Enter the tugboats.

I believe there is a place for a large scale content management system (CMS) on a campus such as mine… or on any campus. Schools produce data, a lot of data,  and a lot of that data needs to be protected.  I get that.  And I want that space to be bulletproof, impermeable and secure be it with my data as well as with other people’s data.  I get it.

But that’s not the kind of system I want for my class.  In my mind, CMS’s do just that: they manage content.  Learning doesn’t happen there, just like learning doesn’t happen in a file cabinet.  Learning happens at that moment when you pull the file out of the cabinet and when you read it, draw on it, fold it up and turn it into something else.  That is learning.

I want something more fluid and flexible, something that exists in concert with the CMS but is not limited by it.  Where sharing isn’t just one way… but in fact sharing can happen in between students and beyond those students as well.

I know that the large scale CMS we use here can be made to do that.  But that takes tweaking, changes in settings.  The default setting for the CMS is closed, not open.   My teaching practice, and by extension my professional practice, always defaults to open. 

I have been saying this for years.  Almost 10 years in fact. (Feel free to scan the archives of this blog if you need proof)

And yet….

And yet this conversation is ongoing.  On my campus, in the news, everywhere.

The thing about big  CMS’s is this:  once it is on your campus there is a need to justify its existence.  “That’s a lot of money we are spending,” the thinking goes, “so we had better maximize on that.”  The CMS then takes on new tasks (community groups, committee meetings… heck, ours even controls who gets access to what buildings via the mag-stripes on the ID cards) and with that more people and even more resources are pulled in to manage it. As such Big can shift to Massive rather quickly.  People get used to it and it becomes a part of the culture — the thing you love to hate — because finding an alternative is no one’s idea of fun.

So yes, we have a CMS and  yes it is way too big to fail.  I get that.

But I still don’t think it is the right choice for teaching and learning.

Enter the tugboats.

My  thought is that massive, inflexible, proprietary systems are not going away.  But that doesn’t mean they have to be the only ship in the sea. In fact, a lot can be said for the mighty, tiny tugboat and its ability to navigate those very same waters efficiently and effectively…sometimes without being noticed.


Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1983-0330-002 / CC-BY-SA , via Wikimedia Commons

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1983-0330-002 / CC-BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons


In fact, these tiny tugboats often come to the rescue to the larger cousins and help them redirect themselves when their massiveness makes that impossible.

I can live with a tanker ship handling our data and managing information… but there has to be  room for a lot of tugboats as well.  Tugboats that, by virtue of their size and spunkiness,  can do some of the tasks that the cruise ship simply cannot.

It can be a great little symbiotic and parallel relationship: little and big, massive and tiny, slow and zippy.  No competition, no animosity…and none of this…


click on image for full effect



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!


  1. Jeff Magoto · March 22, 2014 Reply

    Lovely post, Barbara. Your words and your images eloquently capture the tensions around openness, learnability, and teachers and students having a voice in what can be created. Tugboats captains are delightfully pugnacious, too.

  2. Barbara · March 22, 2014 Reply

    Thank you so much, Jeff, for your kind comment.

    Agreed about pugnacious tugboat captains… they are essential! Your comment inspired me to go and look up a job description for a tugboat captain and this was the first hit I found.

    I personally like how “freedom” is listed as one of the job’s attributes, don’t you?

  3. Caring about the now | Ryan Brazell · April 2, 2014 Reply

    […] couple of weeks ago, Barbara Sawhill wrote a great blog post about how some of the systems we use in higher education are like tanker ships: huge, expensive to […]

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