Efficient teaching: how to use the course management system


A wise friend of mine once advised me: the most valuable resource is our own time.

Consequently, I have emphasized efficient teaching tactics. Efficient teaching is effective teaching that doesn’t take a lot of your time. There are many routes to being an effective teacher, and some of them require far more time than others.

Many have advocated using web-based course platforms to increase teaching efficiency.

I’ve been a user of Blackboard, Moodle, and WebCT, with varying levels of experience. These are course management systems (CMS). A CMS can be mighty powerful once you’ve learned how to use one. All kinds of activities in your class can be conducted smoothly within the CMS. Some folks call them the LMS, with the L standing for learning. (I’m not going to imply that by managing a course online, I’m actually managing learning, so I’ll stick with CMS.)

If I were asked for advice how about how to use the CMS efficiently, what would I say?

Ditch the CMS.

I wouldn’t be equipped to recommend otherwise, because I have no idea how to use the CMS efficiently. If you’re not running an online course, then I don’t see why you’d need to a CMS unless you’re looking to lose time and make yourself miserable.

If you really learn how to use a CMS, by making an investment, then it can pay off. If you’re not ready to make that investment, don’t feel bad about it. If you’re using a CMS, and it seems like a time sink, don’t feel bad about dropping it.

I’ve seen others use the CMS effectively and have it an immersive part of their course.  I’ve worked closely with a high school science teacher who runs a paperless classroom, with absolutely everything on Moodle. He puts up reading, assignments, quizzes, exams, and avenues for student-student interactions. That’s exceptional, meaning that it is an exception. He put a lot of front-end investment into this system, and it only started paying off because he is teaching the same curriculum, with little change, over several years. That’s wonderful, and it’s a great experience for his students as a part of building technological literacy.

I haven’t dedicated that kind of time to make the CMS work. I haven’t identified a specific benefit that I would obtain from doing so. I can teach my courses efficiently without having to use the CMS, so that’s what I’m doing. Would my teaching be more effective with the CMS? Perhaps. I’m not sure. It wouldn’t be more efficient, at least without a big front-end investment that I’ve yet to make.

Some students love the CMS; some are as annoyed by it as I am. Some people simultaneously love it and are annoyed by it, like they feel about some family members. We can’t choose our family, but we can choose against the CMS.

The main reason that students love the CMS, from what I have gathered, is that they can access their grades quickly, they know their grade in the class at any given moment, and have quick access to the files for their lectures. The CMS gives them a feeling of control over the course. They can log in at any moment and have the resources of the course at their fingertips.

From my viewpoint, those reasons are not connected to effective teaching, and may even hinder teaching effectiveness. The CMS might help students overemphasize grades over genuine learning, and memorization over exploration and deep understanding, depending of course on how you use the CMS. Whenever a student asks me to use the CMS for the course, it’s because they want a digital copy of a presentation I did in class, or because they want their grade more quickly. Those, in my view, are horrible reasons to use the CMS.

A number of faculty in my department have been using the CMS to connect clickers to grades for the course. It works for them. The clicker/CMS combo can be used to take attendance, spot quizzes, and even entire exams. That’s not a bad selling point. If you’re teaching a particularly large class, then the CMS/clicker combo can help with classroom management. However, if you’re only using clickers for immediate pop questions (“formative assessment” as they say), then you don’t need the CMS, unless these questions have grades connected to them. I have noticed that faculty members that are heavy CMS also spend a lot of time on teaching outside of the classroom. I don’t know where the threshold lies that CMS use saves time rather than costs time. For me, I suspect, I’d never hit that threshold no matter how much I teach or how big my classes are.

Another reason that I forgo the CMS is that it increases student expectations of constant availability, and for you to provide information more promptly than should be reasonably expected.

I tell my students that I’ll get back to them within a business day after they contact me. My response time is typically is far more rapid, but I don’t want my students to build the expectation that I am at their beckoning.

I want my students to think that business is conducted during class hours and office hours. Why do I want this? First of all, I think it’s healthy for the students to be able to rely on themselves to work on the course material. I am not focused on customer service, I’m focused on learning. Learning inherently requires some struggle with content, and I want my students to struggle so that way they can learn. If I clearly explain to students, during class hours, exactly how I expect them to struggle with the class material, then we can update their progress in class and office hours.

Having students expect things of me beyond class time and office hours is horrible for my own time management. If I’m teaching multiple courses simultaneously, I need to be able to put my work on those courses on my calendar, and not work on those courses when time isn’t budgeted.

It’s harder to compartmentalize your work on your course when you use the CMS, because the expectation of the students with a CMS-heavy course is the same way that other social media are used, opportunistically and frequently. Just because other parts of our lives are replete with social media, we don’t need to mimic this pattern with university coursework. There is a social burden for all of us, including our students, to frequently access information online. Do you want be a part of the problem or be a part of the solution?

In short: If the CMS works for you, great! If not, don’t feel guilty about it.

The CMS should be used to find solutions to problems in your teaching that increase efficiency. If you don’t foresee that the CMS will help accomplish this goal, don’t feel bad about not trying. If it feels like it’s not working for you, don’t feel bad about not giving it up. If it is working for you, before you recommend it for others, be sure that you have a specific and useful reason for your recommendation that is directly relevant to your colleague’s situation.

Before you pigeonhole me as a latter-day-Luddite, keep in mind that for the last year, I’ve been the “Digital Ambassador” from the Chancellor’s office to my university, tasked with promoting the use of technology to improve teaching effectiveness. (I haven’t been an effective ambassador, but I clearly am interested in integrating new and useful technology into teaching.) So, I am entirely open to using technology in the classroom. I’d like to emphasize that I’ve been an ambassador for technology in the classroom. I don’t want to extend it far beyond the classroom. Outside the classroom, I want students to engage with nature, with books, and with one another. There are some great tech tools out there that make teaching better. Is the CMS one of those tools? Not in my, albeit limited, experience.

12 thoughts on “Efficient teaching: how to use the course management system

  1. hm. Why is it more efficient for me? Because everything is in one place. I don’t accept assignments via email, in my dept. mailbox, under my office door. All the logistics (field trip leaving times, what to bring to lab, what to prepare for class, data on upcoming exams/midterms) as well as info, reading, photos, interesting stuff, and external links–all in one place. For me, it saves a lot of time. That said, previous versions of Moodle have been really clunky, e.g., no drag and drop functionality (really!?!?!?). New version for us next year, so we’ll see if it is an improvement.
    On balance, I am a believer and a user

  2. I am ambivalent about the use of CMS (mostly having to do with the fact that Moodle is not so user friendly). What really jumped out at me from your post was this section, though:

    “I want my students to think that business is conducted during class hours and office hours. Why do I want this? First of all, I think it’s healthy for the students to be able to rely on themselves to work on the course material. I am not focused on customer service, I’m focused on learning. Learning inherently requires some struggle with content, and I want my students to struggle so that way they can learn. If I clearly explain to students, during class hours, exactly how I expect them to struggle with the class material, then we can update their progress in class and office hours.”

    This deserves its own series of posts. Two important things in there:
    1) A willingness to be frustrated by a problem.
    2) customer service vs. learning.

    It took me a good while to understand that I had to communicate and explain #1 to my students. As far as #2, if you want to get some research done at all, you are going to have to learn to politely and firmly say no.

    Great post, love your blog.

  3. I abandoned CMS a year or so ago after 4 years of intensive use, and effort to make such use more efficient, for the same reason: they become a time sink and a crutch for students. I don’t post lecture slides or anything but the essential course material or an occasional link to a video or pdf of a paper or book chapter. In my experience, the only thing that the CMS makes easier is online courses and grading at the end of the semester.

  4. I was at Cal Poly Pomona for my B.S., worked on a M.S. at a Cal State, and out of CSU for a Ph.D. I began my undergraduate studies in 2000, which closely corresponds to the incorporation of CMS, and then made the transition into graduate school where we continue to use it today under several professors. I have been on both sides, and feel strongly that I have never had a positive experience with any CMS, especially as an instructor. I like the points you make about efficiency, but I would further argue that, similarly, an instructor must question the teaching efficacy. In my experiences, all of the tremendous amount of heuristic value of taking classes is lost by using CMS, like you highlight (e.g., responsibility of keeping track of a grade, accountability of acquiring missed material from a peer or professor, creating structure from the course matter). I felt like CSU was very pedagogically-oriented compared to my current institution, which I really miss. Do you have any primary literature addressing the issues you bring up here? Thanks; and thank you for this blog.

  5. Oh, I forgot I wanted to end with this quote, as it relates to classroom technologies: “Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new,” by Thoreau in Walden.

  6. Cool! By compartmentalizing this way, I bet it can be more efficient – especially if students have all kinds of frequent silly requests, you can always say, “It’s on Moodle” and if you just go in to moodle a couple times per day, then life could be simpler.

    I also keep everything in one place – the classroom! That does mean that I need to remember to do everything I need to at that time, and if not, then it’s got to wait for the next time we meet. Once in a long while (tops, once a semester) I have to email the class about something that I should have handled in class.

  7. Thanks much!

    You’re right, blogging is like research in that when you do something, it begets even more interesting things to do. I have had a posts about 1 and 2 in mind, in part delineating what separates small private liberal arts colleges from comprehensive public unis (I’ve worked in both) – the relationships between customer service and learning.

  8. If there was a truly easy-to-use CMS, which was used by my university, maybe I’d feel differently.

    I should add that the time I do use the CMS is for students to submit final writing assignments. I use that because that’s the only way to use Turnitin on an assignment on my campus, and I have found use in the plagiarism detection software. (That’s a whole ‘nother post).

  9. Thanks for the nice thoughts. Primary literature on CMS? I’m not the place for that! I bet there is a ton of scholarship on it, and I also would bet that it wouldn’t address how much work it’d be for the professor.

  10. Regarding grades: I TA’d this past quarter and we put all of grades online eventually. That ended up being great, because students caught a couple dozen mis-entered scores. With 100 students and 3 assignments due/week, I really appreciated the fact that they caught our mistakes.

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