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

LMS-blog

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, manage and 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 application and 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 progress and 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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