proliferation of learning/course management systems
(L/CMS) over the past decade has occurred in
multiple sectors: K-12, higher education, government
and the business workplace. Distributed learning
systems originated within a Fordist framework
(uniform, mass produced and delivered) and
transitioned to a neo-Fordist model in the late 20th
century with more customization and innovation
(Edwards, 1995). System design and delivery
mechanisms have been historically unique across
sectors, targeting a specific audience. However, the
needs of the learners and the learning intentions of
the organization are similar across sectors, but
there has been little market overlaps among L/CMS,
although this appears to be changing. Therefore in
the lifetime of a learner, there is an implicit
expectation that a new system will be learned and
used to support educational and then workplace
learning. The authors argue that with the advent of
Web 2.0 applications and the open knowledge paradigm
(Norris, Lafrere, & Mason, 2003), the notion of
“system” as a framework for learning is now
inadequate in a post-Fordist world that provides for
flexible processes, dynamic innovation, and
authority of content by the user. A survey of
learning professionals ranking the top tools for
learning (Centre for
Learning & Performance Technologies, 2007) reveals
that only one CMS is perceived to meet the
requirements for authentic learning: Moodle™.
However, perception and applied theory can be at
odds. This study analyzes the use of primary
L/CMS used in secondary and higher education to (a)
examine the functional differences between systems
and (b) analyze the implicit learning designs
situated in functional and interface designs. This
formative analysis provides an insight into how
current systems do or not reflect a post-Fordist
perspective that we believe is situated in current
learning theory. From this the authors illustrate
how future technological frameworks can be conceived
to address learning across the life of the learner.
An often-missing component in the decision to
implement distributed learning is an evaluation of
effectiveness research to determine if the selected
technology has the ability to address institutional
goals and concerns. The literature in this area
looks at “satisfaction” in a way that does not
always address actual learning outcomes. Overall
there exists a lack of empirical studies showing
that the use of instructional technology actually
improves learning (Arbaugh, 2002; Buckley, 2002;
McClelland, 2001; McGorry, 2003; Neal, 1998).
Studies conclude that the full potential of
instructional technology is reached only by a full
transformation of the learning process, faculty
development, and institutional systems (Buckley,
2002; Jamieson, Fisher, Gilding,
Taylor, & Trevitt, 2000; Moore, 2002). The research
on the effectiveness of distributed learning
programs indicates several areas of concern:
problems with student-instructor communication, lack
of socialization both with the instructor and other
students, student engagement and interaction,
innovation in teaching, and technical difficulties
or support (McGorry, 2003; Salisbury, Pearson,
Miller, & Marett, 2002). Finally, the instructor’s
actual technological expertise (Lea, Clayton, Draude,
& Barlow, 2001; Webster & Hackley, 1997) along with
their inability to overcome interaction problems
(Berger, 1999) has been found to be important both
in an instructor’s decisions to adopt instructional
technology and in students’ satisfaction and
learning outcomes. These findings are at odds
with return on investment (ROI) arguments that
distributed education can serve large populations
without denigrating effectiveness, a trend seen in
Technology has shifted the nature of traditional
learning and training by removing the learner from
contexts, such as school and workplace through
Internet-facilitated learning. Three primary models
have conceptualized distributed learning:
web-enhanced classroom, hybrid/blended, and 100%
online (NCAT). However, these models focus on
delivery of instruction and don’t address the
learning designs that can be offered through
Taylor‘s framework (2001) describes the shift
in distributed learning from linear and print-based
to flexible and modular/digital based:
The “correspondence model” relies on print-based
The “multimedia model” provides learning resources
through a variety of media including print.
The “tele-learning model” incorporates modes of
presentation of materials to include audio or
video-conferencing and broadcast TV or radio.
The “flexible learning model” requires that
students engage in interactive, online
computer-mediated resources and activities.
The “intelligent flexible learning model” is the
next generation model in which the learner
accesses learning processes and resources through
These models reflect the shift in learning theory
that has paralleled quickly evolving technological
systems that support distributed learning, as well
as the Fordist perspectives that have evolved over
the past century.
Fordism, neo-Fordism, Post-Fordism
is the authors’ contention that current L/CMS have
been conceptualized, designed, and utilized at the
enterprise level to reflect late 20th and
early 21st century models of
industrialization that can be compared to similar
thinking about teaching and learning. As current
learning theory indicates a need for pedagogical
approaches that support individualized, constructive
learning so are the frameworks of distance education
shifting from centralized one-size-fits all
productions of learning to personalized and
customized learning experiences, so has learning
Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, and Zvacek (2003) put
forth that although there is no consensus that
distance education in the 21st century is
appropriately framed within a production model,
there is evidence that this a viable and accurate
interpretation. Derived from economic and industrial
sociology, the three Fordist models have been used
to explain and describe how distance education has
come to be designed and delivered. Simonson, et al,
note that there was much debate about the
industrialization of distance education in the
mid-1990’s (see Zanoni &
Janssens, 2005) that has seemingly quieted in
Fordism suggests a “fully centralized, single-mode,
national distance education provider, gaining
greater economies of scale by offering courses to a
mass market, thereby justifying a greater investment
in more expensive course materials” (Simonson, et
al, 2003, p. 49). Such an approach is characterized
by a high degree of administrative control and a
clear division of work as the system is successful
due to the efficient reproduction of each area of
teaching and learning. Organizations that deliver
the same instruction via identical modalities to
varied audiences fit this model characterized by
uniformity, consistency, and separation of
instructional design from the instructor. Thus mass
produced courses are handed over to the teacher who
then acts only as a presenter. This model has worked
well for the military and large corporate training
where the values of uniformity and consistency are
critical to the mission and goals of the
organization. This is the TV dinner view of
Neo-Fordism differs from Fordism in that it allows “
much higher levels of flexibility and diversity, and
by combining low volumes with high levels of product
and process innovation”
(Simonson, et al, 2003, p. 49). Neo-Fordism still
relies on mass production in a centralized approach
with specific divisions of production and labor.
Organizations that provide centralized mechanisms of
delivery and curriculum fit this approach while
allowing localized control at some level, be it
administrative, managerial, or instructive. This
model has worked well for for-profit producers and
delivers of distance education where consistency is
important, but uniformity is less important that
meeting specific needs – disciplinary, geographic,
professional, etc. This is the cafeteria view of
is important to note that both Fordism and neo-Fordism
focus on mass production and limit control and input
from those who are actually engaged in teaching and
learning. Post-Fordism involves “high levels
of product innovation, process variability, and
labor responsibility” (p. 50), thereby focusing on a
skilled pool of workers working within a
decentralized community operating to adapt and
adjust to the needs of the learner. This approach is
probably most represented in institutional or
individual efforts of a department or program where
oversight is minimal and revisions and alternatives
can readily applied given the small populations
served. This reflects the corner bistro model of
three perspectives indicate a continuum of teacher
vs. learner-centered instructional experiences as
noted in Figure 1.
1. Learning Designs in Distributed Learning Systems
(Diaz & McGee, 2005)
focus of this study is on a system. Although
post-Fordism suggests that systems are not a
complete solution to distributed learning, and
indeed there is evidence that user-centric tools are
more appropriate supports for distributed learning,
the L/CMS is now the primary mechanism for delivery
of instruction. Given these three perspectives, we
can ask the following question about L/CMS: How do
the top five L/CMS used in secondary and higher
education reflect current learning theory that is
situated in Fordist models of course delivery?
Learning Theory and distributed technology:
The coupling of two trends in secondary education is
creating new learning environments for millennial
First, the development of networked information
communication technologies has enabled the emergence
of distributed learning or “virtual high schools.”
Second, instructional design in these programs tends
to emphasize constructivist philosophies where
students take charge of their learning and construct
their understanding of content. Proponents of
distributed learning argue that online pedagogies
should be grounded in constructivist perspectives
(Bonk & Cunningham, 1998; Jonassen, 2000).
Although online distance education has been more prevalent in
higher education and business, virtual learning
environments are emerging as an option in secondary
education. Two dozen states have already created
state-run virtual high schools (Tucker, 2007).
Nationwide, approximately 700,000 students were
enrolled in virtual schooling in the 2005-2006
school year (Picciano & Seaman, 2007). Moreover, new
high school graduation requirements in
Michigan mandate the class of 2011 to complete an
online learning experience as part of graduation
requirements (Moser, 2006).
Constructivism is a theoretical framework that has gained
standing in secondary education in the late 20th
century (Flynn, 2004; Westerberg, 2007; Foote,
Vermette, & Battaglia, 2001). Cambre and Hawkes
(2004) assert that constructivism creates a shift in
instructional design from “standardization to
customization” (p. 50). According to Adams and Burns
...constructivism is characterized by the following
principles: (a) learners bring their personal prior
knowledge and experiences to the learning situation;
(b) learning is internally controlled and mediated;
(c) tools, resources, experiences, and contexts help
in the construction of knowledge in multiple ways;
(d) learning occurs through a process of
accommodation and assimilation when old mental
models are challenged to create new ones; (e)
learning is an active and reflective process; and
(f) social interaction provides multiple
perspectives to create knowledge. Key components of
constructivist-compatible online learning
environments include: a)
active learning, b) authentic instructional tasks,
c)collaboration among students, and d) diverse and
multiple learning formats (Partlow & Gibbs, 2003).
of course management systems over time has resulted
in systems with the capacity to create dynamic
online learning communities in secondary education
based on constructivist learning theories. Although
constructivism is based on a broad range of theory,
the emphasis is on the learner actively building
knowledge and meaning from their experiences.
Doolittle (1999) posits eight principles of
constructivist pedagogy necessary for learners to
constructing knowledge in online education:
Learning should take place in authentic and
Learning should involve social negotiation and
Content and skills should be made relevant to the
Content and skills should be understood within the
framework of the learner's prior knowledge.
Students should be assessed formatively, serving to
inform future learning experiences.
Students should be encouraged to become
self-regulatory, self-mediated, and self-aware.
Teachers serve primarily as guides and facilitators
of learning, not instructors.
Teachers should provide for and encourage multiple
perspectives and representations of content.
Doolittle’s analysis of these principles in online
contexts concludes that it is not is not whether or
not the potential for implementing constructivism in
online education exists, but rather, whether or not
the potential will be actualized. Table 1
illustrates how constructivist principles apply to
L/CMS and Fordist perspectives.
Learning Theory and distributed technology: Higher
the 21st century our ability to anytime
access information and people allows us to learn
informally without traditional structures (Lankshear
& Knobel, 2003). We have seen changes in tools, ways
of thinking about knowledge, the learner, and how we
view learning and knowing. Technology also allows us
to locate, save, locate again, and share information
in ways that have not previously been possible (Rennie
& Mason, 2004). Given that we can learn when we want
or need, in ways that are most comfortable and
suitable, we find that learning is increasingly
initiated and organized by the learner through
discovery and self-construction. Many have argued
that how the system is designed influences how the
system is used (Johnson, 2000; Kersten, Kersten, &
Rakowski, 2002). Ullman
(2004) argue that systems have been designed to
supplement or manage instruction and that this
Table 1 Secondary Education: Constructivism.
Application in L/CMS
Learning should take place in real
L/CMS must provide “complex, culturally
relevant, ill-structured domains within which
the user can operate and “live” (Doolittle,
Simulations, role play, manipulation of real
world data. Team work areas that replicate
authentic places with ICT, storage, sharing and
exchange, note taking
Learning should involve social
negotiation and mediation.
Learners and instructors interact, react, and reflect upon
there actions, thinking, decisions, and
Asynchronous and synchronous communication tools: chat,
discussion, IM, blogs, wikis, whiteboards, etc.;
peer critique and annotation functions
Content and skills should be made
relevant to the learner
L/CMS makes “vast amounts of very diverse
information, knowledge, and skills available to
the learner….learner is able to self-select a
relevant topic, process, or skill (Doolittle,
L/CMS should support the teacher in providing
multiple paths for the learner to take.
Functions that provide choices in assignment
products, intelligent agent that remember
choices and progress.
Content and skills
should be understood within the framework of the
learner’s prior knowledge.
L/CMS probes student understanding of topic at
the beginning of instruction and adapts
presentation of content and skills to student
Intelligent agent that responds to choices,
decisions, and previous interactions; pre-post
test attached to assignments.
Students should be assessed
Periodic, learner and instructor initiated
assessments and benchmarks.
“Self-check” quizzes that assess students
during various parts of instruction and inform
student about progress.
Students should be encouraged to become self
regulatory, self-mediated, and self-aware.
Students know where they are in accomplishing
established learning outcomes.
Learner can evaluate their work in relation to
others through anonymous reporting of class
progress by individual; timelines and deadlines
countdown and appear in multiple areas.
Teachers serve primarily as guides and
facilitators of learning not instructors.
Learners make decisions and control their
environment with an ability to go beyond or in a
different direction than a prescribed path.
Alter interface, bookmark, annotate, create new
knowledge objects. Self-pacing, open entry open
exit modules; intelligent agents remind, prod,
Teachers should provide for and encourage
multiple perspectives and representations of
Focus on diverse perspectives and ways of
interacting in the world.
Siemens (2004) proposes a new theory of learning
that is specific to the information age. He
stipulates that chaos has become a norm for the 21st
century adult worker and learner – making sense of
the volumes of information available requires
reliable and connected networks that assist us in
determining patterns of the information that often
overwhelms us. Through self-organized networks,
Siemens puts forth, the 21st century
learner allows us to question, explore, validate,
and construct knowledge in new ways. In this way the
learner can better determine what is important and
what is unimportant. The principles of connectivism
and their application in L/CMS are illustrated in
Table 2 Higher Education: Connectivism
Application in L/CMS
Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of
Open discussion, peer critique, self-critique,
learner generation of products, publication
internal and external to system.
Learning is a process of connecting specialized
nodes or information sources.
Learner-generated interactions (discussion,
chat, whiteboard, etc), learner-centered social
Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
Learner and instructor linkage to external
personal services (e.g. blog, wiki, social
network, photos, video, etc.); ePortfolio
Capacity to know more is more critical than what
is currently known.
Self-evaluation and critique; developmental
assessment (e.g. against standards, prior
learning, etc.); ePortfolio
Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed
to facilitate continual learning.
Email can be controlled through the L/CMS; voice
mail; VOIP; assignment notes and annotations;
Ability to see connections between fields,
ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
Visual mapping; bookmarking; instructor and
learner self-customization of content; learner
generated glossary; learner generated objects
Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the
intent of all connectivist learning activities.
Expert evaluation; learner publication of
objects external to system;
Decision-making is in itself a learning process.
Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming
information is seen through the lens of a shifting
reality. While there is a right answer now, it may
be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the
information climate affecting the decision.
Therefore, a connectivist approach to learning
design must rely on internal and external
corroboration and verification, two conditions
problematic within current L/CMS that ‘close the
door’ to outsiders and deny access once the course
Given the lack of study of system functionality and
learning design, this study utilizes a descriptive
method. We argue that L/CMS
offer the same type
of fluid, observable, and hidden learning
experiences as can occur in a classroom. Rather than
examine the phenomenology of the instructor and
learner experiences in specific L/CMS delivered
classes, we focus on the system as designed to
support teaching and learning. The very focus on
‘management’ in the name reflects a conscious and
purposeful framework of learning. We draw on
conceptual frameworks to analyze the system and in
doing so declare the lens through we view these
systems. We encourage others to take other lenses
and replicate our work, to better understand the
varied designs, implementations, and experiences
enacted through L/CMS.
First, we determine the nature of an L/CMS that
relate directly to teaching and learning. In
general, L/CMS have been seen to have three high
level functions: authoring, community, and data
management, see Table 3.
Table 3: CMS
Functions and learning principles (from
Ullman & Rabinowitz, 2004)
Create new content; link to content, resources;
create tests and quizzes
Read information; access course resources;
Learner construction and generation
Learners have access to identical information
Present information, chat, IM, whiteboard,
Review and discuss information
Interaction, facilitation, feedback
Learners are directed and managed by instructor
with possible modifications
Grades; registration list
Access grades; access course
Assigned roles, Inform learner of progress
Instructor is in charge
However, these features don’t directly address
teaching and learning and therefore the authors
adopted interpretations of pedagogical features
articulated by the National Learning Infrastructure
Initiative (NLII). In 2003 NLII conducted a focus
session that resulted in seven clearly articulated
features of L/CMS that relate to teaching and
learning. The NLII took these features and
constituted a Next
Generation Course Management System Workgroup from
which an analysis of CMS features that support
learning was produced. We use these functions to
frame our analysis of L/CMS because of they were
vetted through consensus of experts keeping teaching
and learning in the forefront.
This study focuses on learning theory; therefore, we
are less interested in the high level abilities of
CMS functions but rather the affordances that are
possible in a system that provide both instructor
and learning options, control, and variations on
their actions within a CMS. Therefore, the authors
each drew upon their respective principles of
learning derived from constructivism and
connectivism and the NLII functional analysis to
articulate a observational tool that articulates
technology-mediated conditions best suited to
support learning according to learner ability within
the following categories:
Actively control functions and manage their own and
group generated content.
Construct knowledge individually or with others through
interaction, production, organization of
information, and critical review.
Interact with others (peers, instructor, and external
individuals) in multiple ways.
Observe and review records of assessment, historical
records, and feedback from others (both peer and
Share information, materials, production, and identity.
Access course materials and expert knowledge as needed
items were all observable and situated in learner
action through system functions so that little was
left up to the observer’s interpretation. For
example one item was “learners
can set up/initiative discussion, edit, share,
delete, and compile discussions” and ”Content can be
accessed from other technology (phone, PDA, Chumby™,
etc.).” Each item was rated according to
evidence of support for a learning principle on a
scale of one (strongly disagree) to five (strongly
agree). Results were coded to identify patterns of
principles, and patterns of systems. Additional,
total scores were generated to reveal the highest
Through publications (edutools™; Jaschik, 2007;
Wicks & Hitchcock, 2007; Wyles, 2004), evaluation
system (EduTools), and L/CMS subscription
information (e.g., Angel™, Blackboard™,
Desire2Learn™, eClassroom™, Educator™, Moodle™,
Sakai™, UCompass™, WebCT™), five L/CMS were
identified as the most prominently utilized systems
in K-20 education. These include: Angel™,
Blackboard™, Educator™, Moodle™, and WebCT™.
Collectively the authors have used all but Angel™
and Educator™. The authors were able to login to
course shells to ‘observe’ and record their
findings. A decision was made not to consider
plug-ins or add-ons that might expand capacity to
limit the complexity of the analysis. The L/CMS was
considered to be a basic classroom that could be
enhanced but just as brick and mortar classrooms,
might often not be. The authors also intentionally
did not visit active courses – it was intended that
the focus was on the system and not the
instructional designs or user actions.
Once the researchers had analyzed all L/CMS, they
compared scores and revisited disagreements of more
than one degree. Once agreement was reached, totals
were tallied and patterns across systems were
analyzed and described.
systems were foremost in supporting both
constructivst and connectivist theoretical learning
frameworks: Angel™ and Educator™. Both systems
scored highest in giving the learner a degree of
control of what they experienced in the L/CMS;
providing opportunities for learners to connect with
each other through communication and interaction
functions; giving the learner access a variety of
content types, and allowing for learner
contributions to group processes and organizations.
These two systems were the only ones not used by
either author. It is possible that the authors may
have a bias toward the L/CMS hat they have used,
knowing more deeply the limitations of the systems
with which they are most
familiar. However, both authors were unaware
of some features of the systems with which they had
experience and therefore we believe that bias was
systems scored low on items related to peer
critique, individual reflection of progress over
time (e.g., as document in collected work with
feedback as in an electronic portfolio. Angel™ was
the exception), expert review or participation, peer
critique or review, performance directed learning
paths, automated response to performance, and
integration of external learning resources (such as
Second Life™ or other Web 2.0 applications). None of
the systems except Angel™ offered a function that
would allow learners to make their work publicly
available. None offered a mechanism to allow former
students back into a course (an administrative
decision) or a function that would attribute
intellectual property or meta- tagging of learner
productions. It is possible of course to add these
components into a system, but, given the basic
system, none were built to accommodate these
General support for learning principles
systems had multiple interactive communication
functions, some more than others including chat,
discussion, and whiteboard. Educator™ included more
advanced capabilities such as IM, virtual office
hours and who’s online. All systems offered some
form of content repository through which files could
be stored, published within the L/CMS, and for some,
shared with others. Only Educator™ offered a form of
branching paths for learners based on their
performance. Although this ability can be programmed
into the other systems, it is not a basic component.
Cognitive supports such as book marking and
note-taking were also limited or missing. All
offered a variety of assessment tools that provided
the instructor an opportunity to integrate
assessment but except for Educator™ that offers
practice assessments and directs the learner to
content after they have completed an assessment.
Discussion and Conclusions
the most part, all of the L/CMS represent neo- and
post-Fordist frameworks of education. Their progress
may reflect their history and originations:
Angel™ – Conceptualized by Ali Jafari at
University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and offered as
OnCourse, as an institutional CMS, and then it was
released by the newly formed CyberLearning Labs,
Inc. in July 2000 and subsequently renamed ANGEL
Blackboard™ – Founded in 1997, it offered its first
software package to
Cornell University in 1998. The company began by
producing consulting services to the
IMS Global Learning
Educator™ – Conceptualized by Ed Mansouri at
Florida State University, Educator™ was first
released in 1999.
Moodle™ – Designed by
Martin Dougiamas while he was at Curtain
University, it was first released in 2002
and supported through an
active users and designer group who are committed to
improving this open source system.
WebCT™ – Conceptualized in the mid-1990s by
Murray W. Goldberg
from which the company was formed and the system
released in 1996-1997.
of the systems were ‘born’ in the late 20th
century when traditions of Fordism were starting to
fade and constructivist pedagogical practices were
beginning to be situated in K-20 instructional
practices. However the pre-cursors of the L/CMS were
web pages and discussion boards, a poor model for
constructive and connected learning. As we continue
to move towards increasingly open, seamless, mobile,
social, and transparent learning, L/CMS as systems
are hard pressed to change the very architecture
that has contributed to the remarkable
transformation of online courses are offered – all
in a 10 year period. Web 2.0 applications are
serving as a further irritant particularly as the
sophistication of graphic user interface designs
that far out distance the seemingly archaic
interfaces of the L/CMS. Additionally, the
user-centeredness of Web 2.0 applications is so
compelling, that it is difficult to foresee how
administrator and instructor-driven L/CMS can afford
truly support effective and efficient learning
designs that can compete with the allure of these
tools. It is lazy for the authors to suggest that
L/CMS should drive their functions from a learning
principle directive because as an institutional
mainstay they have solved many organizational and
infrastructure challenges that cannot be overlooked.
More to the point it may be that L/CMS companies
look to the innovative companies who want and do
design add-ons that sometimes are and certainly can
support the learning theory that is so amiss in most
systems. Is this a symbiotic market generator that
may or may not nurture more and
We began this study by arguing that there is a disconnect between L/CMS
across the life of the learner. However, we conclude
that the disconnect is between the institutional
market and what we know about teaching and learning.
We are stuck in the era of the TV-dinner approach to
distributed learning; the cafeteria and bistro
approaches are slow to be supported by current
systems. Perhaps it is the need for companies to
re-think their mission and purpose in higher
education, and for clients to carefully examine for
what purposes, through what instructional designs,
and resulting in what outcomes these systems are
used. It is not really an issue of vendor +client
relations. As we have discovered, these more
prominently used systems for the most part require
active and informed instructional designers to make
what happens inside the system work. Institutions
must invest in understanding, supporting, and
accounting for the quality and rigor of learning
that should not be sacrificed for a one-stop course
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