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What It Really Takes to Support a Learning Management System

Supporting Learning Management Systems requires a well integrated IT team with strength in many support layers. Without that strength, the results could render LMS a distraction rather than a benefit. Institutions with small IT units should consider using the LMS services of a larger institution.

The tasks for any one of the layers of support may seem undemanding by itself. The coalesced tasks for all of the layers is much more complex. All layers need to be well integrated. If any layer is not optimized, it puts stress on other layers. Institutions thinking of doing Learning Management Systems in a serious manner should consider having a director of LMS whose job is to integrate all of the layers.

Let's examine a few of the layers and how they are viewed at different institutions.

Who Supports LMS?
The most important question an institution must decide is who is responsible for the overall management of LMS support. Gartner, a top technology research group, recently released a survey about how institutions manage their LMS infrastructure. The majority of respondents indicated the Chief Information Officer of their institution had primary responsibility for selecting the infrastructure required to support LMS - including the selection of software and hardware products.

At Sonoma, the CIO has this responsibility and the layers of support are provided from a single IT unit where communication is emphasized. At other institutions, these layers are provided from unconnected support units, increasing the stresses between layers.

What LMS? How Many?
There are a wide variety of LMS products available. Choosing is not easy. There are tradeoffs between functionality, support, and cost.

More than half of the respondents to the Gartner survey specified the use of a single LMS product at the institution. These responses indicate recognition of the complex LMS infrastructure. The survey listed the top reasons to standardize on one system as cost of support, ease in providing technical support, and ease for users to use one project.

Sonoma supports only one product, a proprietary system. However, we are investigating Open Source alternatives for cost savings and increased flexibility for instructors and researchers.

Most LMS are highly dependent on the performance of the network. If the network slows down, the system may become useless.

The Gartner survey showed that most institutions recognize the network as the single most important technology supporting LMS infrastructure.

Sonoma is fortunate to have a world-class, very high-speed network and network support unit. A solid network has a sound architecture, well-trained staff, performance monitoring, and a reliable refresh budget to address the continuously changing network technology.

Many K-12 schools and other educational institutions are struggling with both. LMS designed to minimize the effects of a poor network may be useful in such instances.

Security, Authentication, Authorization
Right behind network performance, security systems were indicated as the most important LMS infrastructure technology supporting LMS in the Gartner survey.

In part, this means that users of the system are authorized and authenticated against a list of known users. If an institution has a large customer base, this means integrating the LMS with the administrative information systems of the institution and an authentication tool such as LDAP.

At Sonoma, we have nearly 8,000 students at a time. On any given day, there will be many students adding and dropping classes. Since our LMS system is integrated with our enrollment and class database and LDAP, students are automatically added or dropped from the LMS classes. They use the same authentication credentials used for e-mail and registration.

Many institutions have not reached this level of integration, so security involves paperwork, signatures, and lag-time. If a student adds a class today, and the teacher makes assignments via the LMS, the student may have an excuse for not doing the homework while the Helpdesk processes paperwork.

Development of Content and Quality Control
The development of content for a class is optional to instructors at most institutions. Other institutions acquire content for all classes from multiple sources. It is important for an institution to clearly define the content development strategy because there are significant training and support consequences.

Decisions must also be made about quality control. If the content is an extension of the instructors' classroom, then the instructor is probably the quality control person. If the institution is trying to develop marketable content, then there may be some quality standards specified.

Training is one of the most important layers of support. Yet its importance and funding is often overlooked or under funded. Training must be provided each term to instructors designing and updating materials and to students using the system.

Training for content design must include two levels. An introductory course must be provided for new instructors each semester. Advanced instruction will always be in demand. If instructors don't receive training, the demand on the Helpdesk increases.

Although LMS are becoming self-explanatory, students may require instruction to ensure that they are not left behind. For discipline-specific LMS modules, additional training may be needed.

A Helpdesk is the nexus support layer for LMS. Helpdesk staff must be able to answer basic questions about LMS design and use, be able to indicate whether problems are with the LMS, the network, the workstation, or the user. And, they receive a surprising number of questions about the content, too, whether chemistry, history, or economics.

Nearly ninety percent of the respondents to the Gartner survey provided in-house support for LMS. Only a handful provided 24 x 7 support.

System Administration
System administration falls into two categories: Hardware/OS administration and LMS server administration.

In a well-run institution, a team performs the Hardware/OS administration for multiple servers, regardless of the applications running on the servers. This enables them to perform standard tasks across multiple servers at the same time, saving resources and ensuring that nothing is overlooked. These tasks include backups, OS security updates, monitoring, and OS version upgrades.

The LMS server administrator is responsible for making sure the LMS application upgrades are installed. The administrator must collaborate with the training personnel and Helpdesk in case upgrades cause end-user issues.

The LMS server administrator and Hardware/OS administrator work closely together to ensure that the application and operating system are optimally configured and that uptime is monitored.

Enterprise Portal Interface
As enterprise portals become more common on campuses, it is important to consider the interfaces between an LMS and other campus portal interests such as the Library, Registration, and Enrollment functions. Increasingly, the LMS will have a separate portal, provided by the vendor.

Refresh Costs
All of these systems should be replaced within the next five years. This means all new servers, new versions of the operating system, and new versions of the LMS. There are several ways to calculate the costs. But, if an institution d'esn't plan for it, the system will fall apart.

Other Layers of Support
Hopefully the large list above won't discourage an institution planning to implement LMS. Other considerations include Digital Rights Management, Disaster Recovery Planning, interfaces with Video Streaming and Wireless Networking.

No Shortcuts
Shortcuts don't work. If the network fails, the stress on the Helpdesk increases. If there isn't an integrated enrollment and authentication system, students won't get their homework assignments on time. Without a refresh budget, systems will become obsolete and investments wasted.

The Most Important Part - The Glue
The parts of a sailboat are not individually complex. But, if they are not well integrated and managed, a sailor may end up swimming back to shore. Similarly, the support layers for Learning Management Systems are individually simple. But, it is the glue of teamwork that makes it work. This means lots of planning meetings. Institutions that don't have this glue should have an emergency raft in place.

The Future
It is early in LMS development and the diverse products in place today have little to no interoperability. All of the energy in technical support and content development may need to be converted or redone as better systems and vendors take over leadership - and other vendors collapse. There is a growing interest in open source software LMS solutions. And discipline-specific tools will become an increasing factor. It is important to track developments in this area to make strategic decisions. No matter how well we've done, we're not finished.

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