The Ethics of Choosing a CMS

The CMS in the Classroom

A CMS is a classroom tool, and like many other technological tools, it does not come without real consequences, especially when poorly chosen. As Staggers, Zoetewey, and Pennell (2009) explain, "A change in technology, especially in the form of a CMS, is a change in pedagogy" (p.62). With different technologies come different teaching methods, different classroom setups, and different expectations from users and administrators. Unfortunately, due to the one-size-fits-all nature of many university CMS solutions, the classroom impact of these systems is overlooked because as the systems become more and more familiar the technology and the value system behind that technology become more and more invisible (Staggers, Zoetewey, & Pennell 2009). To combat this, we must realize as we look at the CMS and its role in the classroom that no technology operates value-free, and that each and every technology has a powerful effect on its end users and their workplace.

The Trouble with Technology

As Langdon Winner explains (1986),

     "technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but also powerful forces
     acting to reshape that activity and its meaning.  The introduction of a robot 
     to an industrial workplace not only increases productivity, but often radically 
     changes the process of production redefining what 'work' means in that setting.  
     When a  sophisticated new technique or instrument is adopted in medical practice, 
     it transforms not only what doctors do, but also the ways people think about health, 
     sickness and medical care." (p. 178)

Just as new technology affects medicine or manufacturing, it also affects composition studies. With the inclusion of the CMS into more and more classrooms, the way those classrooms work is changed by the CMS and the assumptions about it that users bring with them. For instance, when a CMS is used to collect papers and to return papers to students, what it means to be a commenter on a student's paper changes. If a CMS only supports a single comment window that is attached a given submitted file, the role of the teacher in grading is limited to and fits itself to that single space for commentating. If the program allows for full-scale markup of the file through a proprietary tool, then the role of teacher expands and is expected to involve full-scale markup as well as expertise in the use of the markup tool. Demands from students also change as course management software is brought to bear on the classroom. The moment a class is given a CMS that makes use of a grade tracking and tabulating system, it is expected that every grade will be tabulated and kept up to date, and anything less will be seen as a failure on the part of the teacher (something that I can attest to after teaching with Blackboard for multiple years). A CMS has a powerful say in how a classroom's policies play out, and to become blind to that is to accept it without critique.

The System Behind the System

To begin to critique a CMS, we must first answer an important question: what shapes a particular CMS that plays such an unavoidable role in our classrooms on a daily basis? The answer usually falls back to the developers of a given CMS. The developers are the ones who are responsible for shaping the CMS to the perceived needs of their target users, a process which we know to shape those needs as it meets them. Take as an example, the user interface of a given CMS.

The interface of a CMS is important, because it in many ways serves as a translator for the backend of the system, relaying to the end-user what exactly is available for them to do. Interfaces, as a general rule of thumb, are not random. Instead, a given interface is built on the backbone of what Donald A. Norman (2011) terms "conceptual models". A conceptual model is "the underlying belief structure held by a person about how something works," a belief that "software designers have carefully put into your head" (p. 286). These conceptual models allow us to make sense of the backend of a given system, but only through specific conceptual model chosen by a software development team. And, while we may have high hopes for a given development team's CMS, it is important to realize that the folks put in charge of managing many CMS projects are not actually content creators and may choose to take a system-based rather than user-based approach to the project's development (Pullman & Gu 2009), making a bad conceptual model even worse.

Conceptual Differences

While a conceptual model is put into place to help users, often the exact opposite can occur when a CMS is being used in a way that conflicts with the conceptual model it was built on. This can happen quite easily in a university setting because often the decision to adopt a CMS is not a program-specific one, but instead a choice made on a university level. The problem that we run into is that not all fields and disciplines think about education the same way. A CMS designed for a course based on one-way communication in a lecture course conflicts on conceptual level with any and all courses where teaching is a two-way communicative act. Simply put, the needs of a lecture-based course with hundreds in enrollment are not the same as the needs of a writing-based course with an enrollment of under thirty. And, when a writing-based course is forced to use a CMS that relies on a differing conceptual model, pedagogy and technology collide, often to the detriment of all involved.

What does a collision between pedagogy and a technology's conceptual model look like? In the case of composition this conflict can take many forms, but a good example to start with is the drafting process. In many disciplines, an assignment is due when it is due, done when it is done. Once you've submitted your mathematics homework or your lab report in chemistry, the work is considered done and finished. You aren't expected to submit multiple versions of either, and so when designers go into the process of building CMS systems and their accompanying conceptual models, they only take into account the act of submitting a given assignment once. This conceptual model may work well for the above disciplines, but it runs into problems when it is applied to a writing classroom.

In composition studies, we do not teach students that writing is done once and for all when a piece is first typed. Instead, we teach (on the whole) some variation of a writing process. The first attempt at writing an assignment is not the final turn-in, but instead is merely a first draft. Drafting is something, in fact, that we encourage in students' writing. We don't want them to push through a single take on a piece, but instead work through a piece multiple times, hopefully getting peer feedback as they do so. Unfortunately, when we take this mindset into a CMS space designed for one-time submissions we have a problem: the CMS and its conceptual model is sending a signal almost directly opposite what we are teaching in the classroom. Whereas we tell students in the classroom over and over again to draft and revise, the CMS does not present that choice at all. Instead, a submission is submitted when it is done, and often not changeable once that submission has been made. The result is that instructors must go out of their way to make sure students only submit a draft they are happy with, in effect teaching around the CMS rather than with the help of it.


Because a CMS is a powerful shaper of the role of teacher, the role of student, and the idea of what and is not appropriate material for a given course, it can and does have real power in shaping the composition classroom. The choice to adopt a CMS for a given class's instruction doesn't just introduce a new set of technological tools, it introduces a wholly different value system and conceptual model of what teaching and learning looks like. Remembering this is important. If we become blind to the transformative effect a CMS has on our classroom, we become powerless to resist or critique and instead learn to merely cope.