Home > Teaching & Learning Technology > Why Wave Won’t Replace the CMS

Why Wave Won’t Replace the CMS

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.


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!

  • jaredstein

    This is the L/CMS post I wish I'd written! You've succinctly explained the staying power of the LMS without apologizing for its often cumbersome functionality and outdated or insufficient features. I work with faculty who use Bb or Moodle everyday in online courses, and it is these teachers and their students

  • Nice post Jon and I like the image. I agree that Wave alone will not replace the LMS and that we are likely to see GW embedded in LMSs to start with. I touched on this in a short post yesterday that tried to define Google Wave in a sentence (http://www.masmithers.com/2....

    I do think that, although GW doesn't replace an LMS completely, it does provide replacements for key items of functionality in an LMS - particularly around synchronous and asynchronous communication and group collaboration spaces.

    You make the point about content and I agree the the current LMS is focussed on content delivery but it also seems that more and more content is becoming available outside of the LMS and, indeed, the university. Systems will arise that allow open links to that content at which point, when combined with things like GW we may have a totally open LMS built by and curated by users.

    What will remain for the University will be the crticial task of managing assessment in a rigorous and consistent way (one of the great things about your loosely couple gradebook).

    So, in summary, GW certainly isn’t an LMS replacement but combined with other ways of delivering content and changing attitudes to the control of content it will probably contribute to the decline of the LMS as a key educational technology platform.

  • Joel

    Sounds like you're growing weary of the battle--you will be Blackboard assimilated. I've not been able to stay on top of the discussion like I'd like, but your note is a bit disheartening. I'm looking to you to do the CMS alternative (or alternate CMS) ground-work for me, and I sense a hint of defeat in your post. Any truth to my assertion?
    -Joel G.

  • Far from it Joel. I'm just responding to the speculation that Google Wave (or any one tool for that matter) might replace the CMS. I think we need to carefully consider the factors that have driven CMS adoption and account for them as we envision, develop, and deploy new technologies. For example, "open learning network" technology that isn't integrate-able with student information systems would be a non-starter. We have to meet our evolving teaching and learning needs while also addressing ongoing administrivia issues.

  • Robb

    I think your post makes a good point (whether intended or not): CMS is a dinosaur that continues to exists because dinosaur professors teach how CMS works.

    Will young faculty and graduate student instructors embrace Wave and other technologies as a replacement? I think so. I hate using Blackboard and other CMSs. And when I do use them, I never use the gradebook feature. I use them to make documents and materials available to students, and to facilitate dialogue among class members. Wave and other technologies are much better for those purposes.

    It's not so much a matter of technology changing the way we teach, so much as technology trying to catch up with new ways of teaching. The CMS seems uninterested (or unable) to adapt to current pedagogical trends. The CMS persists only because old faculty members (and new faculty members who teach how they were taught by old faculty members) continue to do things the same way.

    (and yes, I see the irony of calling CMS a dinosaur).

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