Why Re-Think the CMS-Based Assignment?

This is part two of my three-part series on student Web projects and content management systems at W&M. See part one, on the origins and drawbacks of CMS-based assignment and part three, on alternatives to the CMS-based student project.

Since I have been at W&M, we have gone from the relative freedom of the Web left over from the 1990s to the more managed reality of the content management system.  Content management systems (CMSs), like WordPress, provide easy ways to build websites and have your students present their work on the Web, but the CMS does have its drawbacks.

In order for it to allow for the easy creation of polished-looking sites and let your students focus on writing, the CMS makes many of the other decisions about the website for them. Writing on the Web is important, but I think we have the infrastructure and culture at W&M in place to the extent that we no longer have to invest so much time into the type of Web project that emphasizes writing at the cost of other types of creative decisions.  Thinking through what a CMS-based student project often accomplishes may help you better refine your web-based student projects.

What Does The CMS-Based Project Accomplish?

We can always fine-tune the basic website and Web project assignment, but I think it is time to see the Web project that uses a CMS more like, say, an assignment that uses Blackboard or an assignment that requires students to hand in a typed 4-page paper. It still might be a good assignment that uses technology (for example, typing versus hand-writing) for a specific purpose, but the technology component no longer inspires creativity or new ways of thinking in the ways that it might have previously.

The CMS Web project, to me, has become pedestrian.  Many faculty who use a CMS for student assignments often encourage students to include different types of media in their sites.  So, for example, students will essentially create a standard paper with images, video, and audio embedded in the text.  While this acknowledges that the Web is more about “content” rather than, strictly speaking, written text, I think this should be a “new(ish?) normal” for student assignments.

So, if you ask students to create a website using a CMS, what are you asking them to do?  You are asking them to write a paper than includes some other sort of media that links to other sources or content on the Web.  The technology, in and of itself, does not bring much extra to the assignment.  Is the CMS-based assignment like Blackboard?  I would argue that it is.  If we don’t invest more time in thinking about what we are doing with a CMS, it is just a way for students to deliver assignments to professors using the Web, and do so publicly.

Trading Student Decisions for Polish

For the most part, the CMS allows you to create assignments where students write for an audience larger than your class.  The CMS provides a polished wrapper for student writing that requires little technical knowledge on the part of your students to implement.  However, this might come at a price.  By using software to make writing, images, or video easier to publish, you take away from other types of work that your students might do during the course of creating a Web project.

What might happen if we focused more on fostering student creativity in other forms? What if writing still plays a role, but we ask students to focus more on “interactions”? Can we create assignments that aren’t about augmenting writing with images or navigation to related texts, but are, instead, about imagining how to present information in more interesting, or at least interactive, ways?

I think a student assignment that took these questions into consideration would produce uglier student projects that would more honestly represent the decisions and creative process of your students.  Furthermore, while skipping the CMS means that you would not have professionally-designed, pre-made themes to choose from, it would also mean that you regain all control over your assignment.  You could decide on the bounds for your assignment — figuring out what decisions you want your students to make in order to make the assignment more meaningful than the typical paper.  Students might consider different sorts of questions:

  • Should their users navigate the site using a list of words?  What about a collection of pictures?
  • Do you need text to be the focal point of the project?
  • Do you think users might get lost in the site without certain conventions in place?

These are decisions that often are made for students if they use a CMS.  If a student starts with nothing more than your assignment guidelines and a blank sheet of paper for sketching, the assignment can start to recapture what assigning a Web-based project ten years ago might have meant.

If We Don’t Use a CMS, Are Web Projects Feasible?

Not using a CMS means that students and faculty potentially have a lot of technical work to do to get a Web-based assignment ready.  To help with this workload, you can not only collaborate with a technologist, but you can also use other sorts of pre-written software besides a CMS.  By carefully choosing what type of pre-written code you include in your student projects, you can preserve the decisions you want your students to encounter that a CMS might erode.  Using a non-CMS open-source project will help deemphasize public writing and publishing and help students engage in a creative process for imagining what the Web can do. It would most likely produce less polished-looking results, but I think the gain in thinking through different types of issues not solely related to writing would be worth it.

The next post in this series will give one possible option…

About Evan Cordulack

Evan Cordulack is a Web Applications Specialist for Academic Technology. He helps faculty members with Web-based projects related to their research and teaching. He earned his PhD in American Studies at William & Mary in 2013. Find him at http://cordulack.net/