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Keyword: ‘malleability’

The CMS and the PLN

January 19th, 2010 jonmott Comments

It’s a been a long time since I blogged. Between sending my son off on a mission to Brazil, celebrating my 20th anniversary with my sweetheart, working on some offline writing projects, taking some time off for the holidays, getting back into the swing of things with the New Year and the new semester, and launching our loosely-coupled gradebook at BYU . . . Well, let’s just say I’ve been a little busy.

During my blogging hiatus, I did manage to get a paper published with my friend and colleague David Wiley. In the paper, we catalogue what we believe are the fundamental weaknesses of the CMS.

Writing this paper and taking some time away from blogging has allowed me to think some things through. As the title of my blog constantly reminds me, technology is only as good as the change and improvement it brings to teaching and learning. I have become supremely utilitarian when it comes to teaching and learning tools, applications and platforms. When it comes to the CMS and the Personal Learning Network (PLN), I readily admit that there are plusses and minuses to each. (For some thoughts ont the distinctions between PLNs and the PLE, see the references below).

I’m currently writing from ELI in Austin, Texas where I will make a presentation about open learning networks. As part of my preparation, I asked my PLN via Twitter (see below for a listing) for sources that delineate the strengths and weaknesses of the CMS and the PLN.

Here’s my meta-listing based on the research I did with David for our article, my own experience, and what I’ve gleaned from the resources shared by my online colleagues:

CMS Strengths

  • Simple, consistent, and structured
  • Integration with student information systems (SISs) so student rosters are automagically populated in courses
  • Private and secure (i.e., FERPA compliant)
  • Tight tool integration (e.g., quiz scores populated in gradebooks)
  • Supports sophisticated content structuring (e.g., sequencing, branching, and adaptive release)

CMS Weaknesses

  • As it is widely implemented, the CMS is time-bound (i.e., courses go away at the end of the semester)
  • Teacher, rather than student, centric
  • Courses are walled off from each other and from the wider Web, thereby negating the potential of the network effect
  • Limited opportunities for students to “own” and manage their learning experiences within and across courses
  • Rigid, non-modular tools
  • Interoperability challenges and difficulties (significant progress is being made on this front, but the ability to easily move data in and out of the CMS and to plug in alternative tools to replace or enhance native tools remains to be seen)

PLN Strengths

  • Almost limitless variety and functionality of tools
  • Customizable and adaptable
  • No artificial time boundaries–remains “on” before, during, and after matriculation
  • Open to interaction and connection with persons without regard to their official registration in programs or courses
  • Easily sharable with others both inside and outside of courses, programs, and institutions
  • Student-centric (i.e., each student selects and uses the tools that make sense for their particular needs and circumstances)
  • Compilable via simple technologies like RSS

PLN Weaknesses

  • Complex and difficult to create for inexperienced students and faculty members
  • Potential security and data exposure problems–FERPA issues abound
  • Limited institutional control over data
  • Absent or unenforceable SLAs–no ability to predict or resolve Web application performance issues, outages, or even disappearance

This is far from a comprehensive list, but it begins to clarify the picture in my mind. If we persist in an either-or debate about the CMS versus the PLN, we will be falling victim to what Jim Collins calls the “tyranny of or.” When faced with difficult decisions, we often cast them–artificially–as dichotomies. We must do this *or* that. Collins argues that the alternative is to find ways to leverage the “genius of and,” to bring together the best of both alternatives and create a chimerical best-of-both-worlds solution.

That is the vision of the open learning network–to bring together the best of the CMS and the best of the PLN to create a learning platform for higher education that meets the broad and diverse needs of faculty members and students engaged in the teaching and leaning process. Doing so is what I get paid to do–to provide technologies that will help teachers and learners be more effective without having to worry about technological complexities and navigating the swirling waters of apparently contradictory paradigms.

Please comment with your suggestions for improving my listing of strengths and weaknesses and I’ll edit the lists (with attribution). If you have additional resources to add, please share those as well.

More fun to follow soon . . .



ELI’s “7 Things You Should Know About … Personal Learning Environments

Alec Couros: “What is a PLN? Or, PLE vs. PLN

Steve Wheeler: “It’s Personal: Learning Spaces, Learning Webs

David Hopkins: “Pedagogical Foundations for Personal Learning

John Seely Brown: “Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0

Edublend: “Cloud Learning Environment – What is it?

grazadio_elearning’s PLE Bookmarks on Delicious

Things I’ve written on the subject …

Bush & Mott: “The Transformation of Learning with Technology: Learner-Centricity, Content and Tool Malleability, and Network Effects

Mott & Wiley: “Open for Learning: The CMS and the Open Learning Network


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.


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!

Tool & Content Malleability

January 28th, 2009 jonmott Comments

I’ve recently finished an article with Mike Bush (a colleague here at BYU) in which we coin what we believe to be a new term in the standards debate–”content & tool malleability.” Our piece is modestly titled “The Transformation of Learning with Technology: Learner-Centricity, Content and Tool Malleability, and Network Effects” and will appear in the March-April edition of Educational Technology Magazine. A couple of months after it’s published, I’ll be able to publish the article in its entirety here. For now, I want to provide a preview of our notion of malleability. We suggest that malleability has three key attributes: openness, modularity, and interoperability and that teaching and learning tools and content must become more malleable if they are to become authentically reusable, remixable, redistributable, repurposable, etc.

We cite IBM’s ultimately successful implementation of the principles of modularity and interoperability which enabled the PC-maker to call on outside vendors for parts for their machines, creating an essentially malleable computing platform:

Their rejection of proprietary technology in favor of openness created the opportunity for IBM to call on Microsoft to develop the operating system and for a host of other companies (including Microsoft!) to go on to create thousands upon thousands of software applications, guaranteeing he long-term success of IBM’s initial design. Furthermore, competing companies that chose a proprietary and closed approach for their hardware, software, or both, (e.g., Texas Instruments, Amiga, Atari, Commodore, and Radio Shack) are nowhere to be found among Twenty-First Century personal computers. Even Apple, with the initial version of their innovative Macintosh, came close to meeting disaster until they opened things up with their Macintosh II (Bush, 1996). In the end, the nature of IBM’s approach not only ensured success in their initial venture, but the continued application of the same principles over the years by IBM’s successors also makes it possible for today’s machines to run much of the same software that was created for the original IBM PC.

Among the principles of openness, modularity, and interoperability that brought success to the IBM-PC venture, the importance of modularity seems perhaps preeminent and has been documented in detail by scholars at the Harvard Business School (Baldwin & Clark, 2000). In their initial work, they analyzed how modularity evolved as a set of design principles during the period between 1944 and 1960. Then using Holland’s theory of complex adaptive systems as a theoretical foundation, they explain how the design principles they identified went on to radically transform the information technology industry from the 1960s through the end of the century. They show how modular design and design processes have fostered change in the industry as it moved from one consisting of a few dozen companies and dominated by IBM to one that involves over a thousand companies and in which IBM plays a significantly lesser role. For example, the “packaged software” sector in the information technology industry consisted of about seven firms in 1970 that were valued at just over $1 billion (as measured in constant 2002 dollars). Thirty-two years later that sector had grown to 408 companies with a market capitalization of $490 billion (Baldwin & Clark, 2006).

Unfortunately, the application of the principles that made such developments possible in the computer industry is rare to nonexistent in many areas of education today. The education   technology landscape is best characterized by monolithic, enterprise technology silos with rigid, often impenetrable walls. Course management systems (CMSs), for example, are generally “all-or-nothing” propositions for institutions, teachers, and students. That is, even if you use an open source CMS like Moodle, you are (without significant customization) bound to use Moodle’s content publishing tool, Moodle’s quiz tool, Moodle’s gradebook, etc. Moreover, the CMS paradigm itself, tied as it is to semester calendars and time-bounded learning experiences (courses), severely limits learning continuity and persistence. Teachers and students are not free to choose the right / best / preferred tool for each teaching or learning activity they undertake, thus creating a technology paradigm that artificially limits possibilities and forecloses optimal teaching and learning choices.

The monolithic and rigid nature of today’s learning tools and content mirrors the way content has traditionally been made available to faculty and students—books and other resources (including online courses) have generally been all-or-nothing, take-them-or-leave them propositions. A similar business model was prevalent in pre-Internet days, resulting in CD-ROM databases that were more expensive than many potential consumers could afford. One analysis compared this marketing approach to a public water distribution system that would require selling the whole reservoir to each household rather than placing a meter at individual homes.

New approaches to content distribution, however, particularly the OpenCourseWare (OCW) and Open Educational Resource (OER) movements, promise to make a vast array of content open to instructors and students to reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute. The OCW Consortium, beginning with MIT in 2002, has now grown to include hundreds of institutions around the world that have chosen to place course materials online.iv The efforts of these institutions have spawned a related effort, dubbed Open Educational Resources (OER), to make learning materials and content (as opposed to complete courses) freely available as well (Breck, 2007). Around the world, millions of people, inside and outside of academia, are publishing content under Creative Commons licensing, making that content open for others to use in a variety of ways. We are rapidly approaching the tipping point at which a critical mass of participants in open content and open learning is sufficient to exponentially increase the value of each additional participant in the network (as described in the next section).

The stunning reality of the new standard of openness is that it is quite simple. The key is to create lots and lots of open content and provide open, easy access to it. While technical standards and specifications, such as the Shareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), are important when it comes to producing indexing, discovering, sequencing, packaging, and tracking of content, openness by itself is a paradigm shifting approach in the teaching and learning world.

The fact that content is openly available and usable is just as important as any particular technical feature of that content. While openness stands by itself as a radical new innovation, we need to avoid the temptation to downplay the importance of standards and specifications, for they are essential to the realization of the vision of open, modular, and interoperable learning environments.

This reality is not without historical precedent. Printing became affordable and available in large part due to what we today call standards. Indeed, as one scholar declared, “This then—the standardization and rapid multiplication of texts—was what the Fifteenth Century invention of printing made possible” (Bühler, 1952). Bühler also pointed out that printing’s contributions went beyond the replication issue, stating that modern scholarship only became possible with the production of identical copies of texts. Although the value of mass duplication is not to be discounted, the fact that scholars could reference each other’s work represented enormous value. Given this standardization, they were thus able to criticize, comment upon, connect to, and build upon what had come before. In many ways, printing standards facilitated the first widespread appearance of mashups in human history. The existence of identical copies was but one characteristic that facilitated the eventual widespread availability of books. In addition, several other factors contributed to the production process itself, eventually increasing the opportunity for wider distribution.


Although SCORM is not perfect, it at least began to address the issue of establishing a framework within which learning content can be made to interoperate in a variety of settings. Just as SIF opens up the opportunity for reuse of information created and used by various operational elements of schools, SCORM still holds the promise to facilitate the sharing of learning content, not only across learning management systems but also across tools that facilitate the design and development of learning content. In addition, common authentication schemes (e.g., OpenID) built upon Web services interoperability will ultimately allow learners to seamlessly navigate multiple Web-based teaching and learning applications, opening up possibilities for personal learning environments in which multiple sources of content and experiences work together to help students learn in ways that are tailored to each individual.

With developments like SCORM 2.0 on the horizon, as well as increasingly powerful software, hardware, and networking tools, technological barriers are falling. The challenge now is to harness these new enabling technologies to create more open, modular, and interoperable learning content as well as production and learning tools that are each malleable with respect to their individual functionality. Together, these technologies will help further the transformation of education from a teaching-oriented enterprise to a learning-centered one.

As noted, the entire piece will be available soon. We hope this notion of malleability helps move the conversation forward. What are your thoughts? Are we on the right track?


Baldwin, C. Y., & Clark, K. B. (2000). Design rules,volume 1: The power of modularity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Baldwin, C. Y., & Clark, K. B. (2006). Modularity in the design of complex engineering systems. In D. Braha, A. A. Minai, & Y. Bar-Yam (Eds.), Complex engineered systems: Science meets technology (pp. 175–205). New York: Springer.

Breck, J. (2007, Nov./Dec.). Introduction to special issue on opening educational resources. Educational Technology,
47(6), 3–5.

Bühler, C. F. (1952). Fifteenth century books and the twentieth century. New York: The Golier Club.

Bush, M. D. (1996, Nov.). Fear & loathing in cyberspace: Of heroes and villains in the information age. Multimedia

Papers & Presentations

September 25th, 2008 jonmott Comments

Mott, J. and Wiley. D. (2009). “Open for Learning: The CMS and the Open Learning Network,” in education, 15:2.

OpenEd 2009
Open for Learning

2009 Independent Study Instructors Conference
Improving Learning … with Technology

10 June 2009 – Blackboard Client Strategy Council
Measuring the Value of Your CMS (pdf & ppt)

This is an updated version of this presentation with Winter 2009 Semester data. While this presentation focuses on measuring the value of CMS / LMS technology, the model is generalizable to the value assessment of any learning technology.

5 June 2009 – TTIX
Building a Loosely-Coupled Gradebook

The slides for my presentation at TTIX 2009 about BYU’s loosely coupled gradebook project.And a link to the UStream capture of the presentation.

The Transformation of Learning with Technology:
Learner-Centricity, Content and Tool Malleability, and Network Effects

Written with Michael D. Bush. Appeared in the March-April 2009 Edition of Educational Technology Magazine.ABSTRACT: Educational visionaries and reformers have long predicted a significant transformation of teaching and learning that would be facilitated by technology, essentially providing every learner with the equivalent of a personal tutor. Technology implementations in education, however, have consistently fallen short of achieving these lofty aims. The authors argue that this failure stems from a penchant to implement technology in ways that automate that past. Instead, we must champion learning technologies that are learner-centric and malleable, such that they address the needs of individual learners and can take advantage of the power of network effects. Only then will we realize the long-awaited transformation.

Social Networking & Learning
Presentation to the BYU Webmasters Group, 5 February 2009.

Link to slides:

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