Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Selecting a learning management system

The ANU is deciding what Learning Management System to use from 2009.The paper "Designing a learning management system to support instruction" (Hsiu-Ping Yueh, Shihkuan Hsu,Communications of the ACM, Volume 51, Number 4, 2008) provides a useful overview of some of the issues:
The goal of an LMS, devised by a growing number of universities, is to offer faculty instructional support. The actual use of these programs, however, suggests that support is elusive. An experience at National Taiwan University illustrates how a university can increase faculty usage through better LMS design.

The paper looks at traditional education activities of presenting information, managing course materials and evaluating student work. The point is made that an LMS provides an array of tools for teaching. One issue not raised is if these tools need to be in the LMS: would it be better to simply provide some way to identify students and then provide an array of online tools they could use.

It may be a minimalist LMS could be created, which just implements the core education functions of identifying who is a student and reporting the evaluation of them. Instead of trying to create yet another online group discussion froum, wiki, blog, or podcast facility, the tool would instead authenticate the student to the best external tools available.

ePortfolios, seen as a trendy new development in education is essentially just an educational version of social networking tools. Perhaps institutions should leave ePortfolios to external providers. It is unlikely that any university is contemplating its own standalone "real time audio interactive communications system", instead they use telephones connected to, and compatible with, the public telephone network. Similarly it may not sense for each institution to create its own isolated LMS environment with its own implementation of services such as ePortfolios.

Selecting large number of features for an LMS may not be the best approach. As paper reports, research has shown that few higher education institutions use assessment functions in the LMS, or their group facilities. The LMS is mostly confined to publishing course details, sending announcements to students and providing reference materials. It may be that this will change when staff become familiar with the tools, but such software probably only has a lifetime of one or two years and by the time the staff learn what to do it will be time to select a new LMS anyway. It may be better to use an LMS with limited facilities as in the years it takes staff to learn to use advanced features, LMS as a class of computer application may have ceased to exist.

The paper emphasises the needs of the faculty and the complexity of learning an LMS. The example of NTU is of interest as it provides a dual language facility via the LMS, with Chinese and English. The system started for providing supplementary material for courses, with more teaching facilities then added. Another interesting aspect is the use of the LMS for teaching teachers about instructional design, including goals, interaction, and evaluation. Many LMS have a particular view of pedagogy implicit in them and assume the course developer knows what it is and agrees with that view of learning.

The paper emphasises the need for support personnel, with instructional specialists to support faculty members and training on using the tools.

LMS tend to make a distinction between the teachers and the students. Perhaps these distinctions need to be removed and a common set of tools provided which can be used both by the teachers and the students. These would include tools for organising and disseminating information, collaborating with people and collecting views and assessment.

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