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news & tips

A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Ten Most Important Features of a Learning Management System

I am a teacher, and I have been one for almost twenty years (in a number of school settings), so I can say this confidently and without apology: educators are difficult people to work with. In faculty meetings and lunchrooms, they behave worse than their students. They expect students to love learning, yet they eschew professional development. This is not true of all educators, of course, but it’s true of enough of them (us), that it bears mentioning. Teachers are a ROUGH CROWD

So now you’re thinking of introducing a new Learning Management System such as Moodle or Blackboard. This is your organization’s first LMS? Oh my. Even better. Release the hounds.

An angry mob reacts to your LMS rollout...You already know your audience is going to be less than receptive. Picture that scene from Frankenstein with the enraged villagers and their torches. So you need to be prepared to address all their fears and meet all their needs, painlessly and immediately… so that no one gets hurt.

Here are your ten biggest concerns as you’re shopping around for your organization’s first Learning Management System:

  1. Is it easy to set up and use? Instructors won’t want to have to both learn how to use a new system AND teach their students how to use it. There needs to be a lot of support available for all audiences, and it needs to be as intuitive as possible to perform the required or expected functions.
  2. How long is this thing going to be around? You’re making people learn a new system. Make sure it’s here to stay. The longevity of a new LMS is at the forefront of each new user’s mind. They’re asking themselves, subconsciously at least, how important it is to learn to use this thing, to get attached to it, even to become dependent on it for their teaching and/or learning. If it’s just this year’s passing fad, you will lose your credibility, and the resistance to future new things will be even greater.
  3. What are we shelling out for this thing? Even if your organization has enough money to purchase this system now, you need to consider if that will always be the case. Does the provider of this system offer different pricing based on the size of the organization (which could change over time, in either direction)? Are their options that can be added or dropped a la carte to keep the system both relevant and affordable?
  4. Is there enough built-in record keeping to work seamlessly with the ways learners can submit their work? Is it easy to keep track of which learners in a group have or have not completed or submitted certain activities? If participating in forums or some other communication done within the LMS counts for credit, is there a way to make it easy for the instructor to keep track of requirements met without having to open and run separate programs?
  5. Can student progress be tracked, shared as needed, and stored indefinitely? Not only should a student’s complete portfolio of submitted work be available online for the duration of his or her time with the organization, but grades and other assessment markers need to be accessible to both the student and his or her instructors. This gives both parties the chance to customize each student’s growth according to individual needs, strengths, and goals for improvement.
  6. When instructors design their learning experiences, are they free to incorporate whatever they see fit? Can the system handle all kinds of file formats, media, communication methods (both synchronous and asynchronous), and assessment? How customizable and truly useful are the built-in assessment and reporting tools? No instructor wants to use five different tools for administering a class when all these types of tools can exist under one LMS umbrella.
  7. Is the system platform-independent, both in the running of it and the using of it as an instructor or a learner? Nothing stifles learning as quickly as having one’s enthusiasm damped by error messages and gloomy announcements that the technology you’ve got just isn’t going to cut it. Since a Learning Management System is designed to take the learning everywhere the student goes or is, it needs to run on any reasonable platform you can expect it to encounter.
  8. Can the LMS be set up to match the organizational structure of your institution? If you are a single campus with two small divisions, or a state-wide university with multiple campus locations, or anything in between, you need to know that your tech people are going to be able to set up the LMS to meet the separate needs of each subgroup within your organization. Separate departments, schools, or levels need to be able to keep their materials, information, and data separate.
  9. On the flip side, can the LMS easily share materials between courses, no matter where those course might exist the greater organization? If an instructor is assigned to more than one division of your organization, he or she might want to move materials freely between his or her distinct “identities” in each place. Different instructor may want to combine, share, or exchange materials after attending professional development together or co-teaching a class or some other collaborative situation.
  10. Are there conferencing options that can be set up for instructors, students, or other groups of users? Large-class settings, especially when conducted online, lend themselves to small-group activities and projects. These endeavors generally benefit when the participants have a dedicated place to meet and plan online together. Instead of expecting (or even unwittingly encouraging) your users to look outside the LMS for solutions, make this available from the start.

This blog posting is a reflection based on the following white paper: Saba, F. (2009). Learning management systems. Proceedings of the Distance Education and Training Council 83rd Annual Conference, http://www.detc.org/downloads/2009conf/SABA_LMS_Article.pdf.

Image of “angry mob” from Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker, some rights reserved, Creative Commons.

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