Between WordPress and a Hard Place

I’m sharing the text of the presentation I gave today at CCCC. The title is “Between WordPress and a Hard Place,” and I was part of a panel offering critical perspectives on the Course Management System (CMS) in higher education. I wrote this to be spoken, so please forgive any coarse generalizing or informal prose! I’d love to know your thoughts.

The title of my talk implies a dilemma. A difficult situation. A tough call.  In fact, my partial migration away from the university-owned Course Management System (CMS) has indeed been a tough call, and I’ve paid the price of many hours spent searching for and familiarizing myself with alternatives. My students have the paid the price of test-driving the Frankenstein-ish CMS set-ups I’ve decided on each semester.  In the first-year writing and introductory literature courses I teach, both online and face-to-face, I’ve been willing to experiment with different technologies and juggle commitments to my employers, my students, and myself — yet I continue to feel caught “in between” these commitments.

These two tweets I composed while planning my courses last winter reflect one of the many quandaries I’ve encountered over the years: take a risk, or play it safe? More control, or less control? Pledge to open source, or pledge to making my life easier?  I feel torn between WordPress (or WP) and the university CMS (usually proprietary), caught between these two value-laden technologies. The edupunk and “hacking the academy” movements have tried to rally educators to choose the values associated with WordPress and essentially abandon those associated with the university CMS. But are those choices really so clear-cut? And how do college instructors–especially those with contingent status–negotiate conundrums and conflicting commitments amidst calls to “edupunk your CMS,” and more broadly, calls to be tech savvy trailblazers?

Educational technology guru Jim Groom, who coined the term “edupunk” has been notoriously slippery about pinning down a definition, but he does compare edupunk to the DIY movement and the home gardening/farming movement. [1] The New York Times defines edupunks as “high-tech do-it-yourself educators who skirt traditional structures,” and Wired magazine recently defined edupunk as “avoiding mainstream teaching tools like Powerpoint and Blackboard.”  The edupunk movement has been celebrated as a form of activism, but I argue that it actually works on some level to reify the tensions I feel and oversimplify the issues.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, and if there’s one thing I hope you’ll take away from my talk, it’s the perhaps less-than-profound realization that any CMS is both a gateway and a gatekeeper. A rock isn’t desirable or fun, unless you find yourself in a heated match of paper-scissors-rock, during which your opponent opts for scissors. A hard place is equally un-fun, unless you’ve just completed a terrifying skydive from 14,000 feet. In other words, both rocks and hard places have problems.  Of course there are more than just two alternatives. But for the purpose of narrowing down my discussion, I want to focus on what I’ll call the WordPress vs. “hard place” debate, which is what I have the most experience with.  I broadly divide out two types of course management systems: proprietary and open source, with the former rhetorically framed as promoting closed, cookie-cutter learning and the latter as promoting open, generative learning. On the side of WordPress, I locate systems like Moodle, Sakai, and Drupal, and on “the hard place” side I locate the “university CMS” which for many people might be Blackboard but for me it’s Desire 2 Learn (or D2L), Blackboard’s major competitor. Allow me to bracket Ning and PB Works here, since they are neither open source nor university-controlled–and, as I’ll discuss in a minute, the two CMS types I’ve just delineated don’t actually bifurcate so neatly anyway.

I want to stress that the redundancy or synonymy of the two options implied in my title (a rock and a hard place) says something more than simply “no CMS is perfect.” Both WordPress and the university CMS are two breeds of the same species: technology that both creates and contains possibilities. In this way, then, they are comparable to any learning technology that has come before. They both mediate knowledge and shape the process through which individuals collect and construct and co-construct knowledge.

The claim I’m making here is more than theoretical flag waving; it’s a critical realization that the relationship I have with my course’s web space is a choice. I am not choosing a channel nor utility, like selecting a cell phone service provider, but rather I am declaring my pedagogical relationship to knowledge. When I began teaching college writing, I treated the CMS as a mere utility or information channel. To set the scene: it’s 2004. The Blackboard precursor WebCT (web course tool) is en vogue. I jump right in, awkwardly manipulating and customizing navigation options, swooning over WebCT’s cumbersome easiness,  and feeling proud of my adventuresome spirit all the while. I am seriously amazed at the convenience of having an online space to assist me with administrative duties of teaching.  But gradually I begin to realize through my own observations, but also through becoming attuned to a surge of discussion on Twitter and academic blogs around 2008, that my course site is not just a supplement to “real” classroom activities.   I begin to intuit McLuhan’s dictum that “The use of any kind of medium or extension of man alters the patterns of interdependence among people, as it alters the ratios among our senses” (McLuhan 90). Both WordPress and the university CMS are tools that foreshadow and forestall possibilities for writing online, whether we are conscious of it or not. And in this way, both WP and the university CMS are much more than tools.

Here are some of the characteristics or values that we could associate with wordpress in opposition to hard places.

1. Proprietary vs. open source (free), which leads to another “open”…

There is a lot to be said here about the legal and ethical tangles that hazily differentiate proprietary and open source software. One problem is the common pairing of “free” and “open source.” These are actually different software movements with different histories, and neither one means that the software is free in the sense of no price. The free software movement is at root a code of ethics, whereas open source is a license and a development model. [2] Jim Groom and the founder of the free software movement, Richard Stallman, have both convincingly shown that to presuppose any affinity between “open source” and ethical software or effective pedagogy is a mistake. Stallman asserts that a given program or web platform “might be open source and use the open source development model, but it won’t be free software [unless it] respects the freedom of the users that actually run it.”  Groom echoes Stallman’s distinction by pointing out that although Sakai and Moodle adopt “an open source model,” still “they smack of an outdated model of ownership, control, and management—which makes them administrative tools, not learning tools.” Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, open source platforms like Moodle and Sakai can be deceptively good at embodying icky values.

Thus, it becomes important to know what brand of mediation we’re sponsoring when we choose a supposedly open source CMS. I’ve talked to many people who assume that open source means zero cost, even though the labors of volunteers on the open source Debian project, for example, would total about 19 billion dollars by one recent (Feb. 2012) estimate. I’ve also talked to people who can’t say for sure if Ning and PB Works are open source or not, even though they use these platforms for many of the reasons that lie behind the free and open source software movements.

2. closed (private) vs. open (public) learning, supported by…

One critique of the university CMS is that it locks up student writing in an artificial space. I think that’s true, but I would add (and Jenn Marlow mentioned this too in her presentation) that it also locks up the instructor’s writing: my discussion comments, prompts, assignment sheets, and resources. This aspect of choosing a CMS is particularly relevant to the transitional status of graduate students. As Dave Parry points out, “If you are hosting your own [CMS], i.e. not on the university’s servers, you own your course material, making it easier to take with you when you go.” Moreover, since I’ll be looking for jobs with a digital-humanities-type focus, I want to demonstrate my competency with web sites other than D2L and Blackboard.  If edupunk is “about a culture, a way of thinking, a philosophy” [3], then one reason to keep my materials public on my own website where anyone can access them, is to not only to create an archive of courses I’ve taught, but also to perform the values I express in my teaching statement.

3. commercial vs. community led development, resulting in projects that are…

The commercial vs. community led development binary problematically grafts onto other pairings from my list here. The open source CMS then becomes generalized to mean participatory and inclined toward student engagement and collaboration, while the proprietary platform becomes a silent, teacher-centric study hall. That value transfer is reductive and not universally true.

4. standardized vs. tailored / custom / DIY, often appealing to the…

Darin Payne captures the standardized vs. tailored binary in his 2005 College English article when he writes “Because Blackboard is a one-size-fits-all product for mass consumption, the assessment practices it enables are not tailored for writing classes” (499). But, more broadly than assessment practices, many feel that the ontology of the whole CMS package–its DNA–is contrary to the critical thinking and creativity that many humanities courses value. But, to some extent, writing classes have always had some one-size-fits-all elements. For example, the technology of a curriculum itself.  The goals and outcomes we use to assess final portfolios at my institution are arguably “a one-size-fits-all product for mass consumption,” as all instructors and students across hundreds of English 101 and 102 sections must shape their classes around these goals. What would it mean for a graduate teaching assistant to commit to a tailored / custom / DIY CMS approach within a rather standardized writing program like UWM’s? Again, there is a tension here that often goes unacknowledged. In this respect, the edupunk and hacking the academy movements have been somewhat contradictory in attesting that “it’s not the technology but what we do with it that matters,” yet at the same time issuing a full-on assault against any proprietary CMS.

5. web novice vs. web expert

In this last binary of web novice vs. web expert, which we might align with student vs. teacher,  I see myself caught in between, as a student/teacher hybrid. I am also not in the novice category of instructors, who “happily use the high–tech CMS as a glorified copy machine” as Lisa Lane puts it.  But I am also not in a position (at least, without giving myself serious stress) to take big risks like debugging quirky wordpress plug-ins, as Joseph Ugoretz describes doing in Part 2 of a great series of blog posts on using WordPress (and only WordPress) for an online-only course he taught.

The ideological trope of the risk-taking hacker and tech-savvy academic gains a great deal of power when it’s mapped onto other values and characteristics on my list here. In her 2011 article in Computers and Composition, Virginia Anderson clearly defines the problems with the ideological trope of the tech-savvy academic who “hacks through the wilderness toward grand vistas” — this trailblazer whose “primary duty [is to open] new territory with the goal of seeing what’s there” — after all, the explorer’s task is not to hold the hands of those who follow but to give them somewhere to follow to” (136). She argues that class-based benefits of time, experience, and (to some extent) financial resources determine who is in a position to be a web expert and “edupunk their CMS” in the first place.

Her critique of instructors on the “bright side of the [digital] divide” (125) adds another layer of complexity to my schema: class. The very predicament of being caught between WordPress and a hard place seems like a luxury. I think of Anderson’s concept of taxation when I read Parry’s promotion of WordPress as a CMS. While WordPress is not exactly difficult, it does take some level of expertise to install the plug-ins and make the structural changes that will adapt the platform to be a CMS. In his well-circulated ProfHacker post which I mentioned earlier, he concedes that while “WordPress has a learning curve, once you invest a little bit of time it is actually exponentially easier to use than Blackboard.” Anderson might be wary of the implications behind this encouragement to “just invest a little time.”  She calls this a “tax”  which is a toll, “however small, imposed by technological culture as it asks users to invest more and more time and effort to perform necessary tasks. Each change, with the commitment it demands, carries a message about the value of a user’s time”  (132).

The complex issues I’ve sketched here ought to reveal the troublesome shadow cast by any rationale that rules out one type of technology only because it does not seem to exhibit a certain set of values. In affiliating the university CMS (what I’ve been calling the “hard place”) with values on the left side, it becomes easy–too easy–to associate WordPress (or similar platforms) with values on the right side.  But both options manage learning, despite Matt Gold’s overly broad claim that anything called a Learning Management System starts off on the wrong foot because “Learning is not something that can be ‘managed’ via a ‘system.’” After all, even if the instructor has designed and customized a system–even if he/she built it from the ground up–it is still a system that is managing learning in some way,

whether we’re talking about this paper or that paper,
this wordpress or that wordpress,
this blackboard or that blackboard.

Even a non-alphabetic oral culture deploys learning technologies: story-lines, cliches, rhymes, and rhetorical devices are, in a sense, oral learning management systems. [4] They are not by default less intrusive or less interfering because they are non-digital. [5] One of the consequences of the backlash against the corporatized, mass-marketed CMS is a radical and, in many cases, knee-jerk response to anything affiliated with values on the left side of the binary schema I laid out in the previous slides

So, where does that leave me? Recently, I have settled on a hybrid system for both my online and face-to-face classes: I use a self-hosted WordPress installation or a PB Works wiki for weekly announcements, mini-lectures, assignment guidelines, a hyperlinked version of my syllabus, and miscellaneous tidbits, jokes, or photos. I use the proprietary university CMS for things that are not exactly my property: recording student grades, attendance, and uploading readings with a copyright. In my online classes, I have not yet found a suitable open-source “web two point oh-ey” alternative for discussions, so last semester those happened behind closed doors. This semester, I am using Ning for discussions. It’s not true that a CMS divided against itself cannot stand. But it is harder to support. And it is harder for students to figure out.

Ultimately, I believe this sort of hybrid learning management system satisfies a number of my goals and puts me in a position of straddling some of these ideologies as I and my students work betwixt and between WordPress and the proprietary CMS.

[1] This is according to Groom’s now-classic post, “The Glass Bees” and “Permapunk.” It’s important to note that more recently (Feb. 2011), the popular adoption of the term “edupunk” and its acitivist tone has driven Groom to announce his break-up with the word.

[2] This is certainly up for debate, and I know there is disagreement between members of each community regarding how to define the difference between free software and open source software (or if it’s worth defining a difference). The statement here is my cursory summary of Stallman’s somewhat vague definition in “Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software.”

[3] I take this phrasing from D’Arcy Norman’s post on edupunk.

[4] See Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Methuen, 1982. Print.

[5] This idea is an off-shoot of Carlo Scannella’s comment on Gold’s post. Scannella writes: “It seems to me, way back, before the days of computers, we always had a “learning managing system.” It was a classroom, and the lesson planner, and the folders my teachers kept all our essays in, and all the other artifacts that made up the learning experience.” Gold does address his comment, but I don’t feel he gives it the attention it deserves. I think the issue Scannella raises is really key and deserves more attention.