Content Management in LMS

This was originally composed May 2005 … I am currently going through unpublished notes that still seem like current issues – clearly this is only an issue for Learning Management Systems ™ not for Web 2.0, and what I’m trying to do in writing this is to highlight what functionality is missing from an LMS that would make it an attractive option for me as a teacher.

At my university, the stated institutional drivers for a content management system associated with the LMS were:

– protection of intellectual property
– managed access to a wide range of resources
– compliance with copyright and other legislation

The further rationale was that academics, especially those already using web-based resources, would want content management because they have difficulty keeping track of content.

But what does content management actually mean to an academic in the context of an LMS?

The basic atomic units of an LMS are the course shell and the user: an instance of a course shell for a unit of study links content and tools (unit resources) to a student cohort enrolled in the unit.

Content management issues relate to the fact that unit resources are reused from semester to semester, and a number of units share some or all of their resources. Superficially, it seems like a no-brainer that shared content should be stored once in a managed repository and linked to by the different courses in which it is used. Also many academics teach similar content. It also seems obvious that instead of each academic making their own resources, they could use resources already used by their colleagues.

But let’s look at the academic workflow a little more closely. For example, let’s consider the lecture notes or slides (the “lecture powerpoints” for want of a better term!) in an established unit. Say I taught 6 lectures in Sensation and Perception in Second Year Psychology last semester, and I’m preparing my unit for the upcoming semester. Theoretically, I have all the materials prepared and it’s just a matter of reloading the same content.

But what if I look at the calendar and notice that one of my lectures falls on a public holiday? So now I have five lectures to cover the same amount of material or I need to adjust the material I cover. The lectures are not quite the same as last semester. I start with most of the content prepared, but it will be reorganised such that I will end up with a different version from the previous semester. If I use presentation software (such as Powerpoint) to generate my lecture slides which support a face-to-face lecture, not only might I want to reorganise content, but I will probably want to incorporate details of teaching staff, consultation times etc into those notes, and these will almost certainly change on a semester to semester basis. Maybe I also find that the Introductory Psychology course has changed such that my second year cohort of students has a different set of assumed knowledge from previous years. How will this affect the structure and emphasis of my presentations?

In fact, even where there are no obvious outside drivers for change, very little in my course site will be exactly the same as the previous semester – the shell is the same, but the materials and student cohort are different. The work of updating the material is actually an integral part of teaching preparation, plays a large role in initiating any reflective practice around teaching, has always been time-consuming and error-prone, and often relies on idiosyncratic “local knowledge” of office staff and individual academics for its accuracy.

The benefits of content management software are not nearly as obvious as they appear to be at first blush, due to the nature of our teaching materials. We would need to change radically the way that we author teaching content. We would need to separate out content and semantic structure from instance-specific organisational / administrative structure, and we would need much finer granularity in content management. Instead of managing content at the level of learning resources such as “powerpoint presentations” which mostly need to be updated each semester, we would need the facility to generate individual slides and individual images which could then be built into presentations within the LMS. In this scenario, he LMS would need to provide the ability to author content. But if I have a presentation generated within the LMS, how do I get to present it to a live audience in a context where I may not have a live internet connection? Rather than the LMS being a repository for content to be placed in, it could also become a tool from which stand-alone presentations could be generated.

So for LMS content management to be useful, the granularity of content management needs to be at the level of presentation components, there needs to be the ability to generate saved presentation and packaging templates, and there needs to be the ability to export presentations and packages for use outside of the LMS. This needs to be outside the level of the course instance to be truly useful in the context of sharing materials.

In the context of course updating, the monumental task of updating important dates within the LMS deserves special consideration. For example, in a twelve week course, date structures might be in the format “WeekDay, Week X” such that Topic Y starts on Tuesday of Week 3 and by entering the date of the starting week, all dates are relativised. The ability to enter exceptions would need to apply (such as public holidays, Easter etc) but an automated tool to check all dates within a course would be of enormous “content management” value. Currently, in many LMS. conditional release of resources and activity by date requires tedious hand-editing via web forms through lack of a course-based relative date format.

Back to the role content management itself, imagine now an extensive repository of potential course content in the LMS. Imagine that this content is not linked to course instances. To go to the next level and make the LMS into an academic tool for course-building, the LMS would need tools for curriculum mapping. Not only do I want the ability to search the content repository for material suitable for my course, but I also want the ability to ask each instance of content where else and how else it has been used. I want the ability to prepare curriculum maps outside of course instances so that my teaching colleagues can see where content and curriculum occurs in an overall program. I want to see what resources other academics are using to elaborate the same themes in their subjects. I want the ability to link topic themes across subjects so that I can highlight themed relationships across for example Psychology and Sociology and Psychology and Physiology. This view of curriculum building envisages topic and resource themes across course instances but with a level of granularity that goes beyond strictly hierarchical aggregation. To be truly useful, these themes need to be visible outside of course enrolments, such that teaching staff can see cross-disciplinary relationships to inform their teaching, and students can see linkages to inform their current study, but also to inform their future enrolment.

And now that we consider LMS tools for building curriculum beyond the level of course instances, we also need to consider the curriculum building workflow.
– Where does “work-in-progress” fit?
– Can there be an optional approval process for content “release”?
– If a version of content is released, can work continue on that content, but not be released?
– Can I link to Version 3, rather than Version 4 Beta and when I link to Version 3, can I opt to accept all the changes, or only update to “released versions”?
– Can I ask to be notified on updates to content I don’t own? Can I ask to take over content I use but don’t own, if at some future point, the owner no longer wants it but I still do?
– Can I force updates to specific content (eg changes to spelling or obvious bugs)?

Requirements for Learning Content System:

1) Content should not be tied to course codes;
2) Need LMS presentation authoring tools with the capability of export;
3) Need flexibility to generate content maps (curriculum mapping) according to a range of schemes: for example into course content, topic content, theme content, discipline area;
4) Need the ability for staff and students to build and save their own curriculum maps of content for study purposes3) Need LMS authoring tools for presentations;
5) Need LMS syntactic authoring tools (saved sub-course templates for aggregating content – eg specific problem-based learning template for medical curriculum).

This has barely even touched upon the issue of shared responsibility for content and the dynamics of interactions between academic colleagues. Institutions are mostly blind to all but the extremes of interpersonal behaviour, but it would be naive in the extreme to think that there are no issues relating to sharing content and sharing workload.

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