Selecting a Learning Management System (LMS) – What You Need to Know

A Learning Management System (LMS) is software that universities can use to plan, develop, deliver, and assess the online portions of an educational program, whether that is an extension of an in-person class, or native eLearning.

An LMS provides tools to

  • Create, manageand deliver educational content
  • Monitor student participation
  • Assess student performance

A good LMS should have an easy-to-use interface for instructors to do these things, be able to use third-party modules for specific tasks, and have a robust reporting function. They increasingly support things like video conferencing, discussion forums, and extensive data analysis, allowing for customization to account for individual student needs.

But it’s easy to get lost in the vast number of options. What do you need to know to choose effectively?

How an LMS differs from an SIS

A Student Information System (SIS) manages institutional administrative operations, including admissions, enrollment, exams, attendance, and credits. An SIS integrates with accounting and admissions, and manages student records.

An LMS manages and delivers the instructional content. It extends the classroom to online, and connects students to the instructor and each other.

Some functions of highly featured LMSs might overlaps with an SIS, because teachers are also administrators, but the two platforms have very different purposes. An SIS enables an educational institution as a whole to manage its administrative relationship with a student. An LMS enables faculty to manage their instructional relationship with a student.

Together, an SIS and an LMS work together to create an effective educational relationship with each student. Understanding the differences between them, and what features your SIS already provides, will help narrow down what features your LMS must have.

How to use an LMS

An LMS is a highly capable tool’one that requires training and experience to use fully. Many organizations implement an LMS, only to find that both students and faculty use the basic features, but don’t take advantage of other features, particularly those intended to increase collaboration. Despite the notion that modern students are digital natives, they do not actually seem much more adept at picking up highly capable software than previous generations.

Increasingly, faculty wants to see solid evidence that increased technology has a positive impact on student learning. A lot of that depends on the clarity of the interface and the provided training.

An Open Source vs. Proprietary LMS

Open source software is distributed under terms that make it free and modifiable by the licensee, is built by developers who are passionate rather than purely profit-driven, and does not lock the purchaser into a relationship with a particular vendor. For an educational institution, it has the additional advantage that the term open source has real cachet with students, even those unsure of its meaning. Moodle is an example of an open source virtual learning environment.

An open source LMS isn’t free, even if it has no purchase price. It requires a platform running applications like Linus, Apache, and PHP, and a lot of time from skilled IT staff to implement and maintain it. And even if you are not tied to a vendor, switching to another LMS will still require vast amounts of training and procedural changes.

Proprietary software is software purchased from a particular vendor. Proprietary software has a lot of that IT work built in, and is more of a known entity than a given open source product. Its costs and capabilities are more easily known. Blackboard is an example of a proprietary LMS.

Institutions need to examine their own resources, ambitions, and capabilities before choosing between open source and proprietary for their learning management system.

Some Learning Management Systems to Consider

Many competitors have left the LMS market, and while there is always a possibility of innovative entrants, the market is dominated by four large LMSs. Are there any meaningful differences between them?

Moodle

Moodle is the flagship of open source LMSs. It is supported by a large development community, which has created many specialized modules and plugins. It is extremely customizable, and many third-party vendors have grown up around it to provide additional services.

Skilled management of Moodle can give a low total cost of ownership. But skill and experience are essential in achieving a well-functioning Moodle installation. Flexibility usually comes at a cost, and Moodle is complex and hard for the uninitiated to set up and operate.

For schools with strong internal capabilities and appetite for experimentation.

Blackboard

Blackboard has served many clients since 1997, and its installed base includes 75 percent of all U.S. colleges and universities. This makes it the de facto industry standard. As a result, many other teaching and management services are designed to integrate well with it. This is particularly true of SIS.

It has a large number of built-in features, hosting models, and services. Some find its platform outdated, and its cloud service offering lagging behind competitors. Blackboard’s many product versions and massive legacy platform make rolling out updates a challenge.

For schools seeking stability.

Canvas Instructure

Canvas is an open-source LMS aimed specifically at the academic market. It was designed to be a modern web applicationand provides a lot of support for collaboration and course content authoring. It includes built-in video recording as well as iOS and Android apps.

Canvas is a new player on the market, and thus does not have as long a track record or number of experienced users as some other platforms.

For schools seeking a native Web 2.0 experience and who don’t require a lot of hand-holding.

Brightspace by D2L

Brightspace is known for a good user interface and for its customer support. It has a variety of analytics and communications features, some not matched by other vendors. It provides tools to monitor student progressand interacts with students on behalf of the instructor.

The key differentiator for Brightspace is its analytics, using previous student behavior to anticipate problems and customize learning experiences in response.

After a patent fight in 2009, D2L and Blackboard license each other’s software.

For schools that are comfortable with analyzing and using data.

Choosing an LMS for your institution

There is no substitute for an honest self-assessment, and an intensive testing period. Any system, not just an LMS, has to suit the way you actually do business, the way your students actually interact, and the way your instructors actually teach’not the way you wish things were. The point of an LMS is to help you do what you already do’just better. A good online learning management system will have certain capabilities that include course syllabus, exam generators, online course catalog, lesson planning, student achievement, shareable content and student progress, grades and test scores.

How an LMS supports accreditation efforts

An LMS can provide crucial support for program accreditation by tracking and assessing student learning and providing reporting on student educational outcomes. Having the data collection for immediate student assessment be stored for use in accreditation application saves immense amounts of effort in re-entering data while reducing errors.

Integrating a Student Information System and an LMS

The essential of integration is that you want to have a single student record for all purposes, with no relevant data stored elsewhere. The result is a complete understanding of each student, uniting instructional and administrative information into a complete student profile.

It’s important not to underestimate the difficulties inherent in the systems integration of data. But the results of smooth integration can really power an educational institution to a higher level of performance.

Other considerations that should be assessed when integrating an LMS including whether you want single sign-on (so students don’t need to manage multiple user names and passwords), restful API (real-time data exchange between systems) and identity authentication.

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Understanding Gainful Employment Regulations

When boiled down, education is primarily about experience and outcome. Prospective students and families weighing their college and/or career preparation options often consider several key factorsamong them, affordability and financial aid, program completion time, courses of study, location and potential co-curricular or professional opportunities. And while students are often trying to piece together the educational experience that will best fit them, they are also seeking to understand the likely outcome of that education in the long runthe anticipated return on a hefty investment.

When Title IV financial aid funds are at play in that very investment, the federal government also wants to see that taxpayer dollars are allocated to schools and programs that set students up for success, which is where gainful employment (GE) disclosure and reporting come in. It’s important for institutions to understand what gainful employment is, what regulations surround it, why it matters and how to accurately disclose and report required information.

An Introduction to Gainful Employment

After an extensive rulemaking process, new gainful employment regulations were published on October 31, 2014 and went into effect on July 1, 2015. The new regulations have more rigorous standards for accountability and transparency to further protect students from poor and sometimes fraudulent career preparation programs that have historically left them saddled with debt they cannot repay. To ensure that students are being put on a path to success, the Department of Education requires certain schools to demonstrate that they adequately prepare students for a�?gainful employment in a recognized occupationa�? in order to be eligible to receive (and continue receiving) Title IV student financial aid funds.

Gainful employment regulations apply to roughly 3,700 institutions around the country, including non-degree educational programs at public and private nonprofit institutions and virtually all educational programs at for-profit and proprietary institutions. These often include post-secondary certificate and diploma programs, training programs and technical and vocational education. Programs leading to an associate’s, bachelor’s, graduate or professional degree at public and private nonprofit institutions of higher education are not considered gainful employment programs in this sense and do not need to comply with the gainful employment standards.

What is a�?Gainful Employment in a Recognized Occupationa�??

Three debt measures are used to determine whether or not institutions are preparing their students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation: repayment rate, debt-to-earnings ratios based on annual income, and debt-to-earnings ratios based on discretionary income. These measures are intended to show that students are prepared for adequate job placement in recognized occupations that pay reasonable living wages, and that students are not so buried in educational debt that their loan payments absorb the bulk of their income.

  • Repayment Rate
    The rate of loan repayment must be at least 35 percent for gainful employment programs to remain eligible for Title IV funds. Repayment rate = original outstanding principal balance of loans paid in full plus the original outstanding principal balance of payments-made loans, divided by the original outstanding principal balance. The value of the fraction is multiplied by 100 to get the repayment rate.
  • Debt-to-Earnings
    For every gainful employment program, the Department of Education will calculate debt-to-earnings ratios based on information supplied by the institution for a specified cohort period (two or four years) as well as from the Social Security Administration.
  • Annual Earning Rate = median annual loan payment divided by the greater of the mean or median annual earnings of graduates. The a�?passa�? threshold for gainful employment standards is that graduates’ annual loan payments are less than or equal to 8 percent of their annual earnings. The a�?faila�? threshold is that the annual loan payment is greater than 12 percent of annual earnings.
  • Discretionary Income Rate = median annual loan payment divided by the discretionary income of graduates (i.e. the higher of the mean or median annual earnings, less 1.5 times the Health and Human Services Poverty Guidelines). The a�?passa�? threshold for gainful employment regulations is that graduates’ annual loan payments are less than or equal to 20 percent of their discretionary income. The a�?faila�? threshold is that the annual loan payment is greater than 30 percent of discretionary income.

Programs are considered in the a�?zonea�? if their calculations fall between the a�?passa�? and a�?faila�? thresholds. a�?Faila�? marks for two out of three consecutive years or a combination of a�?faila�? and a�?zonea�? marks for four consecutive years will render a gainful employment program ineligible for Title IV funding.

Understanding Disclosure and Reporting

Schools must disclose information about their gainful employment programs to the public using the Gainful Employment Disclosure Template to help students make informed decisions. In addition, they must submit an official, comprehensive report about students enrolled in these programs to the Department of Education’s central database for student aid, the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS).

According to the Department of Education, disclosure of the following data on the institution’s website and in promotional materials is required for each gainful employment program:

  • Occupations associated with program (by name and SOC code)
  • Typical program completion time
  • On-time completion rate
  • Program costs
  • Placement rate
  • Median loan debt

Also according to the Department of Education, reporting of the following data to the NSLDS is required for each student who received Title IV funds for a gainful employment program that they either completed or withdrew from:

  • Tuition and fees assessment before aid or credits are applied
  • Cost of books, supplies and equipment
  • Institutional debt owed apart from Title IV debt (e.g. obligations such as library or laboratory fees)
  • Private loans

The Gainful Employment Reporting Process

Institutions must report on an award year (July 1 through June 30). A student enrolled for more than one award year must be reported in each award year, and a student enrolled in more than one program must be reported for each program. This is accomplished through batch reporting (fixed width or comma separated value formats) through an institution’s Student Aid Internet Gateway (SAIG) Mailbox or online reporting through the NSLDS Professional Access website (NSLDSFAP).

The fully integrated financial aid module in Campus Café’s Student Information System (SIS) streamlines what can be a confusing and cumbersome government reporting process. Our integrated SIS collects and compiles data for NSDLS reporting as well as other required reports for state and government agencies. In addition, it services student communication, billing and packaging related to financial aid and ensures accurate tracking of student placements and hiring metrics. Campus Café complies with federal reporting and keeps tabs on changes in regulations to ensure that the specific needs of your career or vocational school are met.

View the complete Gainful Employment User Guide >

View the Gainful Employment Operations Manual >

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