To use an LMS or not to use an LMS? That is the Question

I have a varied background that involves being on all sides of LMSs over the past 18 years. I have used a number of LMSs: WebCT, Angel Learning, Desire2Learn (D2L), Moodle, Blackboard, SharePoint LMS, ELearning Force and Lanteria. And I have reviewed and evaluated many others.

I’ve developed and facilitated online courses at Red River College. I’ve used LMSs to supplement face to face courses. I’ve researched, evaluated and implemented LMSs and provided support, technical services consultation and training at UofM in IST as an LMS administrator and at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. I’ve also researched, evaluated and implemented many other educational technologies, some which supplemented and complemented LMSs and others as alternatives. And now, I’m experiencing an LMS as a student.

This is part one of this discussion thread in which I discuss the key issues and challenges with using an LMS.

LMSs are:

  • Not student centred, but centralized systems used for administrative purposes
  • Closed systems
  • Lack tools or tools are not robust enough tools
  • Large systems that are slow to adopt change

An LMS is a centralized system for managing students and student data. It is a part of larger collection of systems for administration management. They are tied into student information systems (SIS) that allow for course registration, are transactional, hold the official record of grades and transcripts and many other functions. This can also have a contact resource management (CRM) system integrated to manage prospective leads designed to manage those prospects into customers. LMSs can also have integration to a student success system (SSS) which monitor student success and failure. They are aimed at improving student success but also at student, or customer retention.

LMSs come at a high cost in terms of price, time and staff resources to evaluate, implement, maintain, upgrade, change and develop courses. These are enterprise systems used for the benefit of the overall business. Universities, colleges and some high schools have invested heavily in LMSs and their integrated systems and they are not going to go away anytime soon.

Some LMSs are open source, such as Moodle and Drupal while others are proprietary, such as the two largest players: D2L and Blackboard. But regardless, LMSs are centrally controlled so implementation of change is very slow and bureaucratic. Out of the box, these management systems work well, but they still require a significant amount of expertise and time to implement, customize, maintain and support.

All LMSs have similarities but they have a variety of differences; they offer similar tools but the quality between them differs. They are evaluated on these tools and how they fit with other systems, business processes and teaching and/or training and learning.

LMSs are generalists with some specialties. The tools an LMS offers are not all of the same quality: Some are better than others. Or they might not offer some tools at all. For example, when implemented at UofM D2L did not offer a blog or a wiki; these had to be integrated using third party vendor tools. UofM also implemented a learning objectives add on that tied objectives to outcomes to rubrics and assessments and the grade book. But it never worked as advertised and was eventually abandoned. As generalists, the tools will not be as good as dedicated tools, such as social media like Twitter and Facebook. If you follow the “choose the right tool for the right job”, an LMS will often come up falling short. Teaching and learning requires many tools, and some of the tools at hand are good while others are poor.

LMSs are always behind the curve in adopting new technologies and tools despite the adoption or agile software development and deployment and once implemented, the tool will not be the same quality. This is true of initial Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and wikis and later social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

An LMS can get in the way of teaching and learning processes. They always have some deficiency in tools but also in design that impacts user experience and engagement. Finding tools can be problematic and getting tools to do what you want them to do can feel frustrating.

LMSs do not allow for the creation of private or individualized student learning spaces. They provide a predefined template and toolset and place emphasis on users to adapt to and learn these systems.

LMSs provide poor spaces for peer to peer collaborations. Shared spaces have to be set up and administered by instructors, some of the tools are quite good, but some are deficient.

LMSs are closed systems that do not allow interaction with experts, educators and learners external to the system. They also limit what students can share with the external world, with the exception of the addition of an eportofilo module set up with permissions for students share their work. Student data is subject to privacy considerations to protect the student, but also legal considerations to protect the university. Student data is destroyed following records retention schedules and guidelines shortly following the closing of a course.

LMSs do not link well with some external tools and sometimes require an administrator to provide access. Access to YouTube works well, so does Adobe Connect, but not to all synchronous and asynchronous communication tools integrate or link well which either limits choice of what is used within the LMS or forces you to move outside of the LMS; our Skype discussion are an example of having to go outside of the LMS.

Overall, an LMS can be frustrating to work in and can get it in the way of teaching and learning.

LMSs are very clunky and frustrating. I even have difficulty navigating in D2L and I spent 2 and half years working in it.

Having implemented and administered D2L at UofM I worked with all the stakeholders and understand their business and business drivers. LMSs are huge investments in terms of time, costs and resources, but they provide big benefits. They are viewed as enterprise systems which means they are central to the business of the university, or, to put it another way, central to the business of multiple university businesses. They satisfy the needs of IT departments by providing a centralized administration of student accounts and data to provide support and service. They satisfy the needs of registrars by providing linkages between student information systems, Aurora in UofM’s case, that provide registration, transactions and official record of grades and transcripts. They provide a centralized system for learning centres to make support and training easier for faculty. They make governance of privacy, records retention and copyright enforcement easier. They can also fulfill legal obligations, such as ensuring user data is warehoused in Canada and safe. And they do provide a framework and tools for teachers and learners.

There are benefits for teachers and instructors in using LMSs. But there are alternatives because it’s not always a binary choice between use or not to use. There are alternative frameworks and blended models that can be used.

Benefits of an LMS:

  • Centralizes courses, course work, tools, assignments, learning outcomes, notifications, discussions, feedback, evaluations, etc. in one place with a dashboard and structural framework making management of course easier for instructor and navigation easier for learners
  • Robust system with large offering of flexible tools, provides a variety of asynchronous communication tools, activities, assessments
  • Provides a template framework that is customizable
  • Provides linkages to external tools and to any tool or content with the LMS
  • Competency based learning: competencies, outcomes and learning objectives can be tied to assessments, rubrics, feedback and grade book
  • Units requiring to meet standards for competencies set by external bodes can ensure all courses in their unit meet competency standards, are instructing and evaluating to competencies and expecting the same learning outcomes and ensuring all competencies are taught and remove redundancies
    • Nursing and Dentistry courses are competency based using standards set by their provincial and national colleges
  • Closed system ensures learner privacy
  • Student success systems (SSS) can be integrated to monitor student performance and to identify students who are struggling so assistance (mentoring, tutoring, coaching) can be provided
  • Can allow for creation and/or hosting of student generated content
  • Provides a structured framework for sequencing activities, learning outcomes, and assessments
  • Provides dashboard for accessing external web, cloud-based tools (Padlet), social media (Facebook, Twitter), web 2.0 (wikis, blogs) and apps integration with third party tools (iClicker) and integration with other institutional technologies (Google+)
    • Private spaces/networks, internal within (integrated) or external to (separate) the LMS can be created for private, individual work or group based, collaborative work
  • Enrollment of faculty, instructional designers, librarians, content experts and other editors in the development of courses, access to common content provide mentorship, guidance and support to learners. Guests can be given enrollment into courses to facilitate, observe, present content, etc.
    • Dentistry’s librarian assists in course development and providing content that is shared across the school
    • Medicine and Rehabilitation enrolls all their faculty in every course to provide access for leaner guidance and course content authoring
  • As an enterprise system integral to the business of the institution, enrollments, support, service, training and other administrative functions are provided to faculty and learners by other institutional units, such as a registrars office, IT and learning centres
  • Adoption of agile software development by LMS vendors or open source development communities aims at delivering tool updates and new tools at a faster pace to LMSs; less wait time for new tools, functionality and features
  • ePortfolios can be used to provide learners with a repository of their work (discussions, submitted work) over their academic career that they can share within their class, externally (for grad school applications, seeking employment) and used an archive.
  • Learning object repositories (LOR) allow for faculty access to their content outside of course units, freeing it to be used in authoring multiple courses, allows for versioning and global objects that are edited within the LOR but applied to linked objects within courses. LORs can allow learners access to content outside of the course structure to use over the span of their program or academic career at the institution

These two are little known features of D2L (UM Learn):

  • Provides a hierarchy of organization units (Institution, Faculty, Department, Course) that can allow for membership, not just limited to enrollment in courses

D2L provides a hierarchy of organization units (Institution, Faculty, School, Department, Course) that can allow for membership, not just courses. Every organizational unit is treated as a course; they use the same template. So a student will be dynamically enrolled in D2L on their dashboard (Institution unit), their courses, but they can also be enrolled at the department, school or faculty level to receive announcements and content and and be involved in discussion forums at this higher level unit external to their courses. So a student in Nursing can receive notifications faculty wide and be in discussions with all other leaners and faculty at the faculty unit level.

  • Access to past course content for faculty, schools and departments that evaluate leaners based on content over the course of their program

An LMS can provide learners access to past course content, either through courses, a higher level unit in the hierarchy or a learning object repository (LOR) for faculties, schools and departments that evaluate based on content over the course of their program. This is the case with Medicine and Nursing students at UofM. They can be evaluated and graded on any content over the course of their program and one of these methods can provide them access to that content long after they completed their courses.

That is precisely the problem with D2L’s blog tool: private or global access. I was shocked to make that discovery during the pilot phase of implementation considering it was one of the criterion used to select the LMS.

ePortfolio is a fairly robust, if not clunky tool that allows for a portfolio but also blogging. Learners can access and use it, but it has to be turned on within the course by the instructor or course editor to share within the course and to aggregate content from the course.

Learners can:

  • Blog
  • Aggregates past content in blog posting
  • Add a Collection of items from courses or blog
  • Upload files
  • Write content in HTML editor
  • Add links
  • Add a presentation
  • Add audio recordings
  • Add reflections: used to create links between items
  • Add comments
  • Create and link learning objectives
  • Link assessments
  • Share with individuals, groups or whole class


About jhounslow

Soccer enthusiast, cyclist, web developer, e-learning professional, educator, husband to a graduate student, and father of four daughters.
This entry was posted in EDTC0550, edtech, LMS and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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