Dating back to the early use of the world wide web to produce websites, academic institutions provided space and access to servers to faculty. Naturally this early exploration of the space included a number of uses –personal spaces, spaces dedicated to research, community and academic teaching. The archive.org McMaster University archive goes back to 1997, however I know that website use for teaching purposes existed prior to 1997 and went back as far as 1994 (Cuneo et al, 2000). Outside of a brief resurgence of website use in 2010 (while the on-premises LMS solution Blackboard installation was besieged with technical issues) the decline has continued to the present day.
One challenge in providing proof of this decline is that there is no comprehensive way to catalog and decipher each department and faculty approaches to personal webhosting for academic faculty and no standard approach to naming and hosting. To this end, I did encounter a deep archive of links for the faculty of Humanities websites.
In a sampling of pages that I could find archived for the Languages and Linguistics department within the faculty of Humanities (out of the 26 courses listed) (Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, 2001) – there were 4 courses with individual webpages, and a further 16 courses with course outlines linked from the page. Some of the courses with web presences beyond a course outline were last archived in 2005, however the last successful archiving of an actual active course was 2003. (Solo Testo, 2003). The later archives were of a redirect to the Faculty of Humanities homepage likely as a result of a restructuring of the website.
By 2004, as the proliferation of WebCT and First Class (known locally as Learn Link) at McMaster became more prevalent, use of websites for teaching started to decline. It makes some sense that this trend starts to appear at this point – historically the Learning Technologies Resource Centre (LTRC) began to support central LMS tools around this time, and nearly a decade after the technology started to be used at McMaster, there are likely to be some combination of the maturity of the tools and a convergence as commercial software begins to become commonplace at higher education institutions. At McMaster, while there was some standardization of tools provided by the university to faculty at no additional charge, there was also no mandate to use the centrally supported tools. In fact, the only mention of LMS like systems were Learn Link (First Class) and WebCT in the Central IT report for 2005 was a mention for both systems’ server requirements as part of the LTRC inventory (Barret, 2005, p.187) Alternatively, there was no mention of hosting websites as a service across any of the independent or central IT units at the time. Further to this idea, the archives I could find on the Wayback Machine for McMaster all seem to indicate websites were not to be used for teaching, rather it seems the commonplace use of websites were for communication. It is reasonable to say website hosting for the purposes of teaching was far less used than the central LMS’s during this first decade of the World Wide Web. If we look back at one of the first major commercial LMS, WebCT, it was designed initially by Murray Goldberg in the mid-90’s as a way to supplement his in-person lectures. (Chan, 2005) Most web-based LMS systems replicate the functionality of WebCT – certainly most of the ones used in higher education (Blackboard, D2L’s Brightspace, Canvas and Moodle) – and so a system of software based on the experiences and design of an instructor who was looking to improve grades in courses rooted in a lecture based approach has become the defacto location for teaching to happen in an online environment.
While websites as a course site was not a priority of the university, it is likely that the impetus for this displacement in teaching tools came from several different areas, in addition to the lack of support from the university, converging slowly in the mid-2000’s to the present day:
- Instructors were increasingly becoming sessional and labour to build one’s own site is not compensated. The LMS is provided (although not necessarily the simplest for all).
- Using an LMS is easier than managing your own website for teaching as much of the infrastructure is provided by someone else.
- Some instructors who are interested in using the LMS for teaching were early adopters and acted as champions for the tool.
- Instructors who moved from institutions who have mandated LMS use to McMaster, brought along that practice, expecting McMaster to also have mandated the use of the LMS.
- Students who experienced LMS use in secondary school have now graduated into higher education and expected the use of an LMS to provide materials and activities.
- Faculties and departments each have suggested over the years tool use based on their own experiences and desire to introduce efficiencies which the LMS can provide.
- Educational institutions being interested in reducing paper in the name of sustainability.
- Vendors of LMS products convinced institutions of the efficiency, redundancy, and security of the LMS.
While each of those individual claims, can be discussed at length, this transition has definitely re-entrenched the transmission model of teaching and learning. The LMS reinforces the transmission model by having a roles that allows certain members in the system more or less power to control other users. For instance, an instructor role could be designed to allow for posting of materials, whereas a student role could view those materials. In some LMS systems these are determined by the local system administrators (often with the help of the vendor) while others have these archetypes predefined. While a vendor might argue it is up to the institution to configure the system how they wish, the archetypal uses of the system are designed around fundamental assumptions of what an instructor might be. Very rarely are LMS structures built with features that promote constructive sense-making, and as such, they are often designed for behaviourist approaches to teaching. This is an example of what Woolgar (1990) might describe as configuring the user, especially when considering the history of the development of the LMS being from a limited perspective and for a limited purpose.
This shift from a more open website to a closed, more secure but also more deterministic LMS does not necessarily negatively impact teaching per se, it does make it more challenging to use a LMS with certain pedagogical approaches. For instance, if you are teaching in a constructivist manner, it is difficult to have people If at every turn it is difficult and time-consuming to make the LMS do what you want to do pedagogically, and the education system is rewarding certain choices you make with your labour, it becomes even more challenging to teach in ways that might be more constructivist, so you might come to believe that it is impossible to teach in that way through the LMS. While it is true it is more difficult, and might make the LMS itself unusable, it might be impractical, or more time-consuming to teach in that way. In those scenarios, a stand-alone website would probably be a superior choice.
Another aspect of LMS use is the ease of recycling course materials from semester-to-semester. While this is not a practice of all teachers using LMS’s, there are sessional instructors who are not compensated for the development of courses. If a fellow instructor or teacher chooses to share their content, and intellectual property, then the recipient is lucky. If the sessional instructor does not have access to content from a prior taught course, they are often designing the course as it goes, which does not provide an ideal learning experience. This is essentially a labour issue. As the university lowers the number of full-time and secure jobs to teaching faculty, it also creates a precarious market for labour, with faculty becoming sessional. If one can separate the course from the individual, and keep the course in a centrally maintained place, then that labour can be passed on without care for the individual who designed it. I am not saying that was the explicit goal of McMaster in instituting the LMS, but it is possible to separate the labour of creating a course with delivery of a course using an LMS, which makes it easier to retain beyond the employment of the developer.
While the shift from open websites to a more closed LMS system also mirror the academic labour changes over the last two decades, in some ways both developments have been symbiotic – allowing for teaching to become more prescriptive, and the culture of teaching to be more limited.
Barret, D. (2005). University Technology Strategy. McMaster University. https://www.mcmaster.ca/cio/UTSMar05.pdf
Chan, L. (2005) WebCT Revolutionized E-Learning. UBC News. https://news.ubc.ca/2005/07/07/archive-ubcreports-2005-05jul07-webct/
Crawford, K. (2021). Atlas of AI. Yale University Press.
Gray, M. L. & Suri, S. (2019). Ghost work : How to stop silicon valley from building a new global underclass. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
McMaster University (2001). Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics @ McMaster University. Wayback Machine. https://web.archive.org/web/20010214022946/http://www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~modlang/mlhome.htm
McMaster University (2003). Solo Testo. Wayback Machine. https://web.archive.org/web/20030928012724fw_/http://www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~gargann/text.htm
McMaster University. (2021) McMaster University CUPE Local 3906, Unit 1 Mandatory Training Frequently Asked Questions. https://hr.mcmaster.ca/app/uploads/2021/08/Mosaic-TA-Training-Module-FAQs_FINAL.pdf
Woolgar, S. (1990) Configuring the user: The case of usability trials. The Sociological Review, 38(1, Suppl.), S58-S99.