Davids versus Goliath: a comparison of wikis versus Blackboard CMS

[Guest Blogger Stewart Mader, Atlassian - makers of Confluence and Jira. His blog can be found here.

[Guest Blogger Stewart Mader, Atlassian - makers of Confluence and Jira. His blog can be found here.]

In almost a decade in higher ed on both sides of the classroom (and in the middle, as a consultant helping other teachers integrate technology into their courses), I've seen an interesting shift in what's available for teachers, and what they're choosing to use. Back in the late 1990s when I was an undergrad, most teachers who were tech savvy were using standard web pages, slideware (PowerPoint), and email. Right around 1999 the course management system (CMS) started to appear on the scene, and two main choices were available, Blackboard and WebCT. The rivalry between the two occasionally sparked Mac/PC comparisons, with people who liked a slightly more refined interface advocating for Blackboard, and those who argued it had more powerful tools advocating for WebCT. Well, Blackboard won the battle. They swallowed up WebCT last year. Today, Blackboard faces big perception problems after getting a patent on the CMS, then suing some small competitors. This is like Starbucks getting a patent on serving coffee in a cup using the argument that it invented coffee and paper cups, and combined them into a product!

I've used both Blackboard and WebCT in my own teaching, and helped several schools set up both. I initially liked the idea of a single virtual space to enhance and extend a traditional course, but that perception has changed over time. Although the CMS combines everything from discussion board to live chat, file management, assignment submission, online quizzes, etc., you feel like you're spending less time actually using them and more time learning all their quirks and particular ways of doing things. This is my biggest frustration with the CMS.

Then along came the wiki, giving instructors (and me) an incredibly easy tool. Now I was really confused. Why use a CMS when something this easy comes along?

Look who's coming to dinner
When I started using a wiki in 2004 for a science curriculum project I co-founded, it solved a growing problem - how to get the increasing amount of content people were providing onto the site as quickly as possible - and did it brilliantly by letting them directly edit pages. When I first tried it out, I realized there was virtually no learning curve. It's designed to work so intuitively that a person can get right down to business without spending a lot of time figuring out how it works, which breaks down a huge barrier to participation.

But there's an even bigger issue at play here. In the rise of Web 2.0 what we've seen is an increasing emphasis on simple tools that perform one function very well instead of trying to be everything to everyone. Chicago-based 37signals even uses the mantra, "Our products do less than the competition — intentionally." to market their web-based collaboration and project management software.

Because of the high cost of traditional course management systems, universities push for them to be used to justify the investment. However, instructors are more satisifed with a product when it's something they want to use, not something they have to use. Enterprise Web 2.0 tools like the wiki are available at much lower cost, so there's less pressure to justify the investment.

Once you develop a course site in a CMS, you become locked into that platform and can't easily move to something else, whereas with a wiki you're just working with plain text and images, so changing tools involves just a cut and paste (work is underway to build easy converters that will move content from one wiki to another to save you that cut and paste).

Final course
But can Web 2.0 tools truly replace something as big as a CMS? In my analysis, the answer is a resounding yes. Whereas Blackboard was designed for instructors, wikis were made for everyone. Blackboard is big, and has more features than most people will ever use. Wiki is small, and has one feature that's simple enough to be applied to any use. The fundamental difference between the two is this: Blackboard is something designed to do everything, and the wiki is something that can do everything because of its design.


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