Create, tweak, perfect…and then give away

It has been a very active (and vocal) few weeks here in the heartland of America. The conversations about technology and teaching seem to be everywhere. There have been so many conversations that I have had to let my blog writing and reading slide. I can’t wait for winter break so I can catch up.

The last few days have been consumed with the conversations about whether my school should spend $70K to upgrade our Course Management Solution (a contradiction in terms in my mind, but I digress) in order that would also provide us with a campus wide intranet/communication tool. We had the presentation from the vendor, and I counted 30+ uses of the word “functionality” in 90 minutes, and I was less than impressed with the academic tools this CMS. Why? well, their tools seem to be less about teaching and more about tracking what the students are doing, reading, downloading. That might work in an institution where your classes have 200+ students in a class, but here we strive for that elusive 10:1 ratio (strive..) and are closing in on it.

I spoke up in a committee meeting and asked that we survey the current users of our CMS –both students and faculty– to find out how precisely they are using it. My hypothesis is that we will find that our expensive CMS (and soon to be more expensive) is nothing more than an information repository… a very large file cabinet. The CMS vendor wants us to see it as a teaching tool, a pedagogical innovation… I don’t see download filing files as anything innovative, and asynchronous communication, in my mind is not nearly as “interactive” as some of our new “disruptive technologies” promise to be. And did I mention that I support the teaching of 8 languages and only some of the languages I support can be handled (without 214 additional steps) by the CMS?

Further conversations have made it apparent that the educational side of these tools is not what is driving these conversations: apparently “we” need a tool to manage schedules, club information, anouncements, rosters, etc etc etc. Our college community is awash in information that sometimes does not get to its ultimate destination so the torrents of data either need to be beaten back with a stick (unlikely) or managed better. But is the all knowing all seeing CMS the way to go? How can we be so sure they will fill the bill?

Enter the relatively unknown, but attractive because of it’s pricetag (read: free) open source alternative to the CMS’s intranet/ calendar management component. Apparently, those in the know here feel that we would need two if not three people to manage an open source solution, thus negating any saving we might have in buying something free.

Maybe it has been a long month, maybe it is because there is a full moon… but what do people see as so terribly scary (and labor intensive?) about open source tools? Is it the fact that that there are no manuals, only users that stand behind their creations? Is that that there is no 800 number, only online communities that span the globe and provide support when needed?

Open source tools are the adults’ equivalent of Lego. You start with a shell, and then you build with little blocks until you create something. And then you show it to others. And sometimes you even give whatever you created … away. My goodness, what a concept: Create, tweak, perfect…and then give away.

For those you who appreciate the poetry of cartoons, let me share with you this depiction of this same argument in comic strip form

I don’t believe there is one tool that can solve every teacher’s needs, because such a tool would presume we all teach (and learn) alike. Blended learning (and the variety of tools one can call upon to help achieve that learning) remind me of what I learned in foreign language teacher training: there is no one pedagogy that will teach all students, so be ready to do a little bit of everything all of the time.

And always have that piece of chalk in your back pocket in case the technology fails.

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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