Learning Management | Feature

Regaining Your Faculties

While the LMS has become a ubiquitous feature of higher ed, doubts persist over how much--and how effectively--faculty use the technology. CT looks at five steps needed to engage faculty.

The LMS market is worth nearly a billion dollars in the United States alone. Nearly every campus has one or more systems, along with IT staff, training programs, and infrastructure to support it. Indeed, for many institutions, the LMS is the keystone of their technology-based learning strategy, whether that means blended learning, distance learning, or just more convenient classroom administration.

But just how many institutions are actually doing a good job incorporating the LMS into their teaching structures? Recent research suggests that LMS adoption in higher education may not be going as smoothly or as consistently as many would hope.

A study of LMS usage at Cabrini College (PA), a small residential liberal arts college, illustrates the difficulties faced by many colleges. At first glance, the findings are encouraging. Based on an analysis of LMS log files for every class on campus, overall use of the school's Blackboard LMS increased over the 2 1/2-year study period: In 2010, about 44 percent of all undergraduate students had some course content posted on the LMS, up from 32 percent in 2007.

Upon closer analysis, though, the increase in usage rings a bit hollow. While the average number of logins per class per semester increased from 7.2 to 10.6 per student, the level of utilization remains low, suggesting that students have little reason to access the system in many classes. Indeed, on average, students logged into the LMS one or more times per week in only about 25 percent of the courses.

A likely reason behind the low student login rate is faculty resistance to using the LMS in the first place. What growth the study did reveal over 2½ years was a result of high levels of use by newer, generally young faculty members--there was little change in usage among existing faculty. Faculty who were on campus in 2007 used the LMS at similar levels in 2010. In many cases, the extent of LMS use went no further than posting the syllabus or other static content online.

Cabrini is not alone. Schools nationwide are struggling with ways to increase not only faculty adoption rates, but also meaningful use of the LMS as an instructional tool. In fact, if the LMS is ever to reach its full potential, significant changes need to be made in how schools, vendors, and regulators approach the task at hand. The key to success lies in five areas:

1) Faculty Involvement
Faculty buy-in is critical to the success of any program, and the best way to secure it is to involve faculty from the beginning. Consider the case of Louisiana State University, a large state school with about 36,000 students. "We used to support two different platforms--Blackboard and a homegrown product called Semester Book," recalls Sheri Thompson, LSU's IT communications and planning officer. "And under 40 percent of faculty used the platforms."

When LSU realized it could not continue to support both platforms, it opened up the selection process for identifying a replacement. "We implemented a process where faculty were deeply involved in the LMS choice, developing the RFP, evaluating responses, and ultimately choosing the Moodle platform," notes Thompson. Today, decisions regarding Moodle development are routed through the Moodle Development Advisory Committee, which is largely composed of faculty and includes student representatives.

With faculty playing a significant role, adoption has increased significantly. "As of the fall 2010 semester, 66.1 percent of faculty were teaching at least one course using Moodle," says Thompson. "On our campus, we have faculty who have blended classrooms, and others who don't. Decisions about technology are primarily faculty driven."

2) Course Design and Faculty Training
Providing adequate support and faculty training is vitally important. "Staff and administrators' lack of knowledge and experience with the technologies or emerging technologies creates a barrier," claims Julie Meyer, instructional designer for Penn State Great Valley School of Graduate Professional Studies. Meyer's role is to work with faculty to figure out how technology can best contribute to the classroom, given the faculty member's style and level of comfort with technology. She believes that both students and faculty need to be properly trained in the use of instructional technology before its full benefits can be realized.

The need for proper support and guidance is echoed by Ronald Legon, executive director of Quality Matters, a faculty-centered, peer-review process designed to certify the quality of online courses and online components. "We believe that guidelines, training, discussion, and feedback are necessary components in assisting the faculty member with no prior online teaching experience to make the transition to effective blended learning," he says.

3) Student Awareness
Like faculty, students need to be included and fully prepared to use the technology. "New-student orientation needs to show students the role and value of the course management system, and equip them with the basic skills they will need to use the technology," states Meyer, whose school uses Angel, now Blackboard. "If a class does include a blended portion, it should be clearly stated in the course schedule, so students will understand the expectation."

4) Resolving Regulatory Issues
The great hope for the LMS, of course, is that it can become an integral part of truly blended courses, made up of face-to-face and online components. Yet regulations governing blended learning may actually be slowing its adoption in traditional classrooms. State departments of education regulate and monitor student seat time, and provide guidance regarding when online experiences can (and cannot) count as classroom hours. While many campuses have submitted complete online programs with detailed implementation plans to state and regional accrediting bodies, individual faculty members who wish to substitute online experience for face-to-face hours must learn the regulations and carefully craft assignments themselves.

This can be challenging, since the regulations can be both detailed and unclear. Online equivalencies depend heavily on the degree to which other students are actively involved online.

For example, for accreditation purposes in Pennsylvania and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, a discussion post "with careful reading of all other learner postings" equals 30 minutes of instructional time. In contrast, a discussion post "without careful reading of all other learner postings'" is considered homework and does not count as instructional time.

In much the same way that the Temple University (PA) Media Education Lab has created resources and programs to help teachers understand the proper use of the "fair use" provisions of copyright law, colleges need to do a better job of openly discussing the options for compliance with blended learning.

5) Leadership
"It is essential to have a clear direction and rationale that is communicated repeatedly and supported in action by senior administration (i.e., not simply rhetoric)," notes Randy Garrison, coauthor of Blended Learning in Higher Education (Jossey-Bass, 2007). "Empty rhetoric is quickly recognized and is a morale destroyer.

"The key is to focus on teaching and learning approaches--not the technology. The rationale has to be engaged, deep, and meaningful learning." While Garrison clearly believes blended learning is an "inevitable evolution and ultimately the norm," he is also adamant that the transition will be longer and harder in the absence of solid leadership.

Chicken and Egg

Is the low utilization rate of LMSs among faculty due to Luddite tendencies, or are existing LMSs simply not serving their instructional needs adequately? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. But for the LMS to catch fire among faculty, it's going to have to move away from the walled-garden approach of which so many educators complain, by seamlessly incorporating the web, social media, and compelling e-learning materials. Judging by recent product announcements from the major vendors, this evolution is already under way.

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