Learning Material and Content Management

Had some blogposts in mind, for this yet-unpublicized site. Through a thoughtful post on learning management systems and content ownership, Bruce D’arcus gives me an opportunity to put some thoughts together.

Bruce D’Arcus on Content in Learning Contexts

I’d like my LMS to make it really easy to share teaching resources among faculty; ideally not only within just a particular LMS instance at a single university, but across universities. Why can’t I, for example, create a course module and make it public? Why shouldn’t I be able to easily borrow work from colleagues at other institutions? And by easily, I don’t mean having to force them to export some damned package, email it to me, and then make me import it. I mean single-click sharing. What if, for example, I could search for particular concepts in my area of geography, and get a list of modules from both my colleagues here, but also other colleagues elsewhere, and simply click to use it in and/or adapt it to my course?

darcusblog » Blog Archive » Content Ownership and Sharing in an LMS – geek tools and the scholar.

(Bruce’s post is based on Michael Feldstein’s post which also talks about students owning their content.)

My Take: Systems for Learning and Content

Fully agreed with Bruce and Michael, here. And it happens to be something about which I think a fair bit[ref]And about which I talk, on occasion…[/ref] Not that I have specific expertise on it, but it’s enough to make me “drift-off” and go into “wishful thinking mode”. As Bruce asks: “What if…?”

This mode leads me to a comparison of LMS and CMS: Learning Management Systems and Content Management Systems.

Part of this has to do with with initiatives surrounding WordPress and BuddyPress in learning contexts: Stas Sușcov, Mario Asselin, and Kyle Jones. Another part relates to the #ENA2010 unconference on LMS and standards.

A Broad Claim

Simplifying things probably a bit too much, one might say that:

A Learning Management System is a special form of Content Management System.

For this claim to make any sense, we need to define our terms.


With what I call “Learning Management Systems,” a major issue is that different concepts and different terms are used by different people. For instance, the Wikipedia entry on Learning Management System makes distinctions which aren’t necessarily made when people talk about LMS. And some people use “Virtual Learning Environment” to talk about the same type of Web-based platform for learning. In other words, it’s difficult to find a neutral, stable, and consensual way to name this thing.

In my mind, there are strong connections between online tools I’ve been using in connection with my courses (in chronological order): OnCourse, WebCTSakai, Blackboard, and Moodle. In all of these cases, each course has a dedicated site to do a number of things. Simplifying greatly and lumping apparently-disparate things together, any learning management system can be used to do all of the following:

  • Provide course information (description, instructor(s), syllabus, etc.).
  • Post course material (lesson plans, handouts…).
  • Submit and evaluate assignments.
  • Create or take online tests, quizzes, and exams.
  • Process, distribute, and grades.
  • Participate in some form of communication between learners and teachers (from private messages to forum posts, from realtime chat to video conferencing).
  • Engage in some interactive activities (interactive “lessons” and such).

Some learning management systems emphasize one over the other and there are multiple things these systems can do which aren’t really covered there. However, in my experience, these are the core functionalities shared by all of these learning management systems.

This description may not give you a very precise idea of how a Learning Management System works, if you’ve never used one, but it should provide you with a basic framework for understanding the rest.

Reaching Consensus on CMS?

For Content Management Systems, there’s some level of consensus in common usage, but even Wikipedia doesn’t make very clear and explicit what a CMS is. So, here’s my take…

To me, the “typical CMS[ref]Actually, I’m mostly thinking about WordPress, which may be misleading since some people claim it’s not really a CMS. Still, WordPress is my platform of choice and I’ve been using it in diverse contexts. My experience with Drupal is rather indirect and I haven’t really used Joomla.[/ref]” is something like Joomla, WordPress, and Drupal. I might add TikiWiki to this list as I’ve been exploring it recently and it happens to have “CMS” in its description.

AFAICT, and at a very basic level, a CMS brings together:

  • Some mechanism to create, edit, and control access to content.
  • Some sort of database to store content.
  • Some way to dynamically produce webpages based on content.

Content can be a number of things but typically involves any combination of the following:

  • Text (structured, formatted, and associated with metadata)
  • Images (with thumbnails and captions)
  • “Multimedia files” (audio/video, streaming with a browser-based player and/or downloadable)

As applications in the CMS context, it’s common to find:

  • Forums
  • Blogs
  • User profiles
  • Wiki pages
  • Directories

As with my description of LMS, this may not make things very clear, but it has the merit of situating the conversation.

LMS/CMS Similarities

Users may not realize this but all the functionality of a CMS is present in a Learning Management System. Some of the “content” which is created, edited, stored, controlled, and shared as dynamic webpages is quite specific (syllabi, grades, assignments, quizzes…). But some of this specificity is at a surface-level. After all, we’re still talking about Web content. At some point, it’s all encoded in HTML[ref]And, of course, much of it is actually XML, in the form of XHTML or some such.[/ref].

In terms of architecture, there are clear connections between CMS and LMS. This is especially clear given learning management systems like MoodleClaroline, and Dokeos which may use the same type of LAMP infrastructure[ref]At least, the php/MySQL part[/ref] as typical CMS. (Sakai and WebCT use Java, OnCourse used IIS, not sure about Blackboard.)

In the case of Moodle, the technical similarities can even go one step further. See, among the easiest (and best-known) ways to install Web software are installer scripts like Fantastico and SimpleScripts, which are available through control panels like cPanel on some commercial webhosts. Among the things these scripts allow to easily install are most of the typical CMS and… Moodle. Which means that, to someone with a webhost account, Moodle is in the category of “what can be installed easily,” along with WordPress, Drupal, TikiWiki, Joomla, and most other known CMS.

There’s even a potential for confusion, here, as among names for learning management systems, a common one shares an acronym with “Content Management System.” It’s just a coincidence, but it involuntarily reinforces the connection.

So, technically and even terminologically, it wouldn’t be that difficult to say that “Learning Management Systems” are “Content Management Systems.”

Distinguishing LMS from CMS

While similarities seem obvious, to me, there’s a clear distinction between the typical CMS and the typical LMS. At the core of this distinction is the type of control exercised on the content.

For the typical CMS, it seems that the content tends to be available publicly by default and only made private for specific purposes. Actually, put another way, a CMS typically has a public face and some private components. The private components may be more important than the public face, but there’s still an expectation that some things are “public-facing.”

The logic behind LMS is almost reversed. Things are often private by default and are only shared for specific purposes. Some things may be publicly available, but the expectation is that most content is “hidden.” For the LMS as a whole, the “public face” of the LMS might be closer to a directory of courses than to the typical website. The notion of a “Web portal” applies in both cases but, in my experience, the public part of most Learning Management Systems takes the “portal” experience to an almost hostile degree of barrenness. To get to the real content, you need an account on that specific LMS. And while there might be an allowance for guest access or an easy way to get a full account, most content is still hidden from public view, isn’t necessarily indexed by search engines, and isn’t amenable to the kind of treatment afforded, say, a forum or blog post. Bluntly put, the core message of the public-facing parts of the typical LMS says: “if you don’t belong here, go away.”

To an extent, Moodle is an exception. The Moodle Community site is powered by a Moodle installation which also serves as an example of what Moodle can be. Much of the support for Moodle comes from forums which are part of that Moodle installation. So, Web searches for things related to Moodle do turn up results from the public-facing part of Moodle. But, even then, one frequently ends up with a login page while trying to access some Moodle-related content. Since Moodle does allow for guest access, it’s still possible to access content without an account. But the overall experience is similar to that of accessing “private” content, even though this content isn’t hidden. In fact, Moodle has some support for “blogging,” which makes it sound even closer to the typical CMS.  Yet the Moodle model of blogging isn’t oriented toward the same principles as those which are shared in social media (say, what Jeff Jarvis calls the “link economy“). While I really enjoy Moodle, I wouldn’t say that its support for blogging is much of a strength.

So, in general, Learning Management Systems may be a special case of “content management” but they’re more “inbound” than the typical CMS. There are advantages to this, in terms of protection of some information (in general, instructors don’t want everyone to have access to their exam questions in advance and students may prefer that some of their grades not show up in a web search for their name). But the “walled garden” model helps us raise some of the issues about which many people seem to care (including Bruce D’Arcus, if I’m not mistaken).

Where to Go from Here?

I had planned to say many things about making Learning Management Systems more open. One thing is that the next version of Sakai is clearly oriented toward this kind of CMS model, as displayed on its future directions and project homepage. Another thing is the significance of ePortfolios in the public-facing part of learning, especially in large programmes built on portfolio-based learning. Not to mention a whole thing I had to say about different types of learning material, based on a talk I gave about it. But it took me longer than expected to write this post and I should probably use this as a prelude to other blogposts.