Using an LMS in HE: Making compromises

Learning Management Systems… I have had the pleasure of using 4 (yes, 4!) different LMS’s in the past few years: WebCT, Angel, Blackboard and Moodle. I currently use two, primarily —  Angel and Blackboard — as the two programmes on which I teach use different systems. In each case, the LMS offers real advantages in a higher education context: seamless connection with student enrolment systems, easy access to online gradebook features, and password-protected security. However, I’ve also encountered limitations:

  • The tools within an LMS are not necessarily the best ones for the job — particularly in terms of social networking/discussion and blogging. For example, the blogging tool in Blackboard is pretty basic (in terms of functionality, not academic administration/grading) when compared with WordPress, Blogger, Posterous, etc.
  • Sometimes my students and I want our work to be “inside the fence”, but many times we don’t. Making work open, sharable and inviting feedback from others — not necessarily students in the same course, and not even necessarily students! — is difficult with an LMS.
  • I haven’t yet found a way to integrate social bookmarking seamlessly within an LMS.
  • There are many web applications which are just not available within an LMS, e.g. RSS readers, Diigo, Twitter, Skype, etc.

In addition to these is the paradox of putting links to wonderful *open* educational resources (OERs), like Ted talks and YouTube videos, inside the confines of an LMS.

In trying to learn more about what others are thinking and doing about this dilemma, I’ve found plenty to consider — if no quick solutions.

> Matt Crosslin, in a recent excellent post If we ditch the LMS, what else could we re-think?, imagines a browser-based social learning environment — perhaps similar to RockMelt, but with additional features. As Crosslin states: “the idea would be to minimize the LMS to be in the background so students can concentrate on the place where they are learning: the web”.

> A short Educause article published in 2010, 7 Things you should know about LMS alternatives, provides a concise, balanced summary of the pros and cons of using an LMS in HE. It concludes: “The use of LMS alternatives may hold the promise of a more student-centric approach, one that encourages students to reach across the boundaries of academic terms and learning disciplines and to see their education as a coherent whole that they can maintain using a range of applications. By going outside the LMS to use tools that allow for more student engagement, more effective collaboration, and more active learning in general, instructors could establish new expectations for the LMS.”

> Finally, in a recent interview prior to the webinar Facilitating Social Interactions: Measuring engagement and promoting academic success within the LMS, Stephen Downes discussed the idea of maxmizing the strengths and minimizing the weaknesses of the LMS: “The tendency [with collaborative tools] is to try to bring everybody into a single environment in order to foster collaboration, but my preference is to foster the collaborative activity itself outside the environment, and to use the environment only for reporting and communication.”

As an educator, what I’d like to do is to choose the tool which best suits the learning objective and which allows sharing and collaboration outside the specific course. And what I’d really like is to stop asking students to create work in course-specific silos — isolated in time and space from all of the work they are doing in other courses, in their workplaces, and in the rest of their lives.

In the meantime, I’ll make compromises. I’ll welcome the ease of use that the LMS gives me in terms of administration, grading and security. But I’ll use other tools, and suggest that my students try other tools, outside the LMS, where these provide the advantages described above. Not pretty, but workable.

I welcome feedback and suggestions, particularly from other LMS users in Higher Education who might be addressing similar issues.

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About catherinecronin
Academic coordinator of online IT programmes and lecturer in Information Technology. My work focuses on online and open education, digital literacies, social media in education, and #ITwomen. Currently working towards Ph.D. exploring open education and digital identities.

14 Responses to Using an LMS in HE: Making compromises

  1. Emory says:

    Hello Catherine,
    I enjoyed reading the post and your thoughts.

    I’ll start by admitting my bias toward Moodle – it is what I currently use. While nothing will be perfect I think some of the challenges/limitations of using web2.0 tools with an LMS might be addressed in some parts of Moodle2. Too early to tell and a lot still seems to be a work in progress, but blogs for one looks much better in Moodle2. And I think with some of the open repositories there may be promise for more web2.0 tools working in harmony with the LMS. In the meantime I’ve had success embedding TED talks or YouTube videos in the courses, but I welcome an easier way.

    I think you make an excellent point in regards to working “inside” and “outside” the fence. That is an important consideration and while the LMS can give us a secure “walled garden” there are a lot of benefits to openness and allowing projects and work to live on outside the LMS. I do think there is a balance to be reached. Sometimes to understand and recognize the need for a balance is the first step to addressing it. Sounds like you’re well on your way :)

    Again thanks for sharing.

    -Emory

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Emory. I haven’t had a good look at Moodle 2, but some of the developments you speak about are also on the way for Blackboard. So there should be some growing flexibility there.

    My preference would still be for a more open environment, something like Matt Crosslin’s concept of a Social Learning Environment (SLE) – http://www.edugeekjournal.com/2010/03/18/social-learning-environment-manifesto. An environment that could integrate course resources with useful web apps/resources -and- the various layers of a student’s web presence (according to their own preferences for sharing) for improved communication & collaboration could be really powerful. It would be lovely to tear down at least some of those fences!

    Thanks,
    Catherine

  3. Emory says:

    Agreed. I think the best solution my be to allow instructors and students choose from several blended options. It is like not a “one size fits all” solution.

    I would go back to your point about allowing a choice of the tool which best suits the learning objective. Very important to customize the tools (LMS or otherwise) to fit the learning and not vice versa.

    Thanks for the discussion.

  4. Michael Seery says:

    Hi Catherine,

    Thanks – this is something I bashed around myself before – I think your approach is sensible – go with what’s pragmatic to use. A few points I thought of were:
    – There isn’t really an alternative to the gradebook, and if that is used it must be in the LMS (e.g. with SCORM). That being said, I’m sure some people are doing clever things with Google Docs, but that sounds like time!
    – The “all in one place” must be appealing to students – if they had 12 lecturers in a semester, there is an advantage of just having to go to one place. However, I’m sure the links could be in one place, linking out to wherever a lecturer has their information.
    – From an institutional perspective, there is an advantage in just supporting one system, which most people can be taught to use easily.

    However, on the other side, when you look at the kinds of things you can do with third party software, LMS systems suddenly look very clunky. I think a middle road for the moment might be to host a skeleton in the LMS, and have links from that to third party materials. That being said, I’m getting very close to using WordPress to completely host a module LMS.

    Anyway, that long ramble is really to say that you’re not alone in all of this!
    Michael

    PS – Shameless self promotion, but I put a post on my own blog about this if you’re interested:

    http://www.michaelseery.com/home/index.php/2010/04/vles-are-they-dead-or-not/

  5. Many thanks, Michael, for your comments. Really appreciate the link to your blog post as well — your post and the ensuing discussion were thought-provoking. As you say, HE institutions are using LMS’s for some good reasons, though we and our students must find creative ways to use them — and to break out of them at times.

    I should have said in my original post that both of the programmes in which I teach are IT programmes (one BSc, one MSc), so there is an assumed level of programming competence as well as a general willingness to use and to try ex-LMS tools. Perhaps, with a different student cohort, we might find ourselves less dissatisfied with the LMS status quo. I don’t know.

    Finally, I am intrigued by your idea of hosting a module on WordPress. Let me know how you get on!

    Thanks again,
    Catherine

  6. Michael Seery says:

    Hi Catherine,

    Thanks. Yes am interested in setting up a wordpress site and seeing how potential LMs plug-ins etc work. This post has inspired me: http://wpmu.org/wordpress-as-a-learning-management-system-move-over-blackboard/
    I think for me and my own usage the main inhibitor would be the gradebook, but for modules that don’t need one, why not?! If you (or anyone) is interested in playing around with a wordpress installation, let me know.

    All the best,

    michael

  7. chrisatlecturetools says:

    Hopefully some of these shortcomings will be remedied by LTI and similar integration standards, which are allowing external applications to embed with LMS like Blackboard, Sakai, and Moodle.

  8. Simon Ensor says:

    The LMS debate often clouds more important issues. The ‘walled garden’ it seems to me is not a sanctuary of learning for the students but rather a perimeter fence for the institution to protect its property of which the students objectifed are the elements which count the most. If content is king the student as consumer is its vassal. Management here is control for the system. The system does not necessarily provide an environment in which diversity of relationship and exchange enable an individual learner to thrive.

    If the means of communicating with the outside world are not vibrant, the port dries up. Hierarchical structure limits free trade of ideas and practices. If the music industry is anything to go by, many smaller academic labels are going to disappear.

    This LMS debate is not a question of technology it is rather a question of perspective. Is the role of the institution to be a vital learning hub or a virtual seminary? Are we designing for a fish farm or preparing our learners to be fishers of ideas and men in a wide open ocean of opportunity. Harbours are essential, but only if the sea is deep enough to get the sailors out safely.

  9. Well said, Simon. You clearly lay out the philosophical arguments against Learning Managment Systems (the clue is in the name, surely!). In reality, however, I suspect that many will continue to use LMS’s, or VLE’s, in an unreflected way. These systems are in place; they are easy to use; they enable communications (albeit within the class, mainly); and they simplify grading procedures. That will be enough for very many educators.

    My own feeling is that those of us who embrace pedagogies which drive us and our students to work outside the confines of an LMS, should do so. Let us, alongside our students, demonstrate the depth of learning and sharing which is possible, share our experiences, debate the benefits and the risks. Many people are doing this already, e.g. have you seen Matthew K. Gold’s recent article: http://learningthroughdigitalmedia.net/beyond-friending-buddypress-and-the-social-networked-open-source-classroom ?

    I look forward to continuing to share and discuss these ideas with you and other educators.

  10. Emory says:

    I wonder if there are times when the “walled garden” of the LMS is not only an appropriate environment, but one that is sought after by students as well as faculty. In addition, I’m not sure if its fair to lump students or “institutions” together and guess their perspectives- seems too simple. The role of the institution probably can’t be framed as an “either/or” situation.

    Finally I’m not even sure the LMS or alt open platforms are even the most important factor in the success or engagement of the students. Moodle, Sakai, Bb, google sites, blogs, wordpress, wikis are all just vehicles – how they are used and the teaching behind it is most important.

  11. Hi Emory — thanks for your thoughts. I am at the Education in a Changing Environment conference at the University of Salford today (#ece11) and I will be speaking about much of what you are saying here. Engaging students, helping them to develop and improve their digital literacy/ies, and effective, enjoyable learning — these are the keys to all of my decisions about tools, platforms, etc. Pedagogy before technology, of course.

    Thanks again for your feedback. I enjoy the ongoing discussion. :-)

  12. Emory says:

    Sounds like a great conference. Will your session be streamed, or can we expect a blog post with reflections from the conference?

    Thank you for the conversations.

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