are automagically populated with the students enrolled in their courses. The tools faculty members use within the CMS bear little if any resemblance to the feature set I’ve seen in Wave. Blackboard usage data at BYU indicates that faculty members overwhelmingly use the CMS for administrative purposes–content distribution, announcements, teacher-to-student communication, gradebooking, and (to a lesser extent) quizzing. This data is consistent with Morgan’s conclusion in her study of CMS usage in the University of Wisconsin System. The CMS, she observed, is “fundamentally a conservative technology … [for] managing groups, providing tools, and delivering content… Faculty use the CMS primarily as an administrative tool to facilitate quiz administration and other classroom tasks rather than as a tool anchored in pedagogy or cognitive science models” (1, 11).

While Wave appears to be a promising learning dialogue platform, it lacks the core CMS features that have driven faculty adoption. The same can be said of WordPress. When Blackboard melted down at CUNY earlier this year, many users turned to WordPress-powered blogs. But, as Blackboard CEO Michael Chasen observed, such Web 2.0 tools lacked key administrative applications like gradebooks.

Until alternative technology emerges that can blend new technologies like Wave with existing technologies like SIS-integrated gradebooks, the CMS is unlikely to lose its popularity with instructors.

2. Using Wave to teach would require embracing a completely different kind of learning paradigm.

The CMS is, indeed, a fundamentally conservative technology. Accordingly, it has been used primarily to support and reinforce the traditional lecture-driven, content-heavy, and instructor-centric model of instruction. Technologies like Wave, blogs, wikis, and Twitter are unlikely to replace the CMS anytime soon precisely because they are nothing like the CMS. They are all tools that facilitate dialogue around content and lack robust tools for content distribution. As such, they would require faculty members to focus less on making students “knowledgeable” (stuffing their heads with information) and more on making them “knowledge-able” (helping them effectively find and use information to solve particular problems).

Faculty members who remain focused on knowledge and content dissemination have little reason to move away from the CMS.

3. The CMS is unlikely to be replaced by any single technology–Wave or otherwise.

The CMS is the Swiss Army Knife of educational technology. It does lots of different things not very well. But it’s simple and convenient. For most institutions, replacing the CMS will require mimicking the ease of use and core functionality of the CMS. A hybrid of both “enterprise” technologies (e.g.,  student information systems, university managed secure gradebooks, quiz engines) and a mix of cloud-based, Web 2.0 applications (like Wave) is the next natural step in learning technology evolution. The advantage of such a technology ecosystem would be its malleability–it would be significantly more open, flexible, and interoperable than current CMS technology. Accordingly, it could simultaneously meet the needs of the majority of faculty members who still gravitate to the content-centric and administrative functions of the CMS while enabling those who are ready to move on to do so.

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It is time to reframe the educational technology debate. In recent years educational technologists have been lining up on opposing sides of the PLN versus CMS debate. The reality, though, is that there are desirable features of both alternatives. It’s time to mash them up and create a chimerical new kind of technology that can give us the best of both worlds.

Is it a motorcycle? A car? It's both!

Is it a motorcycle? A car? It's both!