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Course Management Systems


course management system (CMS) is a collection of software tools providing an online environment for course interactions. A CMS typically includes a variety of online tools and environments, such as:

  • An area for faculty posting of class materials such as course syllabus and handouts
  • An area for student posting of papers and other assignments
  • A gradebook where faculty can record grades and each student can view his or her grades
  • An integrated email tool allowing participants to send announcement email messages to the entire class or to a subset of the entire class
  • A chat tool allowing synchronous communication among class participants
  • A threaded discussion board allowing asynchronous communication among participants

In addition, a CMS is typically integrated with other databases in the university so that students enrolled in a particular course are automatically registered in the CMS as participants in that course.

The decision to use a CMS in a traditional face-to-face course has implications for course design that often go unnoticed by instructors in their initial use of such systems. This module lists technical and pedagogical tips that instructors should consider as they place materials into a CMS. While it is intended primarily for instructors who are using a CMS for the first time, instructors who have already used a CMS in other courses might benefit by using these tips as a checklist.

Technical Tips

The CMS will likely not only have different modules, but also allow you to select which of these modules you’ll be using in the class. If you’re not going to use a particular module (e.g., if you decide not to use online chat during the course), you should turn that module off so that it doesn’t distract students from the modules you plan to use. (If you decide later to use a module that you’ve turned off, you can turn it on then.)

You’ll likely be posting content to your site by inputting text into text boxes on a web page. If you’re inputting text that’s longer than a few sentences, you should type it first in a word processor and then copy and paste it into the CMS text box. Web browsers are typically less stable than word processors, and word processors often have auto-save settings that save text periodically as you type. If you develop the content in a word processor, you’re less likely to lose everything if your computer crashes or the server drops a connection. If you save the file on your computer after pasting the content into the web browser, you have your own copy on your computer.

Pedagogical Tips

Make some decisions about how you’re going to use the different modules of the CMS, and state these decisions clearly to your students.

  • Will the CMS be the primary setting for class announcements? If so, make it clear to the students how often you expect them to check there for announcements.
  • Do you expect the course schedule as given in the CMS at the beginning the semester to remain basically the same (as one might expect a paper syllabus to remain basically the same), or do you rather plan to take advantage of the online environment to modify the syllabus as you work through the semester? Again, make your intentions clear to the students, and consider a commitment to tell them when you make changes to the syllabus.
  • If you’re using an online discussion or chat tool, tell the students the role you plan to play in that discussion forum. Will you be an active participant? Will you make it a point to correct student postings that indicate that they have misunderstood course material? (See the CFT web module on using online communication environments in face-to-face classes.)

Pay attention to how your use of a CMS might change your behavior in the classroom. For example, if you decide to post your lecture notes in the online environment, give some thought to how your lecture will be different if students have access to the notes. Your thinking on this will likely depend in part on whether you make the notes public before or after your class meets.


The CFT provides technical and pedagogical support for instructors using Blackboard, Vanderbilt’s course management system. CFT staff are available to consult with individual instructors, as well as departments and programs, on ways Blackboard can support effective teaching in both face-to-face and blended learning environments.