I have spent most of this weekend wrestling my course materials into the proprietary courseware framework that our university has invested in. The system, called Prometheus, boasts what may be the all-time worst user interface I've had the displeasure of working with in many years.
I'm taking the time to do this because, in my experience, criticism of a bad system is only taken seriously when the person doing the criticisim has made a good-faith effort to learn and use the system. So I'm using our Prometheus-based "myCourses" system to support both of my classes this quarter--one on-campus, one distance-learning.
So far, we're off to a bad start. Simple things that I ought to be able to do aren't possible at all--from moving a reading from one course meeting slot to another, to creating custom dropboxes for file submissions. The labels for sections and tasks are counter-intuitive, and the entire system seems to have been designed without regard for the user's needs (at least the faculty user...we'll have to see what my students say). While some of the Prometheus system is apparently customizable by "IT Administrators" at a given school, none of it appears to be customizable by the actual people who have to use it. I can't make it less ugly. I can't fix the UI problems. I have almost no control over the look-and-feel, which is a very large part of the overall "online classroom" experience.
It's the equivalent of being asked to teach all my classes in a dark, dingy basement classroom, with no control over lights, desk locations, etc. Sure, the "institution" has the ability to change it. But as the instructor, I don't. Blech.
What's worse, however, is that I realized after I was done that there's no way for me to make any of the course information publicly accessible--something I've always done with my syllabi. While there are some aspects of the courseware--like the testing and grading functions--that should be private, those are the exceptions. I resent using a system that won't let me share the basic information about the class with anyone who's interested.
Last year, I started building a PHP/mySQL system to generate my syllabi. You can see it in action with my web database, xml, and web design syllabi from earlier this year. But I can't show you this quarter's thesis prep or intro to multimedia courses, because they're hidden inside our proprietary system.
Why isn't there an open-source courseware package that's as easy to use and customizable as something like Movable Type??? Is that so very much to ask? I did some poking around tonight, and didn't find anything that really excited me. This is not rocket science...it's a customized content management system (CMS) application. People make them all the time.
(Interestingly, Prometheus started out as home-grown "community source" software at GWU, but was purchased by Blackboard, a commercial competitor.)
Is there something great out there that I don't know about? If so, I'd love a pointer. And if not, I guess I need to start fleshing out my little homegrown system, and looking for people to work with me on it to make it more robust and usable in multiple contexts.