Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Should academics manually create course websites?

(There is a response/attempted clarification to comments on the following by Stephen Downes in another post)

The focus of the following is not the “evil” LMS. That’s another argument, and I agree with much of it. The question here assumes that your university is going to use, or even require the use of, an LMS. Given that, should the institution expect or even allow academics to manually create course websites in the LMS?

This question arises out of my last post reflecting back on some decisions made back in 2000/2001 and how that compares to existing common practice. Especially in connection with Mark Smither’s recent problems with MOPPS post.

Back in 2000/2001 the Webfuse system answered this question with a no. Staff could still create their own site, but a default course site was automatically created for all sites. Academics could further modify this default course site, but the didn’t have to create it.

The rationale was that having academics manually create the course websites was inefficient, resulted in poor quality outcomes, and limited the ability for institutional control and evolution of the minimum level of service. The following expands on this rationale and relates it to recent experience of using Moodle. Based on the combination of experience with Webfuse and Moodle, I’m tending to answer no. Institutions should not be expecting academics to manually create websites.

What do you think? Are there institutions that don’t expect this? What do they do?

It is Inefficient

A long time ago, I used to teach Systems Administration. One of the lessons we tried to teach in Systems Administration was “if you do something more than once, automate it”. I recently had to create a Moodle course site from scratch. It was a simple (some might argue simplistic) site, by no means stretching the capabilities of Moodle. But creating even this simple site, I found annoying and inefficient.

The site used the weekly Moodle format and had 10-12 weeks. Each week basically followed the same structure: a pointer to the study guide chapter for that week, a pointer to a discussion forum specific to that week, a reminder to complete a journal entry for the week, and occasionally a reminder for another assessment item. This means that to create the course site I was essentially repeating the same steps for each week. I had to perform the same steps with the Moodle web interface for each week.

Setting up the entire site probably took me three hours. After becoming more familiar with Moodle course site design, the majority of the time was spent on the manual process of implementing the design. This was quicker because I did it on a Moodle instance running on my laptop. Trying to do it on the live institutional server could have at least doubled this.

It gets worse

I’m an advanced computer user, a designer and modifier of e-learning systems, and an experienced academic who’s been doing e-learning since the early 90s. I am not like most academics.

The academic I was working with, if left to their own devices, would have expended more than a week on this task. This would have included becoming familiar with Moodle, figuring out the options in terms of course design and then performing the low level tasks to implement the site. Even worse, this academic is probably middling in terms of skills. There are a significant number of academics at my current institution that would have taken longer. In fact, I heard a number of stories of academics earlier this year spending weeks getting their first Moodle course sites up and going.

The implications

Multiple this out for an entire university with 500+ courses, and there’s a significant expenditure/wastage of resources. Remember, this is for perhaps the simplest, minimum course site you can create. Nothing fancy.

As more course sites are created in Moodle, subsequent terms won’t be quite so bad as academics will tend to copy the previous course site and make some modifications. But this creates other problems addressed below.

Poor quality outcomes

Have academics manually create default course sites also contributes to poor quality course sites. There are two main reasons:

  1. Missing skills; and
    Creating a good quality course website requires a good mixture of skills in teaching, technology, design, communication and other skills. Few academics have the right mixture of all of these.
  2. Human error.
    In creating the simple Moodle course site I had to perform the same sequence of steps 10 or 12 times. I’m almost certain that I made a minor mistake in at least one of those repetitions. Depending on the nature of those mistakes, they will come back in the future and cause more inefficiencies, especially if they involve the incorrect date for an assignment. An academic with a more limited understanding of Moodle is perhaps even more likely to introduce mistakes due to human error.

Limited institutional control

This is may not be a big problem in some universities, but increasingly in the Australian higher education sector institutions are being held accountable for the quality of the education they offer. This is translating into an explosion of minimum service standards (the MOPPS Mark Smithers talks about) where the institution identifies an organisation wide set of minimum standards for course websites.

In my experience, the expectation for most of these service standards is that the academics will translate those standards into features on their course websites. Some will argue this is so they can apply their local expertise to develop contextually sensitive implementations of the standards. It is argued that considering the standards helps encourage more thinking about course design by academics. In my experience it mostly leads to compliance and task corruption.

Either way, it is up to the academics to translate the standards into an actual course site. Given the difficulty and inefficiencies identified above in creating course sites, the potential for misinterpretation of the minimum standards, the potential for those standards to badly designed or communicated to academics, and the imbalance in importance between teaching and research it is no great surprise that academics collude to comply and compromise the standards.

Based on this argument, If the aim of an institution is to control the minimum quality of the institution’s course websites, expecting academics to manually create course websites is both inefficient and ineffective. It won’t work.

Limited evolution

What’s worse, is if the institution then decides that those minimum standards have to change, either to solve a problem or improve the quality. They then have convince the academics to make these changes. Once an academic has a course site, the common approach is to simply copy what has gone before. Any changes in minimum standards that require significant changes to the basic structure of a course site has little or no chance of widespread, successful adoption.

One solution

This post briefly describes the alternative that was implemented within the Webfuse system in 2001 and also a prior aborted attempt.


Default course sites and wizards


Course websites and "libertarian paternalism"


  1. A great post, I could’nt agree more on the Moodle system, whilst working in college as the IT administrator for the staff I found Moodle terrible to use, I don’t believe that teachers should have to set up an environment and nor should they take a week to get it going. It should just work.

    I have placed your blog post link on my site

    • G’day Neil,

      Thanks for the comments. Will be interested to see how Cloudpollen goes, both in terms of what features you build into it/the philosophy you take etc; and, how it gets accepted by educators and their institutions.

      It’s a brave step you’ve taken and wish you the best in it. However, I can’t help but see the problems you’ll face, especially with institutions. IMHO, the main reason Moodle is exploding in terms of adoption within universities is because it panders to management’s current experiences/prejudices (i.e. they need to own the system), plus it’s free. Overcoming this is a huge problem.


  2. This is very true and a valid point, the system itself is primarily aimed at the educators as I’ve seen many a disappointed glare from the waiting for a solution that they can just use. Like you said we will wait and see 🙂

    Love your posts, keep them coming!

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