Campus Technology Focus


A New Approach to Learning Management Systems

We’re witnessing a period of rapid change in learning management systems (LMS). Not only has it become one of the most important pieces of software on your campus, but it’s one of the fastest-evolving. Richer feature sets that meet a wider range of needs, constant updates from vendors—and rapidly escalating price points on some systems—have  many institutions taking a hard look at their LMS investment. Is it offering us the best return on investment? Is it flexible enough for the changing demands of students and staff? Is it extensible enough for the growing needs of an institution?

Two very different universities—relatively small Columbia International University in South Carolina and relatively large Louisiana State University—have answered that question with the same managed open-source LMS. Both schools have a common goal—to offer faculty and students the best LMS available for both in-person and online courses. Regardless of size, both schools needed a flexible platform that could be configured to meet the institution’s specific needs, scale as the institution grows, and that offered a solid return on dollars spent. 

LMS Success at Columbia International University

For Columbia International University, the ability of its LMS to grow quickly and meet changing needs was paramount. The evangelical Bible school, based in Columbia, South Carolina, knows the value of scalability from its previous experience with an inadequate, internally developed LMS that garnered almost no use from students, faculty or administrators. The institution has ambitious plans for expanding its online learning offerings and growing toward a full-scale online degree program. As Director of Distance Education and Media Development Robert McDole puts it, “If you’re offering online courses and degrees, your LMS system has to be solid. Online students don’t see brick and mortar, they see the LMS. If it goes down, that speaks volumes about your institution.”

With that in mind, the college evaluated a range of LMS providers and selected Moodlerooms, quickly making the move to the managed open–source LMS at the beginning of 2009. Moodlerooms is a Moodle Partner that builds on the open-source LMS, Moodle, by adding cloud hosting, ongoing code maintenance, testing, security, and many additional features that institutions can turn on at the click of a button.

Today, over 2,000 users at CIU use the Moodle-based system daily in a combination of online-only, face-to-face, and hybrid courses to access course schedules, add and drop classes, submit papers, check homework and grades, take quizzes and exams, chat with classmates and instructors, and more.

Whatever the type of course, the success of the new system is proven by both the sheer number of student and faculty users, and the number of courses CIU is now able to offer through Moodlerooms, especially in its growing online course portfolio, where McDole is focused. With the previous in-house system, just two online courses a year were developed; now, Columbia develops 20 online courses a year through Moodlerooms, with plans to steadily add more.

In general, McDole finds the platform far less complicated than other learning management systems he’s used. And he knows of whence he speaks: he has worked with online learning systems since 2001, having used just about every major system on the market, including WebCT and Blackboard in various iterations. When he compares quizzes and testing features, for example, McDole says he has found Moodlerooms’ solution far less complicated—and hence less likely to generate help calls. Help desk statistics from Columbia support his claim: calls specific to the LMS average less than 15 a day when school is in session, and are mostly centered around basic use questions.

For bigger questions, the value of Moodlerooms’ Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) delivery comes into play, McDole says—and has been “a huge factor.” Because the school was spending virtually nothing supporting its previous system—which had almost no users, and hence no need for support—he finds it hard to calculate a specific return on investment for the new system. But the features and functionality that the new system offers, he says, and the increased productivity of faculty and students using it, are clear.

A recent launch of a new course in German illustrates the importance of Moodlerooms’ quick extensibility—and the fact that Moodle supports over 80 languages. Using the same LMS infrastructure that the main campus in South Carolina uses, the new course was immediately made available to students. The only difference is that the course materials and interface are in German.

McDole estimates that a huge number of features in Moodlerooms’ managed open-source solution await implementation if the university chooses—“We just haven’t decided to turn [the new features] on yet.” But as the university grows, it clearly has an LMS that will be growing with it.

The Flexibility of Open Source at LSU

With 27,000 students now using Moodlerooms, Louisiana State University now has nearly every undergraduate currently taking at least one course that makes use of the university’s choice of Moodle as its open source learning management system.

That sort of heavy participation points to the reasons behind LSU’s decision two-plus years ago to move from Blackboard and an in-house system. A huge draw for LSU, according to LMS Administrator Buddy Ethridge, is the fact that Moodle is open source, making the software extremely flexible and adaptable to an individual institution’s needs.

Moodlerooms’ cloud hosting method saves the university the cost of on-site hardware, updates, backup, security, support staff, and more. And the savings of allowing a vendor to host the software offsite go beyond the obvious surface costs, Ethridge points out. “It’s an issue not only of allocation of resources such as databases,” he says, “but also the power footprint in the [computer] room, and all kinds of other costs we would incur… It’s much cheaper for us to outsource than to support the system in-house.”

That flexibility is a key point at LSU. With so many users and a legacy student information system that must work with the LMS, changes to the system—both large and small—aren’t uncommon, making Moodle’s flexible nature extremely important. LSU’s partnership agreement with Moodlerooms includes the ability to contribute code to the software to alter the LMS's appearance and functionality in just about any way possible.

“The largest factor in our choice of Moodle is its flexibility,” Ethridge stresses, “which [stems from] its open-source nature.”

Also important to LSU, Ethridge says, is the huge community of worldwide users in higher education who constantly contribute to Moodle’s development and hone its functionality. As those institutions add features, they are tested and become available to others. In fact, the university’s mantra in its selection, Ethridge says, included the assumption that “if it doesn’t exist in Moodle now, either it will be added [by other users], or we can do it ourselves.”

LSU itself has been a rich source of additional features and customizations to Moodle, all of which have been shared with the higher education community, per the open-source license stipulation. For example, when LSU moved from Blackboard, it wrote a conversion tool to partially automate the process – a tool that other schools have since made use of.

System alterations to Moodle include some big projects, such as customizing the all-important integration with LSU’s legacy mainframe student information system. Other changes tend toward relatively simple faculty and student requests for customizations, such as a change to how unread posts are displayed in forums, or the addition of a copy button at a strategic location.

Reception by students was excellent. “Students seem to take to change very easily,” Ethridge says. To ease faculty transition to the new system, always a bigger challenge, LSU made an instructional technologist available specifically for hands-on consultation, either by phone or at faculty offices. That strategy helped harried, change-averse faculty at LSU make the move to the new system far more smoothly.

With so much happening in the learning management space right now, and with institutions facing so many concurrent and fast-changing needs, flexibility and extensibility in an LMS is critical. Both of the institutions described here took a hard look at their student and faculty needs, and an even harder look at price and value, and decided that their current LMS wasn’t meeting those needs. The clear conclusion: the flexibility offered by an open-source LMS, along with the global community of users and the security and cost savings of SaaS delivery, offers clear benefits.

These institutions’ experiences highlight the reasons behind the growing momentum in higher education, toward a new approach to learning management systems.

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