Teaching & Learning
- Media Services
- Labs & Classrooms
- Training & Support
- Hardware, Software & Equipment
- Willoughby Fellows Program
- Projects & Initiatives
- Events & Activities
News & Events
FAQs about the LMS Upgrade Project
LMS Evaluation | Fall 2008
What is an LMS?
LMS stands for "learning management system," a class of software designed to help faculty organize and deliver resources for the classes they teach. Resources include anything from course content, such as syllabi, academic articles, images, sound and video files, and content found on web sites. Resources also include tools for communication, interaction, and assessment. As both academic content and the information-using habits of students and faculty have become increasingly digital, the LMS has become a mainstay of the infrastructure of teaching and learning.
LMSs are sometimes called "course management systems," or CMSs. We avoid this expression since it can be confused with "content management system," another class of software designed for a different purpose. You may have heard that Dickinson recently purchased a CMS called Ektron to support the college's web site.
Why is LIS considering an upgrade?
Last September (2008), the Information Technology Services Committee agreed to consider upgrading Dickinson's LMS. The LMS is a central element of LIS's virtual presence.
The LMS Dickinson currently uses is Blackboard Basic. Although useful for its core purpose of centralizing resources, it lacks key features, such as integrating information resources and providing a more active, student-centric IT experience.
For example, Blackboard Basic does not allow us to create courses created automatically from registrar data, and professors must either enroll students in classes themselves or else have students self-enroll. This is a time-consuming and error-prone process. It also does not allow us to take advantage of Dickinson's investments in enterprise applications such as Banner.
Blackboard Basic also lacks essential tools for collaboration and communication that students and faculty now expect from a web application, such wikis, blogs, and podcasts. Moreover, Blackboard Basic is showing its age as a web application: it lacks the ease of use and interoperability of Web 2.0 applications that both users and support staff have come to expect in an enterprise product.
Another consideration is cost. Although it would be simple to upgrade Blackboard from the Basic to the Enterprise Edition, this would quadruple our annual LMS license fee. Since Dickinson acquired Blackboard almost a decade ago, a number of less expensive and, by many accounts, better LMSs have appeared on the market. We are taking this opportunity to experiment with these, to ensure that we choose the system that gives us the best value.
What products is LIS considering?
We are looking at three options: Angel, Moodle and Sakai. In addition, Blackboard Enterprise remains a consideration for us, as does the option to not upgrade at all, should the results of our process (see below) lead to this conclusion.
Moodle and Sakai are Open Source products used widely on campuses in the US and the world, and which have received the recommendations of such organizations as NITLE and EDUCAUSE. In addition to being attractive products in their own right, Dickinson is a member of NITLE, which offers reasonably priced hosting options for these two products.
We are considering Angel because, based on the experience and research of our staff, it is an excellent product with a reasonable price that offers a good balance between ease of use and features appropriate to our environment. It shares with the Open Source products an open architecture, which will allow us to freely develop software connections to our other enterprise applications, such as the Gateway. Angel also has a strong user base in central Pennsylvania, being used by Gettysburg College (who switched from Blackboard Basic two years ago) and Penn State.
What factors is LIS considering in making the decision?
We are considering a number of dimensions in choosing the best LMS solution for Dickinson, including front-end usability, back-end maintainability, and cost. We want a system that will both serve the interests of faculty and students and be supportable by our staff and technological resources, while being financially sustainable over the long run.
What process is LIS following in making this decision?
LIS is following a three-phase plan that we expect to conduct over the next two years.
In the first phase, already in progress in Fall 2008, we will research the LMSs within our field of choice, focusing on the dimensions described above: usability, maintainability, and cost. Our research agenda for each product includes (1) assessing it according to our comparison rubric, (2) experimenting with its system administration requirements and capabilities, and (3) eliciting user feedback about each product. At the end of this phase, we will select a single product to pilot.
In Spring 2009, we will conduct the second phase, a pilot of the selected LMS with a small group of faculty. The purpose of this phase will be to determine the feasibility of adopting the selected LMS, and to work out the various technical, policy-related, and training issues that will need to be clarified and supported in order to switch over to the new LMS. This phase will also inform our decision about moving forward with the pilot LMS.
If the pilot is successful, in Summer and Fall 2009 we will enter the final phase of the plan, which will focus on rolling out the selected LMS to the college community as a whole. During this time, courses will be migrated to, and faculty will be trained in, the new system.
What are some general features of an LMS?
Each of the LMS products we are considering share a number of features that we consider essential. Among these are the following:
- Integration with Banner for automatic course creation and dynamic student enrollment
- The ability to export and import courses using standards-compliant formats
- The ability to easily migrate courses from one semester to the next
- Internal blogs, wikis, and forums for collaborative student content creation and interaction
- Support for uploading files and adding web links to courses
- folder trees to organize course-related files
- Word-like editing tools for adding content directly to a course
- Grade books, with configurable grading scales, weighting, and grouping of assignments.
- Tools to create online quizzes, tests, surveys, polls, and other instruments
- Drop-boxes for secure and time stamped submission of student assignments
- Integration of course content with the LMS calendar, so that assignments appear as appointments
- Organization of the class into groups for projects and discussion groups
What are some of the distinguishing features of each product?
Each of the products we’ve selected has some unique tools or design features that make them interesting. Here is a quick overview.
Learning Object Repository (LOR). Perhaps the single most significant differentiator among the three choices, the LOR allows faculty and other content developers, such as librarians, to develop structured repositories of content that exist independently of classes. Instead of putting content directly in course, only to have to reproduce this content for similar courses, faculty can create content areas that match their research interests, and then link to this content from their course as needed. Repositories can also be created by collaborating faculty, by librarians, or by any group.
Assessment Tools. Whenever you create an assignment or add a resource to a course in Angel, you can associate it with assessment standards and objectives, such as those developed by departments to meet Middle States accreditation. The system is set up so that these standards can be picked from a list of folders.
Course formats. Moodle is the only LMS that provides a set of templates to organize course materials when you create a course. Among the options are a topic, social, and weekly formats. More than a handy tool, the format option is the dominant metaphor Moodle uses to organize course pages.
Modules galore. As an Open Source project with a huge developer community, Moodle has a large number of modules that will allow us to extend its feature set in directions suited to our local needs. For example, we can add a module to connect it to CONTENTdm, LIS’s asset management system for images and other media.
My Workspace. Each user in Sakai has a workspace that contains a Resource area. Although not as flexible as Angel’s LOR, this area can be used to organize content independently of courses for the same reasons described above in connection with Angel’s LOR.
Scholarly media. You can tell that Sakai was designed in close collaboration with academics, given it numerous features to support scholarly media. For example, it foregrounds support for copyright, links directly to Google Scholar, and has tools for integrating podcasts and creating presentations directly from content stored in Resource areas.