This month's Wired magazine has a great article by Robert Capps, "The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple is Just Fine." Capps argues that simple technologies will often displace complicated technologies when if they become both cheap and ubiquitous. Examples such as the Flip video camera, netbooks, Google and Zoho docs, Google SketchUp, and the Predator aircraft are all given to illustrate the point.
Capps' writes: "Thanks to the speed and connectivity of the digital age, we've stopped fussing over pixel counts, sample rates, and feature lists. Instead, we're now focused on three things: ease of use, continuous availability, and low price."
While the Wired article does not mention education, it seems to me that learning technology is a perfect example of this trend. Students, and then faculty, will gravitate to tools that provide 80 percent of the benefits for 20 percent of the costs (the 80/20 Pareto principle). The danger in not recognizing this desire among our learners for ubiquity, ease of use, and continuous availability is that they will migrate to platforms and tools that are not provided and supported by our institutions.
The Course Management System may be the primary example. Will students start moving towards free consumer platforms that they can access outside of the course and outside of their student roles for communication, collaboration, and team work? Just as the core principles of active learning (including constructivism and student creation) begin to diffuse throughout our teaching faculty the tools that students utilize to create and share content and engage in dialogue may diverge from our central campus CMS. Already we are seeing students use Google Docs and Ning to collaborate, YouTube, Ning and Siideshare to post their work, and Facebook and Twitter to communicate. The advantage of all these tools are their relative simplicity and their portability, students can take both their skills in using the medium and the content and networks they generate with them. These tools are the opposite of the dominant CMS paradigm in that they are not siloed, they don't depend on the institution to create accounts or manage the platforms, and they have full control of the features (as opposed to the traditional CMS where the instructor retains privileged control).
This argument will be nothing new to anyone following EduPunk movement, although my issue with the EduPunk's its most vocal adherents don't seem to allow for any space for the traditional course management system (CMS). Some functions of the CMS are both difficult and extremely important, such as integration with the Student Information System (SIS), the GradeBook, enrollment management, and the assessment engine. Consumer based, ubiquitous, and always accessible Web 2.0 services are not designed to provide these features. Conversely, I'm unpersuaded that the major CMS commercial vendors (okay...Blackboard) fully understand the desire of students and faculty to work with cheap, easy, and accessible tools.
While there is some interesting work being done at the campus level to connect Google Apps with Blackboard, this effort is not coming from the CMS vendor but from the user community. Will schools be able to write, diffuse and integrate building blocks fast enough to stay ahead of where their users want to be? Shouldn't Blackboard recognize this trend and put resources into strengthening its core product (SIS integration, enrollment management, assessment engine etc.) while easing the integration with consumer Web 2.0 tools? This seems to be a case where the marketing of Blackboard, particularly for Blackboard 9, does not seem to match the actual platform.
And we are just getting started. For those of us who have been following Google Wave it seems clear that tomorrows cheap, accessible, and easy learning platforms will far outstrip whatever features and tools that can be delivered by a central CMS. From my perspective, unless Blackboard re-positions itself as middleware to the the emerging Web 2.0 collaboration and learning tools then it risks becoming less and less relevant to the learning on campus. The obvious corollary to this is that unless us learning technologists and academic computing departments invest resources in understanding, training on, integrating, and supporting Web 2.0 tools we could find our relevancy to our campus learning community challenged as well.