I happen to like this drum so I will bang on it a little today...I will certainly bang on it again and some who know me may have heard me bang on it before!
Often advancement in a technology space is less about than what you have on hand and where you want to go with it via creative mashups, but more about the architecture to support that advancement.
Case in point - current day Course Management Software/Virtual Learning Environment (CMS/VLE) vs Web Apps. You know blogs, Google Apps, Flicker, Typepad, and Other Very Interesting Stuff.
The current (premature IMO*) cries of the demise of the CMS as we know it and the accolades for Web Applications as the solution for all our eduTech woes (again premature IMO**), are both indicators of a lack of forethought toward the actual needs (and free time) of our educators, institutions, and students. There now I've managed to upset a whole lot of you I am certain - please bear with me to the end before writing angry comments.
I support W2.0/webapps - really I do. As a technology it has a lot to offer in the way of advancing eduTech through the development of remote community (or commercially) supported tools. However it, or rather its application, does have some shortcomings in the workflow of getting an education - or put another way integrating these tools into the process and pedagogy of education in a manner that meets the needs of those involved is difficult and time consuming at best. Not to mention that some of the necessary tools are simply not there in a useable way if they are there at all. I suppose we can just use pen and paper for those eh? I can hear folks now "but a blog is soooo easy..." - so is using a CMS, they both have learning curves - "but the blog is free" - is it? Ah, but I am poking the hornets nest here hold on....
While it may appear so, I really am not a CMS fanboy. Sure I like them as much as the next guy and would argue that they are a great tool to have in your eduTech kit, but our current selections for CMS/VLEs are inadequate on several levels. Certainly they provide convenience, and relative ease of use, and they certainly are relatively easy to support, but while they enable controlled access to materials few provide adequate tools for collaborative learning and even fewer provide tools for integrating external tools into the CMS world view - not to mention that the level of transparency of learning activities to the outside world is nearly zilch, zero, nada. Additionally - and don't be fooled by the 'it's free' argument - there is no free lunch - any CMS/VLE you run is going to come at a resource cost.
In fact I feel the two prominent characteristics these technologies share is that they both require a web presence or login, and both are not free. (WHAT!?!) The business of eduTech requires resources (development, maintenance, support/training) and those resources cost money. It does not matter if those resources go to a CMS or go to supporting external applications, they are resources spent. Certainly some would prefer one to the other for a variety of reasons or agendas. And certainly some will have different opinions about where those resources should be spent. However, in reality it is the ROI of the employment of these resources combined with the effort required on the part of the users (you know our clients - students and faculty?) of the technology to actually sip from the grail that will determine the long term viability of any eduTech.
So where will this need for a cost effective solution that is easy to support, pedagogically flexible, and easy to use take us? Certainly it should not take us in a direction which requires instructors to spend less time teaching and more time learning the facilitating technologies.
Onward to the best of both worlds
One can certainly understand why both solutions are desirable. Web Applications: are scaleable, have a low overhead in terms of local system maintenance, etc - that is all taken care of at the service end. They also benefit from the collective intelligence of the entire IT community - hard to beat. Also, I think, when approached logically one can understand the benefits of a CMS - one stop convenience that meets institutional needs for a variety of issues - grading, tracking, privacy, system control of sensitive data, local maintenance and control of upgrades, etc.
Next Post: Back to the Futu... er architecture.
* The CMS or a relatively close descendant of what we now use, like it or not, will live on for quite some time into the future because it fills a very specific and important niche and does so in many instances in a cost effective and robust manner.
** Web Applications while improving at leaps and bounds currently do not fill some specific needs which are very particular to any accredited (online or not) education/institution.