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UMassOnline Chooses new LMS

One major part of the long journey is almost over. After a process that began in December 2009, the University of Massachusetts Online has selected a replacement for its learning management system, about 11 months later than it expected to. The institution, which supports 15 campuses in the U Mass system and serves up 1,500 different online courses each year, will be moving off of Blackboard Vista and onto Blackboard Learn 9.1.

The evaluation process was detailed in an expansive wiki that made almost every aspect of the selection public, from why the update was taking place (Blackboard intends to retire Vista in January 2013) to what other faculty and staff from non- U Mass campuses reported about their experiences with various LMSs (UK's Dudley College on moving from Blackboard CE 8 to Learn 9.1: "Only had two courses fail and each course required a minor amount of cleanup--primarily formatting.").

Besides Learn 9.1, the evaluation examined six finalist LMSs: Desire2Learn, Moodle, Sakai, Pearson eCollege, Instructure Canvas, and Haiku LMS.

The evaluation focused on six major areas of consideration:

  • Business processes, such as the institutional workflows and operations that needed to be considered to ensure business continuity;
  • Costs, particularly total cost of ownership and return on investment;
  • Migration, of courses as well as learning objects, connectivity to other applications such as the student information system, and knowledge transfer for training and end user support;
  • The application delivery model, including how well the existing technology infrastructure and skill set of the institution and its partners would mesh with the various LMS providers;
  • End user and technical support, particularly how the new LMS would affect support requirements and service levels; and
  • Teaching and learning, and how the new LMS would keep that running and available while gaps that cropped up were addressed.

Another major aspect of the evaluation was the use of "user stories," an attempt to describe the needs of specific types of users as they needed to do something with the LMS, such as a faculty member who wants to set up a small grouping of students to organize peer-to-peer assessments or an IT staff member who wants to be able to integrate third-party tools via open standards and specifications rather than having to write custom connectors and interfaces.

An interesting point to note, given that at least two of the finalists were open source candidates, was that the institution found no significant difference in the total cost of ownership among the candidates.

UMassOnline noted in its review Blackboard's support of open industry standards, including IMS Global Learning Consortium's Common Cartridge and Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI). These standards provide mechanisms by which schools can integrate external tools and tap content from multiple sources and deliver it through the LMS.

Another plus cited by the review board was the approach taken by Learn 9.1 to host several campuses through one installation of the Blackboard platform--known as multi-tenancy.

In the end, said Patrick Masson, chief technology officer of UMassOnline, the decision was based on a "very thorough evaluation of both the various learning management systems and, just as importantly, our own internal practices as well." The internal assessment process identified how campuses deliver online education, he explained. "Ultimately, Blackboard was the best option for the UMassOnline community. Because our evaluation was so intensive, we learned a lot about the vendors that participated and found Blackboard's engagement in the process to be authentic, consistent, and very supportive."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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