Two possible replacements for course management systems


This afternoon I finally reached the limit of my patience with Angel. The details are unimportant (but revolve around the patently stupid refusal of Angel to automate tasks for multiple sections of the same course). Just suffice to say that I spent a good portion of the last half hour seriously investigating ways to declare independence from Angel and all other proprietary CMS’s.

I came up with two possible options.

Option 1 is to use Wikispaces to make a course wiki, containing pages for different content. Wikispaces allows the posting of files, too, with a pretty generous 2 GB storage limit and no limit on bandwidth. So it would be easy to use the wiki as a glorified file server, which is pretty much all I need from a course web site. Use a basic email client as I discussed at length here to handle communications. Each page has a discussion section attached to it to allow for integrated discussion “boards”.

Pros: I know Wikispaces pretty well, having done three wikis through them already. Pages are easy to manipulate and are fully text-searchable. Everything is in one place and there is a simple URL to access it. No functionality is duplicated as with Angel and its execrable “email” system. Also, Wikispaces handles native LaTeX typesetting. And there’s an RSS feed for every page to help students keep up. Cons: File management on Angel is kind of a pain. And despite the whole digital native hoopla, most students and faculty I know have no clue about RSS, which would mean somebody would have to get them to use it. Finally, wikis do not have a native hierarchical structure — they are pretty nonlinear by nature, and that can be confusing to people used to top-down designed web sites.

Option 2 is to create a Google Group for the course. I had not used Google Groups before today, and I was impressed when I looked around. There’s obviously the nice discussion board feature, along with rudimentary wiki functionality and customizable structure — you can make a “page” for anything and it shows up as a tab in the main view. I’m not sure how well-integrated it is with Google Docs, Spreadsheets, etc. but it seems like those connections ought to be easy and strong. Not a lot of file space at just 100 MB, but perhaps I could keep the “freshest” 100 MB of stuff on the Group page and archive the rest at a Box.net account for the class.

Pros: Nice look and feel, intuitive, well-connected. RSS feeds available as well as the ability to connect/post to the group via email and mobile phone. Cons: No LaTeX; only 100 MB of file space; more structure means fewer options.

There is an option 3, which is to create a WordPress.com blog for the course and construct pages for everything that is static in nature (syllabus page, files, etc.). But WordPress.com only gives 50 MB of file space which is too restrictive for this purpose. It could possibly be done if I wanted to use Box.net for file sharing, which would be easy since WordPress.com blogs have a Box.net widget available for the sidebar. (I’ve got one off to your right, down a ways.)

In all these options, I would keep Angel around only for the online gradebook — which still sucks for reasons I haven’t elaborated on here (yet), but which students understandably appreciate. If I could find a good workaround for a secure online gradebook, I’d ditch Angel entirely.

Anybody have thoughts or experiences in this kind of thing?

7 Comments

Filed under Course management systems, Educational technology, Social software, Technology

7 responses to “Two possible replacements for course management systems

  1. virusdoc

    You’re starting to scare me with all the CMS horror stories. Purdue uses something called WebCT, which apparently recently merged with Blackboard. I’ve never logged in to my WebCT account but apparently I must use it for the course I teach in the spring. I wonder what nightmares await me.

    My IT department also wants to record my lectures and podcast them each day, which is apparently quite popular with the students. The idea makes me cringe.

  2. The link below has, I believe, six gradebook options that you might be interested in trying:

    http://www.c4lpt.co.uk/Directory/Tools/gradebook.html

    So sorry you are having trouble with Angel – just be sure that one commercial product does not represent ALL commercial products! I caution all schools to evaluate a CMS not only by features but also support. Questions to ask: Have they demonstrated a flexibility in customizing the CMS/LMS to fit our unique needs? Have they done it for current clients? And, are they committed to getting feedback from us to improve the system?

    -Cathy Garland, employee of one commercial CMS/LMS that does the above
    (Scholar360)

  3. Doc, WebCT used to be a separate CMS company but was bought out by Blackboard a year or two ago. I think they are trying to keep WebCT functioning as it was before rather than turning it in to another version of Blackboard.

    I wouldn’t say “nightmare” characterizes my experiences with Blackboard and now Angel, but “extreme irritation” does. Neither of those two systems seem really designed with any sort of consideration for what professors and students have to actually DO to manage their courses. It’s sort of like a very badly-designed house that you are forced to live in. (Hmm, could there be a reality show in the offing?)

  4. rightwingprof

    The best academic CMS out there now is not commercial. Google sakai project. IU uses it now, and it’s many light years superior to oncourse, which was the previous system.

  5. IU Prof

    Oh GaH! Don’t get me started on sakai. That is a total nightmare! Original Oncourse functioned miles better than what we’ve seen this fall. The latest is it is deleting posted grades. What fun!

    My original reason for posting here was to suggest wikidot.com. It is a fully functioning wiki with discussion forum options. I have used it for one class and it worked nicely. I created a private wiki and the students joined through a password that I provided. It doesn’t have a ton of file storage (100 MB) but if you store static files in Angel, mark them as publicly viewable, and then link them to the wiki that may solve your problem there.

    It also pretty intuitive markup – especially if you have worked with wikis before. I built most of mine in a week when sakai crashed and burned at the start of the fall semester.

  6. coderprof

    I’m trying to convince the IT department to let me set up a Moodle server on a obsolete computer for my own courses.

  7. rightwingprof

    Did it? Well, sakai is a project; IU implements and changes it. Oncourse sucked, to say the very least, because it was a barebones system, and like Angel, had a grotesquely stupid interface (not to mention its own email). About half of the things we needed it to do for our course, it couldn’t do. For example, you could report grades, but there was no drilldown. So students couldn’t see exactly where they missed points. Completely unacceptable. That’s why we wrote our own CMS, and are still using it.

    IU has a proud history of failed, idiotic software. Onestart. I need say no more.