Learning Management Systems | Feature

Building a Do-It-Yourself LMS

BYU recently transitioned from a traditional learning management system to a homegrown solution.

In the summer of 2012, Brigham Young University kissed its traditional LMS goodbye. Transitioning to a do-it-yourself solution gave the Provo, UT, institution a chance to tailor a suite of teaching and learning tools to its own needs. 

The new homegrown product, called Learning Suite, combines five standalone tools that were already in use a the university:

  • Syllabus
  • Learning Outcomes (descriptions of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that learners should have after successfully completing a learning experience or program)
  • Digital Dialog (a multimedia discussion tool)
  • Mid-course evaluation tool
  • Flashcard tool (for faculty to learn the names and faces of students each semester)

"The syllabus is the framework and as we added components to it, we realized that in combination these make up a single LMS," says Tom Mallory, the product architect and senior engineer. (Before joining BYU, Mallory had worked for many years in enterprise application development at both Word Perfect and Novell.)

The BYU team will present a session, "The Challenges and Opportunities of Developing a Home Grown LMS: Blurring IT and Academic Boundaries," at the Campus Technology 2013 conference this July in Boston.

The Learning Suite is proving popular with faculty and the university's 33,000 students: Ninety percent of faculty members are using it and there have been more than 10.5 million course views in the first six months. Across the entire university, four out of five BYU page views are of Learning Suite.

Campus Technology recently interviewed project team members about the product's genesis and how they responded to challenges along the way.

How It Works
BYU had been using Blackboard's LMS for 10 years and had a good relationship with the company, but circumstances were ripe for a change.

One of BYU's challenges with its legacy system was that university data residing in other databases (such as registration and course lists) has to be integrated with the LMS. "Our CIO Kelly Flanagan was already moving all university data to a service-oriented architecture [SOA], so that we could independently build components that could consume web services directly," Mallory says. "That direction turned out to be perfect for this project," he adds, "even though it was done independently."

Learning Suite makes several things easier for faculty members and students. Professors can send messages to all their classes at once from a single place. When they move courses from one semester to another, the system automatically adjusts assignments to the next semester. The goal is to have data entered only once. For instance, once an assignment is created in the syllabus, it is automatically carried over to a grade book tool.

During the semester, professors receive exam scores from the BYU Testing Center, and at the end of the semester final grades are recorded at the Registrar's Office with the click of the button, explains Jeffrey Keith, associate academic vice president. Faculty can add learning outcomes for their course and link them to assessments. This data will then be harvested to generate reports on student learning by course learning outcome, program learning outcome, and university themes.

When students register for classes, the learning outcomes for the program are automatically displayed. BYU is finishing work on a combined calendar so students can see all their classes and assignments at once. In addition, faculty members have the option to keep LMS access open to students even after a course ends. The LMS is also being used by training groups on campus that aren't official courses, such as new student employees and campus police.

Challenges
So what were some of the challenges? According to Keith, the university-mandated timeline for the project was shortened, forcing early rollout with insufficient time for testing usability and scalability. "Second, after rollout we found that we were making too many individual calls to the database to retrieve student info. Creating batched web-service calls and storing data in buffers greatly increased speed."

Then in early summer, BYU had a massive storage-array failure that set back development by three months. "We had to deflect time to work on rebuilding servers," Mallory says.

The project team knew the transition would be difficult for faculty members. "Our provost had a great idea to use a small army of students to help with the transition," says Kirsten Thompson, a Ph.D. student and administrative assistant in the Office of the Academic Vice President. Sixty student implementation assistants helped move courses to the new tool and helped faculty learn how to use it. They made more than 1,600 office visits, took 10,600 phone calls, and answered faculty e-mails.

Mallory put students to work on the programming front. He had about a dozen computer science students working part time, and they did approximately 80 percent of the programming work. "It was good to give them this type of experience, but it was a challenge to work around their schedules," he says. "The good thing is that they gave us feedback on features based on their experience as students."

The project eventually touched almost every area of campus. Information Technology was already moving to web services, but it accelerated its work on SOA to accommodate the project. The enterprise support team and Center for Teaching and Learning, which had developed the individual tools, were involved. Keith led the effort on administrative buy-in. "There was some faculty and administrative anxiety about this," Thompson says. "We weren't naïve. We knew it was kind of scary for people."

Benefits
The BYU team members say they are not necessarily expecting a big cost savings from the changeover. "Blackboard hosted the LMS, and now we have to host our own LMS and support it, so there is an opportunity cost because our programmers work on this as opposed to something else," Mallory says. "But what we gain is our independence and something that is tailored to our needs." Blackboard has a lot of features BYU never used. "They are willing to do customizations," he adds, "but we had to pay for their consulting services and that was expensive."

A few things stand out as benefits in terms of enhanced flexibility. Learning Suite's modular design allows the university can plug in and unplug different functions without disrupting the user experience. "The presentation layer is naïve to the data," Mallory says. "For instance, we are running an internally developed grade book application in parallel with the third-party one now in use. When we turn that one off and turn ours on, there will be no change in appearance to the users."

The homegrown system also gives BYU control over when it does upgrades. "We just went through an upgrade with PeopleSoft. And when big upgrades like that happen, it is disruptive," Thompson says. "We are just kind of tired of doing that. Now if we don't feel like doing an upgrade with Learning Suite, we don't have to. It is on our schedule."

Finally, the move to a service-oriented architecture has by necessity broken down some of the walls and silos that existed between IT and academic computing. "If someone changes something in a database, we need to be kept informed to make changes in how those services are consumed," Mallory says. "We have built some really good relationships."

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Informatics and Government Technology.

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