What are the ‘Deficiencies’ of Current CMS?

On a pretty regular basis I hear griping from people in the edtech blogging community about how terrible CMS platform X is, or how they are being forced to settle on the functionality provided in CMS platform Y. Rarely, however, do people get specific about what they can’t accomplish in the existing CMS (I’m referring to the existing market leaders – you know who I mean.) So here’s your chance – use the comments below to tell me, and others, what you think is wrong with the ‘majors’ right now, & more importantly what you need to accomplish but can’t in your existing CMS environment. I’ll start things off:

  • Student content creation: most of the major systems are centered around the instructor as the main producer and publisher of content; while most of them do not omit some ability for students to create content, it is usually limited and still controlled by the instructor
  • Group activities and Sequencing: most of the major systems have a hard time facilitating selective release and sequencing of tools (not content) especially to groups of students; e.g. group A, go have a discussion on this topic, to last no longer than 1 day, then take this particular test, and only when the entire group of you pass the test proceed to using the whiteboard to brainstorm topic Y (I’m making this up if you couldn’t tell)

Now here are a few complaints I hear regularly that personally I think are less valid:

  • The systems are all “Closed” spaces, content silos: First off, for the vast majority of instructors, students and educational institutions I’ve been in contact with, this is a good thing, not a bad one. Like it or not, the online ‘classroom’ is still conceived of by many in the same way as their real life classroom, and as far as I know most of these never had an open door policy about who could sit in on the class. But even disregarding this, you can (at least I think you can) provide open or guest access to courses hosted within CMS, you just need to configure the authentication properly
  • Large centralized CMS require too much central administration and take the power out of instructor’s hands: While there’s sometimes a grain of truth in this, for some of these systems this has as much to do with your institutional IT policies than it does for how the systems function themselves. And I would venture that the people making complaints like this are typically not representative of the user population as a whole, but instead quite technically sohpisticated early adopters who want to have full control over the technology regardless. My experience in bringing in CMS systems when they first were introduced was that faculty were happy if you could automate and remove much of the administrivia like creating course shells and adding accounts, and it was only the course level functionality they were concerned about.
  • Lack of support for constructivist education: This seems partly true, as some of the points I outlined above make clear. But too much is made out of this point without people explaining specifically what kind of constructivist education they want to do and what they need to accomplish it. Using some of these major CMS, you don’t *have* to structure the course around content the instructor produces. You could, as a for instance, start the course with the statement of a problem to be solved, and then have a sequence of discussions resulting in a number of group project documents – wouldn’t that qualify? Maybe I’ve misunderstood. I do understand that many of these tools seem to originate from a different content-centric paradigm, but until people start to describe clearly how what they want to do differs, we’ll likely be stuck with this model.
  • You’re stuck using their substandard tools: This one really bugs me. Before CMS, we were picking individual applications and trying (usually quite unsuccessfully) to stitch them together into some coherent whole. The innovation of CMS was to provide many of these tools in one coherent package. So, the complaint goes, some of the implementations of these specific tools (e.g. a discussion tool) aren’t seen as up to par. So the CMS companies expose their APIs and come up with programs to allow third party tools to participate in their overall environment, making it easier to bring together disparate tools than it was in the days pre-CMS.

Anyways, I am not trying to defend the current crop of CMS, simply to understand better what specific legitimate complaints people have with them. At a certain point, your paradigm of online education may simply be radically at odds with the one that CMS seem to support. Which is fine. But I’d venture your paradigm is probably also radically at odds with the institution you work at, (if in fact you work at an institution at all.) You can keep going with that line of thought, but I’ll stop there. Instead, I invite you to post a comment on what you are trying to do with your current CMS that you simply can’t accomplish. Cheers, Scott.

What are the ‘Deficiencies’ of Current CMS?

15 thoughts on “What are the ‘Deficiencies’ of Current CMS?

  1. This is a great idea Scott. I have my own set of general peeves with
    CMS-es, more or less obsverational since I only use two of them in very
    limited modes. But you asked…

    (1) “Course” as the main organizationaal unit.
    The largest flaw in the system is that everything is built around the
    course as an organizing unit, the “silo” / “island” approach. It makes
    sense considering how these systems evolve, but it creates barriers for
    content management, but worse, it really ought to be organized around
    people- teachers/students/staff, and use relations to tie them to
    courses. It means that content needs to be duplicated for multiple
    sections, it makes it hard/impossible to do thing such as learning
    communities or have discussions that span different courses, and it
    often means that students’ work disappears when the course does.

    (2) Content is Hardly Managed.
    An impact of number 1- content is stored in the course silo, and cannot
    be re-used in different course areas. The enterprise level systems are
    offering this now, at a huge price, but content should be in a
    database, and again, use linkages to associate it in courses. It can
    offer more portability, better management of assets, easier updates
    (perhaps a singel powerpoint used in 10 CIS classes- if it could be
    updated once in a content management system, than all references to it
    would get “updated”.

    And for all the decades old work on learning objects, they are not
    really part of CMSes in any way, in how content is created, or made
    available to course authors.

    (3) Lack of Student “space”
    The “home page” tools offered are meager to non-existent. MyBlah
    portals have been around long enough, that a CMS should provide each
    system user a customizable “place” as their virtual “locker” and hub
    for their CMS acitivites- and it should not be stuck inside a course
    area. This slides nicely down the road into ePortfolios.

    (4) Clunky Design / Old Technology
    Delivered web pages ought to be up to standards, XHTML, CSS, etc. I
    still see a lot of frames and 1999 vintage web code underneath the
    hood. RSS should be embedded, used, and tied in on many levels.

    Most CMSes also require an enormous amount of client-server-client
    requests, especially on the authoring end. I used one of the “big 2”
    last year and was just appalled at how many server requests were made
    to do basic tasks. This is beyond my expertise, but some of the new
    technologies in the enterprise Flash tools, where transactions that now
    take multiple client-server, page regernations, are much smoother to
    the user (they stay in the same URL, but the Flash handles the data –
    server communication.

    (5) Gradebooks
    There’s been some improvement in these, but the feedback I hear from
    faculty is still much griping about the complexity or the lack of
    features in the gradebooks. Our colleges end up using third/fourth
    party tools than. The ironic thing is that students regular report that
    a significant feature of their CMS materials is access to their grades.

    (6) Courses are Locked Up
    I understand the reasons for making all course content only accessible
    for enrolled students and teachers, but there is no easy way to get
    information about a course on a system beyond perhaps a title. It would
    be a nice dream if a CMS could (optionally?) automatically generate a
    preview version of a course, or a “summary”/”overview” for prospective
    students and other people, teachers who may be curious as to how a
    course is taught. An automatically generated screen shot of the main
    page? a listing of the tools used? Heck, this could all be published as

    I better stop now.


  2. This is a good idea, as things won’t likely get better without informed criticism.

    Some other deficiencies in the Commercial (for profit) CMS space:

    Support, testing, bug fixing. This goes through cycles of acceptable to unacceptable, and these cycles are driven by forces beyond the control of the tech staff tasked with direct support and administration.

    For universities where the CMS becomes widely used, this becomes a critical issue, as if the power or the water were shutting off weekly or daily and entire buildings might be without one or the other or both for days to weeks.

    Unfortunatly I think this is probably an endemic problem with for-profit software firms dependent on (mostly) non-profit educational clients, when the investors/shareholders demand more ROI, the easiest thing to cut is support and testing.

    Customizability follows along with that. In the old days before a LMS/CMS, we did indeed used to cobble online courses together with bulletin board this or that, lots of html, some perl and javascript, maybe some shockwave. But we could create course activities that faculty asked us to. After we started steering everyone to a commercial CMS, the tendancy is to say if a tool isn’t in a CMS, or an activity or learning object can’t be created with the tools of the CMS, it can’t be done.

    Some of the big CMS’s now give you the ability to build customized learning objects, but this usually comes at a premium price.

    The solution to the support/stability issues may need to be in the form of license discounts for downtime or unfixed bugs.

    Another area is central organizing metaphor, CMSs tend to be organized around tools, probably because programmers like tools and think they are the most important organizational unit. However, faculty think in terms of learning objectives, topics, or weeks, not tools. So either topic/weekly/objective central organizing themes, or easily customized central organizing themes whould be a area big CMSs could do better at.

    I’ll think of more as soon as I post this, but these are my big 3 :-).


  3. Off the top of my head:

    1) Extending the classroom metaphor (teacher at the top dictating knowledge to the students) into a virtual space where it breaks. Students are not helpless dummies, they can and will contribute to a discussion.

    2) Producing messy, non-standards compliant code with no accounting for accessibility. Endless nested tables and depreciated markup like font tags make pages that load like molasses uphill, and leave no room for xml flexibility. Accessibility isn’t even on the map; so if you have anything wrong with your eyes, mind or fingers you’re counted out.

    3) Awful interfaces. If the students have to fight the interface to get done what they want it has failed them. iPods have proven that intuitive interfaces make great products.

    4) Ridiculously old engines. This is the 2004 internet folks, use scripting and database technologies that work great like PHP, Perl and MySQL – not Java, JavaScript and other junk.

    I wrote up a post about why I think educational blogging will take over where the CMSs that have a stranglehold on the market now.


  4. James Farmer says:

    Fair comment Evan, and I guess it brings up the whole populist argument… which is probably not worth getting into right now :o)

    To support my perspective though I do spend much of my working life consulting with academics using these systems, and I’d say dissatisfaction (especially amongst experienced online teachers) is widespread.

    (I may even have some data to back that up soon too… well, unofficial account of data that’ll probably be presented by someone other than me in about a years time… watch blog space :o)

    Cheers, James

    p.s. I also see where you’re coming from on the ‘we didn’t build it’ front… and it’s also not hard to put the ‘not invented here’ slant on things… but I’d argue that the solutions are already invented… just not applied.


  5. I guess my question is whether any innovative faculty person will ever be happy. The happiest faculty members I know are the ones who are just coming across it for the first time. They may think the system is clunky, but they are accepting. They become unhappy when they realize what their next step is, and that the technology is not ready yet. Not a bad thing – this is a good thing, just one that dooms people to frequent disappointments :).

    The innovative, caring faculty are the ones who will always want to push the limits, the ones where features will only satisfy them for the brief period of time – long enough that they are ready to move on the next step. They impliment, they transform the way they teach, and they re-evaluate and re-transform. By then, the technology is passe.

    So how can a CMS compete? I really don’t know. Our needs here are so divergent – the innovative people are the ones I want to nurture, but they are a much smaller percentage of our faculty.


  6. What are the ‘Deficiencies’ of Current CMS?

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  7. What are the ‘Deficiencies’ of Current CMS?

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