Learning Management Systems | Feature

Getting Faculty Buy-in for the LMS

According to Jeff King, in 10 years people are going to have a new understanding about the true value of the learning management system (LMS)--as a tool for keeping track of learning outcomes. "And that's gold," proclaimed the director for the Koehler Center for Teaching Excellence at Texas Christian University, a private college with 8,800 students in Ft. Worth. The Koehler Center's job is to work with instructors in developing their teaching and learning skills. "If I'm the instructor, I'm assessing my students, and I'm making discoveries about my course design--and that really invigorates teaching."

If it's so great, why do only 80 percent of the faculty at Texas Christian use the LMS? Why not all of them? King wants to do all he can to get those one in five holdouts into the fold, short of a mandate by the faculty senate. That effort involves a multi-pronged effort encompassing faculty training, excellent technical support, a pedagogical refocus on learning outcomes, and ultimately allowing students to pressure faculty to use the LMS.

Baby Steps for Faculty Training
King and his staff work with faculty in what he calls a "baby steps" approach. That means that somebody new to the LMS may only be using three or four of its features. As a starting point, he said, he typically recommends that an instructor tackle no more than posting a syllabus, using the LMS for a welcome announcement and subsequent notices, and enabling the drop-box feature to allow students to turn in work.

Once they've mastered those essentials, the next phase may involve the gradebook feature, since that's in heavy demand by students. "Students want to see all their grades immediately and see where they are at that point in the semester," explained King.

From there, threaded discussions and "Webliographies"--a list of authoritative links--tend to be popular with instructors.

An open lab is available to faculty and staff who need assistance with the LMS. But just as popular is a series of just-in-time lessons, each on a discrete topic, delivered in both video and text form. The videos are just a minute or two long in most cases; the texts are PDFs that run a page to three pages in length. For example, on the topic of creating a syllabus the Koehler Center offers three bite-sized lessons, one on creating a syllabus, another on deleting a syllabus item, and a third on reordering items.

"It's a pretty rich array of online tutorials that we've built ourselves that have been extremely successful," King said. "When we've tracked calls to the help desk before and after putting those tutorials up, we see a dramatic drop in calls on those topics."

At the other end of the spectrum are the faculty who want to push the envelope for what they do in class inside and outside of the LMS "shell," as King called it. A new media lab on campus provides Windows and Mac OS X computers outfitted with Adobe Creative Site, which includes Adobe Acrobat, Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Flash, and InDesign. It also makes available a variety of equipment for checkout. That's where faculty can go to get help on making multimedia files for their courses. One example might be a foreign language instructor who wants to provide students with additional practice. "She could build flash cards, where vocabulary could be on one side and on the other side would be the definition as well as pronunciation, along with an audio clip demonstrating the proper enunciation and pronunciation for that particular term," King explained. "Or it might be crossword puzzles, matching exercises, learning activities that give additional interface time."

King finds the simplicity of the LMS software in use--Pearson Learning Solution's LearningStudio--an advantage. "There are any number of ways to set up links," particularly to third-party tools that solve problems for faculty, he said. One example of that is the ability to post videos to YouTube and make close-captioning available if the transcript is provided. "For ADA compliance that's wonderful. A faculty member can go to the media lab and shoot a video. All you have to do is upload it, and bang, there's the video that you want students to see. You can have it hosted in a Webliography or as a link inside your [Pearson] shell. Then you have a video demonstrating whatever it is you want students to see--as well as close captioning."

Throughout all of the training, however, he insisted, the emphasis isn't so much about the tool as about the result being sought. "We don't do one lick of training that's purely about how to push a button, turn a crank, or pull a lever. It's always about, what do you want to accomplish in your class? Here's how you can do that using this particular tool."

The Value of Excellent Technical Support
The Texas Christian LMS runs on servers hosted by the vendor. "We're incredibly impressed with their backup, security, quality of their hardware, their servers, their uptime. All of those things are important to us," King said. "We don't have to maintain that server, and we have confidence that none of that content will be lost, nobody will hack into it, all those things you'd worry about if you were hosting your own server."

Yet, Koehler Center has maintained its position as the first line of support on technical issues. "The vast majority [of questions] are issues that our e-learning people here know how to answer," he said. That includes responding to e-mail sent to the "alias," the address to which users write when they have an LMS-related question. Koehler staff checks that four times daily, five days a week during normal work hours, plus at 10 p.m. during semesters.

But Pearson tech support is also there as a backup. "If anybody misses us, they can call directly to the help personnel at Pearson," King added.

College IT personnel don't support the LMS directly, once the users are authenticated into the institution's network. They refer LMS support requests back to the Center.

The Impact of Learning Outcomes
But these days what excites King about the Pearson product in particular, he said, is something that he and his staff actually helped the company develop--and which he said he believes could get those hold-out faculty members to adopt the LMS too. This new module is called the Learning Outcome Manager. It provides a set of tools that allow faculty to write and organize learning statements and create, store, and monitor student progress against rubrics associated with these statements. "The Learning Outcome Manager gets at the heart of enabling a faculty member to truly track how successful his students are in learning the information that he is trying to help them learn," King explained.

He shared the story of a longtime faculty member who participated in the pilot program for the module and discovered that he didn't have to wait until the end of the term to measure the effectiveness of the instruction he was delivering to students. As King related, "He'd been thinking, 'I've got to do stuff for 16 weeks and then see if they understand it. But now I've found out that within the first two months 90 percent of my students are [understanding the material], which gives me flexibility to consider some additional approaches or do other things in my course."

"Our faculty are making discoveries about redesigning their courses and improving the way they help students learn," he added. "In the process of assessing their student outcomes, they get so many 'ah-hah' moments, completely divorced from anything we suggest to them. They get ideas they're excited about implementing because of the discoveries they make about tracking their students' progress."

To train instructors on the use of the Learning Outcome Manager, King said, "We take faculty back to their syllabus." His team outfits the faculty member with a set of index cards, upon which they write activities to be performed by students for the class, one activity per card. Then they write each outcome on a card and spread those across the table. Finally, the individual months of a semester are put on cards, which are arrayed down the side of the table. Under each outcome, they place the activity cards according to when it happens in the semester.

This manual exercise, he said, allows them to learn how to use the Learning Outcome Manager. "They have to figure out, 'What am I doing to help students reach a learning outcome?' When they do this, they [see], 'Wait, I have too many activities. I don't have any related to this one, and it's supposed to be one of my course outcomes.' Or, 'Now I understand why my students have griped for 20 years about April and November--most big projects are due then.'"

Once that endeavor is completed, the Koehler Center's staff helps the instructor write rubrics. These will be entered into the Learning Outcome Manager, allowing student achievements to be tracked against them. "We have training on how to write good rubrics. Most faculty have never had that training either," King pointed out. After the rubrics have been entered, the faculty members are ready to be trained on how to assess student performance on a particular assignment connected to a certain outcome: "What they're able to do across the course of a semester is see how the class is doing in aggregate and how each individual student is progressing toward achievement toward any particular learning outcome they happen to be tracking that semester."

King finds that ability exciting because, he said, that's "what is supposed to happen in the education process. The quality of instruction isn't based on what you do as teacher, but based on what your students learn. The only way you can determine if you're being successful in that enterprise is to have some kind of quality assessment for what your students are learning. Grades are not it. They are really flat not it. On the other hand, if you can create a rubric that is a quality tool [you can] absolutely peg the performance level of what students are doing. A learning management system at heart is actually a learning outcome management tool."

Voting with Their Feet
Student pressure in many instances has driven faculty to adopt the use of the LMS. Pointedly, King said, "Our students avoid classes where faculty don't use it." The Center has done student surveys and asked the question, do you prefer courses in which faculty use [the LMS]? "The answer is--gosh--99 percent-plus, yes."

Also, when students at Texas Christian sign up for courses at the registrar's Web site, all courses are identified on their use of "Web enhancements," the code word for, at a minimum, the existence of the LMS. Those courses that are Web-enhanced fill up first; the others don't fill up unless the others are already full.

"Observing how students vote with their feet tells you they prefer it," King pointed out. "Here are some [other] reasons we know students prefer it. They like that gradebook feature. They're very interested in knowing exactly what their grade is at any point in the semester. It's very quick and easy to do in the LMS. Students tell us, 'Why on earth would you be teaching and not have this? We've grown up where our parents can find out what our grades are.' They used LMSes in high school. They're on Facebook. It's a wired generation. The other reason we know they prefer it is because they find access to the collection of their work comforting. They submit their work into a drop box. There's a way they can track that they've done it. It's a way for them to manage themselves as a student.

King insisted that the Koehler Center doesn't dictate to faculty. "We leave that to their teams and department chairs and the chancellor." But he said envisions a day when the faculty senate could make a decision to dictate LMS usage as mandatory--by virtue of the fact that students might revolt and refuse to take courses without it. And, he added, "We'd be happy to see it happen."

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