Making the Switch
Mission Critical: Selecting the Right LMS
With so many products on the market—boasting an ever-increasing menu of features—there are myriad factors that go into choosing a new learning management system. How well the LMS supports your school’s overall mission should be one of them.
- By Dian Schaffhauser
In the past, the learning management system (LMS) was a fairly simple program. Its job was to connect an instructor to a student for an individual course. The student could track grades without harassing the faculty member, and the professor could stop worrying about the prospect of losing a student’s paper-based assignment. Often, the LMS purchase came down to choosing between price and functionality.
Now, however, LMS vendors have added a rich set of functions to appeal to a generation of digital-native students and LMS-savvy faculty. Today’s LMS offers tools for communication and collaboration, productivity, student involvement, administration, course delivery, and content development.
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Alongside the amazing feature sets, LMS systems have matured to become a linchpin for helping a college or university align itself to its aspirations as a teaching and learning enterprise. This critical role has led more and more schools to want to cast off their first (or even second) LMS implementation in favor of one that will help them better meet their institutional goals.
The stakes for finding the right system have never been higher. Sifting through a college’s options is a major undertaking that must go beyond comparing costs and feature sets. But, as the institutions below will attest, the rewards for finding the mission-critical LMS have never been greater.
LMS as Change Agent
Early in the last decade, Louisiana State University set an ambitious goal to become a more nationally competitive university by the year 2010. “No student or faculty member should have to leave Louisiana in search of a better education or opportunity,” proclaimed the university’s plan, named the Flagship Agenda. In turn, the public institution’s IT organization defined a flagship strategy of its own to support LSU’s advance to national prominence. Laid out in a 61-page document, the IT strategy included a goal of providing “a single course management system that responds to the changing needs of the university,” whatever they may be.
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, LA
LMS chosen: Moodle
Mission-critical function: Supporting continuous change
Other decision-making factors: Cost
In 2006, when IT’s strategic planning process began, the 26,000-student university ran both Blackboard and SemesterBook, a homegrown system. LSU found that supporting both platforms was a burden, and students who had to work on both found it aggravating to have to navigate between the two. A subcommittee was formed to choose a new LMS, and as it reported at the time, “Neither [legacy LMS] has proven satisfactory.” The self-developed solution required too many resources to maintain over time, in an environment where development resources were scarce. And subcommittee members felt that Blackboard placed too many constraints on the flexibility and customizations required by faculty and students. Plus, the subcommittee noted the vendor’s track record of “steadily increasing licensing and support costs which is at odds with the rest of the IT paradigm of steadily increasing value for decreasing costs.”
How could the university settle on an LMS that could both support continuous change and provide ongoing value? Open source offered a potential answer, so the subcommittee evaluated two open source contenders: Moodle and Sakai. The latter was rejected for several reasons; at the time, Sakai couldn’t meet all deal-breaker requirements set by the group, and the university found professional IT developers for Sakai more expensive than those for Moodle.
LSU ultimately took the subcommittee’s recommendation to adopt Moodle, and the implementation is now in its second year of operation.
IT Communications & Planning Officer Sheri Thompson was hired to marshal the resources needed to pull that IT strategic plan together. Now she handles its continual unfolding, including monitoring the deployment of Moodle usage across campus. (The actual servers hosting the application are kept by Moodlerooms, a third-party provider that offers Moodle products and services.) Thompson’s duties notably include managing all proposed changes to the LMS—not always an easy task, especially since flexibility was so highly valued by the university in its LMS selection process. “Because it’s open source, people think any change can be made. There’s an expectation that because we can do it, we will, and we’ll do it now,” she sighs.
To handle change requests, IT Services set up a Moodle Development Advisory Committee (MDAC), composed of faculty, staff, and student members. IT staff participate as expert advisers. MDAC takes suggestions from the campus community, assesses the suggestions after they’ve been vetted by IT for viability, and sets the prioritization schedule. To give visibility to the process, MDAC posts development proposals online along with each item’s status.
Rather than reflecting bleeding-edge uses of the application, the requests tend to the mundane: for instance, highlighting unread forum posts on the My Page screen, removing a 60-day login requirement, creating a copy button for resources and activities. “Faculty tend to be concerned about the minutiae,” Thompson says. “They’re more concerned about usability—the gradebook feature, getting their grades in, managing their classes. For them it’s a nuts-and-bolts resource.”
That could evolve, however, after faculty have fully adapted to the LMS, says Thompson. “Once they’re in the ‘zone,’ the expectation is that we’re going to be hearing, ‘I want to do this,’ ‘I want to do that.’ Moodle has the ability to do all those things.”
Wearing More Than One Hat
When operational limitations get in the way of delivering education, switching LMSs can help make process improvements. That was the case for Frank Phillips College, a two-year community college in Texas. Productivity is important for the institution, whose tagline is “Start here, go anywhere.” The institution serves about 3,700 students each semester—1,200 in degree programs and 2,500 in noncredit continuing ed classes.
Frank Phillips College
LMS chosen: CAMS Enterprise
Mission-critical function: Staff productivity
Other decision-making factors: Cost, support
The college’s staff is small, so each staff person serves multiple roles. “There aren’t many colleges where your registrar does graduation and [federal reporting] too,” notes Patty Kasch, coordinator of professional development for instructional services.
FPC had long used PowerCampus from SunGard Higher Education for its ERP operations and Blackboard for course management. But both products were problematic for the school. Because FPC couldn’t afford a maintenance contract for PowerCampus, support was handled internally—and as a result, the software became seriously archaic. “There was no customer service,” says Michele Stevens, director of enrollment management. “We treated it like a homegrown system.” On the LMS side, recalls Kasch, “We got lots of complaints from faculty members about how hard Blackboard was to use.”
The school began shopping for a replacement LMS in 2006, during which process administrators “stumbled” on CAMS Enterprise, a set of ERP applications from Three River Systems. CAMS, which stands for Comprehensive Academic Management System, includes modules for everything from admissions and alumni management to student placement, as well as a built-in LMS. FPC staff found the LMS to be much more user-friendly and they realized it could replace Blackboard.
“Our whole purpose of going with CAMS was that we could integrate our student side and our information side,” Kasch says. “One product can serve all of our needs, making everybody more productive in their jobs.”
LMS chosen: It’s Learning
Mission-critical function: Delivering education worldwide
Other decision-making factors: Cost, reliability, contemporary functionality
By choosing an integrated set of modules, FPC administrators say, users can help out in other college departments when needed because they understand how the interface works. “If you know how to get around in the faculty portal, then you’ll know how to get around in the student portal. If you can get around CAMS’ admissions part, then you can get around in the billing part,” Kasch explains. “Before, we had to use one product to maintain student records and another to record their grades, whereas [CAMS] is all in one. Once I click the submit button to send grades to the registrar, they’re viewable. They’re already on students’ transcripts.”
Supporting a Global Community
The vision of Grace University (NE), according to Director of Online Learning Nathan Boeker, is to develop servant leaders globally who are “making an impact through their service.” That means delivering education to people wherever and whenever they need it; many Grace students serve in work-study programs out of state or out of the country.
But the 600-student private college in Omaha faced a major problem: Its users were losing faith in the school’s LMS platform, a Microsoft SharePoint application. Those students taking classes from remote locations around the world were experiencing outages—periods when they simply couldn’t get into the LMS to do coursework.
It was up to a learning technology committee chaired by Boeker to recommend an alternative. The committee considered several solutions, including Blackboard and Moodle. The first, used previously at the school, was too expensive, Boeker says. Moodle, on the other hand, while free up front, “looks like it was made back in the ’90s,” he opines. “I think our faculty would have been frustrated with that low-end look and feel and quality.”
In 2009, Boeker began investigating potential solutions from Europe in case there was an undiscovered LMS jewel there. It’s Learning, a web-based LMS service developed by a Norwegian company of the same name, had recently come stateside. Boeker requested access to test the application and steered his committee in trying it out. The final decision came down to Moodle or It’s Learning, and the latter won.
The Value of Stability
The siren call of new learning management systems does not always lure an institution to change course. Phillips Theological Seminary, a private 200-student school in Tulsa, OK, that offers three master’s degrees and one doctoral program, has annually assessed its LMS choice, and year after year has chosen to remain a Blackboard customer. “An overriding issue is our familiarity with Blackboard, the experience our support staff has, as well as the comfort level that most of our faculty have,” says executive VP and faculty member John Imbler.
To keep LMS expense down, PTS works on a hosted version of Blackboard Vista version 9 through The Fisher’s Net, an e-learning service provider that manages access to the software for a consortium of small colleges and universities. PTS relies on out-of-the-box features rather than seeking out additional functionality through robust Blackboard channels such as Building Blocks.
The school’s larger mission is to offer programs and training to students and church members wherever they reside and in whatever form makes sense, including non-degree programs. PTS sees Blackboard as an essential tool in meeting this goal and is preparing to expand its educational offerings via Blackboard to encompass Skype, webinars, and videotaping.
As a start on that, in fall 2009 the school expanded its course offerings to include audio and video, lecture capture, online discussions, and, of course, the course management basics—making announcements, facilitating student-faculty communication, and posting course materials. That expansion in interactive technologies, says Imbler, has already succeeded in growing enrollment. The school now attracts students from 15 states, compared to just five states in the past.
Reliability was one major factor in the decision. “We really wanted to grow our program, not just in numbers, but also in trust. We wanted faculty and students to trust that when they upload a document, submit an assignment, take a quiz, that’s going to be an easy, reliable experience,” says Boeker. “There’s no perfect LMS, but It’s Learning—even when compared to the big names—has all the features we want. We’re pretty happy with what we’re seeing. Students seem to enjoy it. There’s a bit of a fun factor with it.”
Some of the features that won staff and students over include: plagiarism control; videoconferencing; the ability for students to post their own quiz questions and post video and audio discussions; and “explaining sequences” that force a student to prove understanding of a topic before he is allowed to move on in the subject.
Now Grace University is about to cut the cord on its legacy SharePoint application. It’s Learning has been piloted for two years, and, says Boeker, “faculty are coming out of the woodwork wanting to get into the pilot, even though they know we haven’t really rolled it out all the way and we’re testing things. They really like the platform because of its ease of use and reliability.”
The fact that the LMS is hosted by It’s Learning is another big plus for Grace U, since the company has an international presence. “Because of the way our servers are set up internally, our network is made for hosting people here on the campus or stateside,” Boeker says. “But once you have people going to Africa or China, it gets pretty dicey. [For the LMS] we wanted [a hosted service] that had bigger servers, faster connections.
“We don’t want to exclude students just because of their schedule or location. We want to really impact the world with our education,” he continues. In that regard, he believes It’s Learning is just what the university needs. “It really will help Grace U finally meet its mission in a way that we’ve never been able to do since our founding in 1943.”