LMS Review

So our current contract with our LMS vendor is complete in October 2018. I can’t say what we’ll do, but the landscape has changed somewhat since the last LMS review was done at work, so we’re starting to form a committee to look at our options. Ultimately, we’re doing this so far in advance because you should take at least a year to transition, which would put us at fall 2017 for starting to roll out the new system for users, which means that we’d need to know in the spring of 2017. Maybe the cost of change will scare us into another contract. As I see it, there’s four¬†options available to us.

1. Stay with D2L. This is the easiest answer, and least complicated. We’ve been relatively happy with them as a company so there’s really no need to change, and despite the minor blips (the great outage of 2012) it’s been pretty smooth so far. Maybe continuous delivery will be awesome, and really a review of the LMS will be a mere formality.

2. Move to another hosted LMS. This is the second easiest answer – if the campus decides that D2L isn’t the choice for us, then we choose another vendor, enter into protracted negotiations, and go through the formal process of getting vendors to submit to review, tender offers, and go through the motions with selecting a new partner for the next five years. I’m not sure if the campus will think this is an option at all. Blackboard was our previous LMS, and didn’t work – essentially leaving the campus without a functional LMS for a whole semester. By the time it did start working, the relationship was in trouble, and well, that’s why we have D2L. That’s according to faculty who were here during the time it happened, which was prior to my time. Another seismic shift may not be in the cards. Another factor is that we’ve become a PeopleSoft school for our various systems across campus. That implementation has been rough for the campus. I’m not sure they have the appetite for another system to learn so quickly.

3. Go back to self-hosting LMS software. This allows us to look at open source solutions, and rely on our own IT group to take server maintenance, infrastructure and all the other associated risks back under our roof. It’s unlikely that we would do this due to the human cost of running a mission critical server – and we’d have to look at hiring back expertise that was relocated to other groups on campus or into industry. Those costs, are not insignificant. The complexity of running Moodle or Sakai at scale for 25,000 to 30,000 users, isn’t lost on me. It’d be a great challenge. I don’t know that this will be palatable to the campus either as we’ve had people who were running their own Moodle install come over to use the institution’s provided install of D2L. Maybe that’s the path of least resistance? Maybe it’s the students pushing for one platform? Who knows.

4. Do away with the LMS. This is an entirely radical idea, but what if we just left it up to instructors to do it themselves? I’d be ok in this scenario, despite having this a huge part of my job description, because there’s always going to be technology to use to teach. I’d have to adjust. Would this even fly? Probably not. Imagine the headlines: “first University to do away with the LMS”… would be useful to put on my tombstone after everyone lynches me because they need a secure webpage to link their stuff to.

As a teaching and learning centre, we’ll be interested in finding something flexible to teach not only in the modes that people currently teach in, but also in the pedagogy that people want to teach in. All LMS’s say they can do constructivist style setups, but really they require changes globally to do so. No one gives the instructor the power to turn on or off student control of a slice of content, or a discussion, or even a collaborative space for document sharing. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that all LMS’s are designed as content delivery tools, not knowledge construction tools. And to that end, the choice of tools that can be used is often controlled by LMS administrators, not the instructors. Now, there’s great reasons for structuring things in such a way; theoretically administrators have subject matter expertise in selecting partners to connect to the LMS and have experience with vetting vendors. Right? I hope so. I know I’ve tried my best to make sure I’ve done right for student’s privacy, intellectual property and general safe digital space. I don’t know what I don’t know though. I guess, through the next three years, I’ll start to find out.

LMS Review

I’ve spent 19 hours at work the past two days, so I come home, plop down in front of the computer and blog about work.

As with all Colleges, we’re in the final days of preparation for the first classes next week. For us at Mohawk, that means manually (well, through input scripts) creating classes, enrolling students and creating instructor accounts. Until last year, Mohawk has never had a policy that said “we as an institution will use one LMS”. So the e-Learning department (of which I am a small part) has been very very lucky to be able to experiment with several different platforms. FirstClass is one of the longest running options at the College – having been in use for at least 9 years, probably more. If you’ve never used it, you’ve missed out. It’s a standalone client, so it’s not a web browser based solution, and while it’s quirky, it has lots of options for collaboration. In fact, having used it for around 8 years, I think it’s still heads and shoulders above the other LMS’s in that aspect.

WebCT is still running at Mohawk as well, and I never really had to use it but the instances I’ve had to develop content and media for it, it’s fine. I never liked the view options (switching from designer to student view to see how things look and function), and it actually plays nice with others (sort of). I mean you can export something and import it somewhere else and it kind of works fine.

Mohawk’s also running an instance of Blackboard CE 6, which as I understand it is some hybrid between WebCT and Blackboard. Like WebCT, it’s ok. Fairly locked in, and creating user accounts on it is a real pain, involving a custom hacked Perl script, XML massaging and a CSV. Getting students in shouldn’t be this difficult should it? Of course Blackboard offered to integrate the system with our Student Information System, for a fairly large (to me anyways) sum. No thanks, how about creating a way to bulk import students that doesn’t take half an hour?

We also have an installation of Moodle. Which was pretty daunting for faculty to use as there’s not a large support component for them. That’s not to say that Moodle doesn’t have a large support community, it most certainly does. Our faculty are not the most e-learning adventurous, and the ones that are, are already using one of the 5 systems in place (FirstClass, WebCT, Blackboard, Desire2Learn and the Portal CourseTools, which e-Learning doesn’t have any control over). So the ones who might’ve been interested in trying Moodle were probably scared away by the lack of immediate help with the system. Which is too bad, because the flexibility it can deliver is really nice. It’s the MySQL of osCommerce (or WordPress?) of Learning Management Systems.

Last year, e-Learning (I was only peripherally involved with the department as I was working with technology for second language learners at the time) went through a nine month review process, to look at acquiring one system to replace the six. Desire2Learn came out on top. The final paper is on the LMS Review blog.

Having worked with Desire2Learn for about four months, I’m disappointed with the collaborative tools (blogs specifically, but online documents were something I had hoped they would be developing).¬† I guess I shouldn’t be, my expectations of a modern system is far and above what the average instructor or user would expect or need. And it’s perfect for that beginner user – I just hope that we don’t end up down the garden path and find out that it’s not quite robust at that level. Of course, I know it sort of is. Barry Dahl and Kyle Mackie are always posting about interesting things to do with D2L and I hope that our faculty can get to that point. I guess it’s part frustration that we haven’t used it before, and even though our admin has been using a lot since February, he still feels he has no mastery of it. That to me suggests there’s some depth to the system. Maybe we’re all a bunch of self-deprecating navel gazers? It is an exciting time at Mohawk. I talked to two faculty members today who were genuinely excited to use the system, which is all I need to get through the day I suppose.

Aesthetics as Part of Usability

So the recent past has me thinking about the aesthetics of e-learning spaces, and while that may seem like a non-issue for many people, I believe it will be incredibly important as educators move forward. We rely on aesthetics to assist us in a quick reliability check. We all do this in real life when we meet a person, as they say first impressions are important. Well, this is no different in e-learning or in a face to face class.

Certainly Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Moodle and other modern LMS’s allow a creator to exert some control over how content looks. You are somewhat functionally trapped into a frame where content is held with some of these systems, but in many cases those are constraints that you can work with (against?). As an educator you might also have other issues restricting the look of your content; headers are a certain color, color schemes might be imposed by your institution, usability experts tell you what icon to use for a link or even font size might be restricted.

As an educator you have a dual purpose as well, you need to make your content accessible as well. So that means you should consider things like contrast of color, whether your font size is large enough for the visually impaired and whether your images have alt tags to ensure a screen reader can convey the description properly to a user. In fact, your institution might be under law to make your content accessible.

Frames in and of themselves pose problems for stringent accessibility rules, so your LMS might already be screwing you. It’s quite possible it’s screwing you anyways… never mind that ugly thought…

It’s not particularly difficult to make a website accessible. It can be tricky to make it aesthetically pleasing and usable. Seeing as I’ve brought up visually impaired users, I would be very very remiss to not mention this other blog article about 10 Tools for Evaluating Web Site Accessibility especially for color blind users. While these are for websites, you can use most of these tools within LMS’s as well. The Firefox extention (#1 in the linked article) is excellent, and has identified a couple areas that I need to be aware of in my own work. Of course, this doesn’t really speak about aesthetics. Well not explicitly anyways.

Aesthetics are pleasing the eye – which can be difficult to hit the centre of the target everytime as we all view things differently. I often get asked, how can I make something look good? Practice is my default answer, but when pressed I will concede that you can’t go wrong with the classic black, white and grey. Add an accent color of (one of) red, blue or green and your e-learning space will look professional. If you have a predetermined header, or logo, grab one of the colors as an accent from that. Simplicity is key. It’s when people start to get fancy that sometimes people run into trouble.