The Ethics of Choosing a CMS

The CMS and the University

Content Management System and University. The two are often closely linked. Over half of nonprofit universities and colleges make use of just a single CMS: Blackboard (Kolowich 2011). With single-solution CMS choices like Blackboard being so common, it is important to realize that such choices are not value neutral. The choice of what CMS or CMS(s) a university chooses to implement and how they are implemented has a very real impact on teachers and students and how they interact.

A Flawed Assumption

For a university, the CMS (also known as learning management system or LMS) is a tool given to instructors to aid in distance and face-to-face instruction. Often, a single CMS will be implemented to all programs and disciplines within a given school. This level of uniformity is itself problematic because if the history of composition studies has taught us anything, it is that teaching is not a universal process but contextual and specific to a given subject-area, a given course, even to a given group of students. One method does not rule them all in teaching, so the question arises why then should a single CMS be presented to an entire university? Why should CMS vendors make claims to offer (Blackboard 2011) "one common platform so you can deliver a cost-effective and meaningful learning experience at all levels, for all users." Like many things that seem too good to be true, a universal CMS for university education fails to live up to its promises. This failure does not come, however, from a botched delivery of the goods. No, instead the problem lies with core assumption that a single CMS could ever serve an entire university and all its disparate parts. This assumption, and those like it, goes against the very nature of a CMS and the way that any given content management system should be designed, implemented, and operated.

The Complex Reality

In reality, a content management system cannot be boiled down to a single form to meet the needs of an entire university. The reason for this lies in how a CMS works and is developed: for a CMS to be a success designers must "understand how the organization, as an organism, interacts with and uses its content" (Nassar 2007). Content Management Systems are designed to manage content, but the similarity between competing CMS solutions often ends right there, at content management. Each CMS should be built to contain only what its users need (Lombardi 2004), and if properly thought out, every CMS will be different (Siri Johnson & Fowler 2009). Why? Because when designing a CMS, numerous questions have to be answered before a solution can be built:

All of the above has to be dealt with in the creation of a given content management system. Without an accurate understanding of what an organization's data flow looks like, "out-of-the-box systems can interrupt the flow of information" (Siri Johnson & Fowler 2009), as any instructor who's been frustrated by a poorly designed CMS can attest.

An Overly Simple Solution

Considering how much customization a CMS must undergo before its useful for a given set of users, how can a university-level CMS even exist? By targeting the biggest set of users, the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. A university-wide CMS exists as a solution that solves the largest amount of problems presented in common by the largest number of users. What set of users is being targeted? How are they being targeted? This will vary from solution to solution, depending on the set of ideal users the developer of the CMS has in mind when creating the system. It will not be a system nuanced enough to cater to every need. Instead, it will fit the needs of the ideal user while leaving others wanting more: a familiar situation for many who use an institutional CMS.