By Kalliopi Benetos, PhD, TECFA, Faculty of psychology and educational sciences, University of Geneva
Learning management systems (LMS) (also referred to as course management or e-learning systems or platforms) are software that allow for the creating and delivery of teaching and learning using the Internet. There are a many LMS available under proprietary and open source licensing options and selecting the one that is best for educators or educational institutions can be daunting. A few questions can help define criteria to guide the selection process.
What are the objectives?
A good starting point is to define the objectives driving the decision to introduce or change a learning management system. These objectives may address current or foreseeable needs or attempt to introduce strategies to improve course administration, design, planning and evaluation, or change the delivery of instruction (moving from face-to-face to distance learning) or modify practices in some way. All stakeholders (administrators, instructors, tutors, students) should be taken under consideration in defining global and specific objectives.
Who are the stakeholders?
In any selection process, a needs analysis involving all stakeholders and their vested interests should be conducted first. Some needs may be difficult to determine or foresee, but this will enable a more systematic approach when comparing different Learning Management Systems and trying to decipher which of the many features and options offered are best adapted to the targeted needs.
What are the various needs?
Different actors may have different needs in response to different contexts. One instructor may have one course with over 100 students in three separate classes meeting weekly that runs for one year, and another, a class of 12 students working in groups during a two-week intensive course. The course design, lesson planning, monitoring and evaluation needs will be completely different. The activities in the large weekly class may be mostly lectures and readings, with many exercises and quizzes. The smaller two-week course may be focusing on a collaborative project, or case studies. An LMS that imposes a sequential structure (weekly lessons) may be appropriate in the first course, but difficult to work with in the second that may include iterative sequences and require collaborative working spaces for students to develop and showcase their work.
Look at current workflows of various stakeholders. What works well and what doesn’t? For example, do coworkers use or need a shared calendar? How do they monitor student progress and grading? What kind of activities do they propose to their students and how do they organize and manage them (group work, exercises, quizzes, peer assessments)? Do the features and services available in the LMS you are considering support current or desired teaching activities? How are courses organized in your institution: well in advance and repeated, on demand with short notice? The first would benefit from easy course duplication; the latter, a system that allows quick adaptations. For larger institutions, an LMS that integrates features to easily manage enrolment, access and grading across different groups and courses allowing administrators, instructors and students to access information in a form that is relevant to their role, is a great benefit. With the small two-week course, it may be simpler to manage these aspects with a spreadsheet and email (in the short term).
Identifying diverse needs should give a thorough and prioritized list of features to look for when evaluating an LMS as well as a good indication of stakeholders expectations and motivations in using an LMS.
What are the group and individual expectations and motivations?
When defining needs, look at where or with whom particular needs originate and whose activities and practices will be affected by them. They may not be the same person or group. This can impact the acceptance and use of a new LMS.
The instructor teaching numerous large classes on the same subject may be easily seduced by the course administration features (duplication, automated enrolment, file management, gradebooks, student activity tracking) and will be more likely to invest the time to learn to use these sometimes complex features. The instructor giving one-time special topic two-week intensive courses, may not consider the return on investment as significant enough.
This instructor’s motivation may lie in the system’s ability to help with the organization of complex learning activities and student interactions (discussions, creation of groups and shared workspaces, easy addition and sharing of resources by teachers and students).
In what ways may the LMS incite or hinder current effective practices or new practices you or your institution wish to see emerge? LMS are designed with particular pedagogical models in mind and can constrain or enable certain teaching methods. Their use can even lead to questioning current methods. Make sure an LMS’s underlying course design models are aligned with your or your institutions practices and vision.
What training and support will stakeholders need?
Determine which computer skills and competencies (digital literacy) stakeholders will require to benefit from the introduction of a new LMS and what measures will need to be put in place to address these. What technical support does the LMS offer? What training will administrators, instructors and students need to use the new LMS effectively and adapt their practice if necessary, and how will this be offered?
How will the LMS be financed and maintained?
Open-source LMS are free (e.g. Moodle, Chamilo), but installing, hosting and managing the system (servers, storage, hardware, etc.) aren’t, and require an IT administrator to maintain them, but can be outsourced at a cost if your institution cannot provide this service. Cloud-based LMS (Haiku Learning, Schoology) services these services under varied scalable pricing options—from free with limited options (time, class size or number) to full-service—often with reduced prices for educators or smaller enrolment needs and could be a good solution for short term projects with a tight schedule.
Lists of learning management systems
eLearning Industry - List of Learning Management Systems
eLearning Industry - The Ultimate list of Open Source Learning Management Systems
eLearning Industry - The Ultimate List of Cloud-Based Learning Management Systems