U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Course-Management Software: A (Semi-)Complaint

This is another post that’s dictated by the way I happen to be spending my day.  This is the first day of the spring semester at the University of Oklahoma. Though I don’t teach until tomorrow, today was the day I set aside for setting up my classes’ Desire 2 Learn pages.  Desire 2 Learn – or simply D2L – as many readers of this blog no doubt know is one of the standard course-management software[1] packages that universities and colleges around the country use.

Let me start by saying why this is only a semi-complaint.  Over the course of a semester, course-management software makes my life much easier. It reduces time wasted on the sheer bureaucracy of grading.  It allows me to give my students easy access not only to readings, but also to many other types of media, including webpages, music and other sound recordings, and even tv and movies (though I much prefer to show movies the traditional way). It allows my students to submit their papers electronically in a way that mercilessly notes the actual moment at which they turn their papers in, while automatically checking for obvious signs of plagiarism.  And it has untold additional capabilities, some small smattering of which I’m likely to take advantage of one of these days.

So what’s to complain about?

Well, to begin with, I have spent most of today doing tasks on D2L that should really take a fraction of the time that they actually take. For example, one of the courses I’m teaching this semester I also taught last semester. Though D2L allows me to import all elements of last semester’s iteration of this course to this semester, I have to spend an inordinately long amount of time individually changing the due dates on each of the course’s many dropboxes (this course has weekly papers), which are imported complete with Fall 2013 dates attached to them.  Since this semester is a week shorter, I also had to change the number of a couple different sorts of assignments, which necessitated going back and forth between three separate areas of the D2L page.

In fact, the clunkiness of this operation reflects the much more general clunkiness of D2L, which is as opaque at first glance as it is (relatively) feature rich. Want to import materials from an earlier course? Well, first you need to know that the link to do so can be found under a little gear icon hiding at the top of the page. Then you need to know that the page from which you import materials from the other course refers to other courses as “Org Units” (a term that always makes me imagine that this software package was originally written for the Church of Scientology). You then need to know that when you ask to import “Grades” you are, of course, not importing grades from the earlier semester (why would you want to do that?), but rather certain—but not all—aspects of the grading scheme of that course (others of which are described as “Grading Schemes,” I think).  And on and on.

Of course, using D2L eventually trains you to not notice all of these anomalies and to more-or-less easily use the program to do what you need it for. Or, rather, to more-or-less easily use the program to do what you have already done with it in the past, because one of the problems with its confusing interface and odd terminology is that it is very difficult to learn, or even discover the existence of, features that you haven’t used before.

Late last semester, news came that my university was in the process of considering replacing D2L with a competing software package. Although the public discussion of this potential move has been framed in terms of benefits to faculty (or perhaps I should say “end users”), folks I know on the committee considering this decision seem to think it’s driven by money. D2L is apparently very expensive and there are cheaper packages that the university hopes can do the same thing.

I’m reasonably certain that there are other comparable—perhaps even better—software packages available.  But having invested a fair bit of time and effort into feeling pretty comfortable with the way that D2L does the things I ask of it, I’m not exactly looking forward to having to relearn all of these tricks from the ground up.

It seems to me that there are a number of reasons that course-management software packages are as ungainly, unlovable, and unloved as they are.  First, since they are adopted across entire institutions, they need to serve a huge variety of needs.  What a lower-division lecture course in economics needs is wildly different from what an upper-division history seminar needs.  The course-management-software requirements of a course with multiple sections are different from those with a single section.  Other challenges are raised by science courses with labs, online courses, and the countless other ways in which universities and colleges organize education. Keeping course-management software packages maximally flexible, but also maximally user friendly, is a real challenge.

Secondly, course-management software is bought and sold rather like dogfood: the people principally responsible for making the decisions do not actually use the product.  In the case of course-management software, university bureaucrats are often quite distant from the classroom and from a real understanding of the diversity of faculty needs.  Just as advertisements for dogfood tend not to describe its flavor and crunch so much as emphasizing the happiness and health of its canine end users, the primary pitch for course management software involves not a careful description of its features, but rather general promises of its functionality and innovativeness along with images of happy and satisfied faculty and students. This advertisement for Instructure’s Canvas (which appears on the top of Instructure’s webpage) may well be the Citizen Kane of the genre.

Of course, course-management software is big business, making much money for the companies that develop it and forcing universities and colleges for pay hefty fees for its use.

All of this has me wistfully dreaming of an actually faculty-designed, open-source, freeware course-management package.  As far as I know no such thing exists. And my guess is, if it did, the folks making the buying decisions would probably still shop elsewhere.  Whoever put such a package together could never afford Instructure’s advertising budget!

[1] I’m using the term “course-management software” broadly and loosely. The industry (and my university) distinguishes between, e.g. Course Management Systems, Learning Management Systems, and Learning Content Management Systems.  LMS seems to be the most generic of these terms, at least as OU uses them.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben, I love this post — I love the occasional nature of it, and the mildly kvetchy tone. My guess is that everyone feels like this about something at the start of the semester. If nothing goes wrong, then I’d begin to wonder if something were wrong. :-/

  2. I know exactly what you mean about the sunk costs invested in learning the shockingly counterintuitive software. In successive years at different schools I learned ANGEL, WebCT and Blackboard. They all did the same things in slightly different ways. So that even knowing exactly what I was trying to do, it would take me forever to figure out how to do it. It was a maddening time suck.

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