Colleges unleash LMS

Preparing higher ed faculty to embrace all capabilities of today’s learning management systems
By: | Issue: February, 2017,
January 24, 2017

Online faculty at Castleton University don’t just dole out tests—they take them, too. Full- and part-time instructors who have no experience teaching online with Moodle’s learning management system work through a self-paced, six-module course created by associate academic dean Cathy Kozlik.

The course resides on a Vermont State Colleges System Moodle Sandbox website, where professors can practice setting up their own classes.

The lessons teach professors how to introduce themselves online, and how to create the course, syllabus and assignments. But not every instructor passes the final.

“We have had a couple of individuals who were experts in their particular field but not very good at online,” Kozlik says. “I have spent hours on the phone with those individuals stepping them through the process.”

Most U.S. colleges and universities have an LMS for academic activities, including posting syllabuses, grading and sending out announcements. But the level of usage varies depending on the school and the instructor.

Not surprisingly, observers say newer faculty are more likely to embrace and even expect their LMS to have all the features they need to teach a course.

There are three basic reasons instructors may embrace an LMS: convenience, compliance and as a hub where students can find all their course material, says George Kroner, product director at data services firm Client Stat, which runs the Edutechnica blog that publishes an annual LMS update.

“You use LMSs to meet that particular desire for students to have a reasonably good online experience,’’ says Kroner. “Students demand it—they’re used to growing up with consumer technology that is extremely user-friendly and responsive, and they expect the same of their university experience as well.”

When it comes to technology adoption or technology upgrades, “many schools are slow-moving beasts,’’ says Kroner. That said, Kroner sees higher ed catching up, either by installing the latest versions of traditional systems or by implementing modern, cloud-based, native solutions.

“All signs are very encouraging that they are cresting some sort of hump and taking their educational technology more seriously and more proactively than in years past,” he says.

And as institutions implement the new technology, campus administrators are taking action to ensure faculty can use an LMS to its full potential.

Boosting student engagement

Lack of interaction between students and instructors can prevent an LMS from getting full use.

Blackboard studied more than 3 million students using its Learn system at 927 North American higher ed institutions in 2016.

The majority of courses (53 percent) fell into the content-heavy, low student-interaction category. Students in 24 percent of courses were using Learn mainly for one-way teacher/student communication.

Only about one in 10 courses included high peer-to-peer interaction through discussion boards.

Ryan Hazen, the academic technologist and instructional designer at Carroll College in Montana, says faculty are slow to adopt, but would find lots of use for Moodle’s LMS features. Workshop, for instance, lets faculty and students conduct peer assessments, and Rubrics provides an advanced grading platform.

“The creation and replication of rubrics is very flexible and you can do all sorts neat stuff with it,’’ Hazen says. “I think a lot of faculty are still at the point where they need a stack of papers and red pen. Most of the faculty at this point in history were educated in a time when there wasn’t an online classroom.”

Part of Hazen’s job is to help faculty transition to developing interactive and engaging courses. “A lot of faculty haven’t seen an online course before,’’ he says. “Younger faculty find me almost immediately when they get here—newly minted faculty have an expectation there will be an LMS available.”

Students expect to access grades directly from their teachers’ grade books, yet that feature also has been underutilized, Hazen says. “It’s a really powerful way to share feedback with students and I don’t see that being used,” he says.

7 ways to encourage full use of the LMS (and ensure faculty know-how)

1. Create an online class to teach professors how to introduce themselves online, and how to create the course, syllabus and assignments.

2. Build active learning Sandbox classrooms to give faculty a chance to play with new learning technology.

3. Create short instructor training videos that reside on the LMS for easy access.

4. Offer small-group instruction by academic department.

5. Publish a faculty newsletter about LMS capabilities.

6. Ensure faculty understand student expectations, such as being able to access grades directly via the system.

7. Demonstrate to faculty how the LMS can automate tasks to make their lives easier.

To encourage greater usage of the LMS, Hazen offered several, eight-week “Fundamentals of Online Teaching” courses in the past two years, and has had more than 30 faculty participate.

Hazen also helps to design and build multidisplay active learning Sandbox classrooms, which deliberately blur the lines between online and in-person instruction. “I spend a lot of time as an instructional designer talking about the interplay of online and in-person instruction, helping faculty redesign curriculum to increase engagement in both modalities,” he says.

Hazen also uses Camtasia, a screen recorder and video editor, to create short training videos for Carroll faculty that reside on the LMS. They range between three and 10 minutes each, include annotations and are “tremendously popular,” he says.

Considering other LMS features

Valerie Stephens, online learning director at Carson-Newman University in Tennessee, wishes more faculty would use the “awesome” learning objectives feature in their Edvance360 LMS. It allows an instructor to input learning objectives for a course, and to create assignments tied to those learning objectives.

“Then, at the end of the semester, you can produce a report that tells how well those objectives were met for students, which is a dream come true for accreditation,’’ Stephens says. “Accreditation is very much on [instructors’] radar but they’re not tracking it in Edvance360, so that’s something we’re trying to promote.”

Carson-Newman has been using the LMS for almost six years, so staff have a good level of comfort with it. “Now it’s time to start promoting some of the bells and whistles,” she adds.

To encourage usage of additional features, Stephens plans to do small-group instruction by department.

Philip Bailey, an assistant professor of management at Carson-Newman, says one feature he could use more is adding video to his courses by recording snippets related to course materials.

Thomas Cavanagh, associate vice president of distributed learning at University of Central Florida, says all faculty have their “pet features” in any LMS and Instructure Canvas is no different.

One example: “There’s an embedded tool called Conferences, which allows live synchronous actions, like a webinar,” he says. “Some love it, some don’t.’’ Not everyone includes live synchronous elements in their courses; it depends on what their learning objectives are, Cavanagh says.

“Many faculty are also very cognizant of the reasons why students take online courses, which offer both geographic and temporal flexibility. Synchronous elements remove the dimension of temporal flexibility that is so appealing to many students and some faculty try to avoid that to be even more student centered.”

Cavanagh, as a member of Instructure’s advisory board, has provided user feedback from faculty who would like the LMS’ Gradebook feature “to allow more complex grading schemes.”

The continual training and outreach his department conducts includes a regular faculty newsletter about Canvas’ capabilities. And when the federal government mandated LMS use to meet financial aid requirements, Cavanagh used that opportunity to bring late adopters on board.

“Distributed learning staff also show faculty how the LMS might make their lives easier by automating things—particularly Gradebook, scheduling changes and the ability to communicate simultaneously with a large number of students.”

One LMS feature staff have highlighted is the ease of recording video and incorporating clips directly into a course. “You can give private video feedback individually, like having a conversation with student,” says Cavanagh. “It makes teaching much more personal.”

Meeting student needs

Like other administrators, Gayle Malinowski, Castleton’s chief technology officer, says student demand drives academic deans to urge instructors to input course materials and grades into the LMS. Student feedback also led Vermont State Colleges to deploy a standard setup template.

In addition to serving as a dean, Kozlik teaches part-time in the business administration department and has learned the power of the LMS as a communication tool.

When she first started teaching, she used the system mainly for grading and assignments. Now, in an upper-level course, she uses it to provide regular guidance to students working on capstone projects.

LMS gradebook features are very helpful if used correctly, but she suspects many professors have problems setting it up. Many professors may be just inputting a grade, when it would be much more useful for students to see what percentage the grade carries.

This allows students to see where they stand in terms of their performance at any given point in the semester, she explains. “That’s very powerful.”

Esther Shein is a Framingham, Mass.-based writer.

Industry insight on underused LMS features

Online exclusive content

What are some of the learning management system features that you think faculty tends not to take advantage of, and why?

“According to our data—gathered for over 13 years now—there are a number of tools schools don’t use or don’t use properly or deeply enough. And there’s feedback from students that they’d really like to use these tools.

“For example, Wikis are still one of the fastest growing corporate tools, and yet colleges fail to embrace them properly. [Also], I can’t tell you how many schools miss the opportunity an LMS provides to bring new students further and deeper into their school experience to ensure their success.

“This involves not only mentors and mentor panels (to check up on their assignees), [but also] logging engagement, pushing resources, live chat and live video to facilitate “face-to-face” communication, communities of resources, communities with short lessons on specific topics students struggle with, etc.”

—Catherine C. Garland, vice president, marketing & sales,

“Aligning course content to standards, objectives and goals allows both instructors and institutions to show how a course meets its performance objectives, and ultimately that a program and curriculum are effective. In my experience, this is an underused capability by faculty.

“Faculty members can align nearly any type of content to goals, such as survey questions, assignments, assessments and course activities. Once this takes place, they can be aligned with related goals to show how institutional goals relate to external or internal goals.”

—Vivek Ramgopal, director of product marketing, Blackboard

“Several features are often not used by faculty. Learning paths allow you to assemble two or more courses into a path that students must complete to trigger completion actions.

“For example, you could create a ‘Mastering Genetic Engineering’ path that requires students to take a beginner-level, intermediate-level and advanced-level genetic engineering course to be awarded a certificate of completion.

“[In addition], gamification allows a teacher to award points and badges to students as they achieve certain tasks in a course, and ‘leveling up’ when they earn certain point thresholds. [Also] the rules engine feature allows faculty to add rules that are triggered automatically under certain conditions.

“For example: ‘Send the instructor an alert when a student has not attended the course for over 7 days.’”

—Graham Glass, CEO and founder, Cypher Learning

“Because legacy LMSs haven’t offered more impactful features (such as online feedback, peer review, or group collaboration) that are easy to use, let alone enticing to faculty, many instructors may have used the LMS of the past only for pushing content.”

—Jared Stein, vice president of product, Instructure Canvas

“This is a simple question at face value. However, it does imply an assumption that learning management systems in universities only serve faculty. In fact, learning management systems serve: academic (i.e., faculty/student); functional (i.e., security guard); and entertainment (i.e., coaches) populations.

“This is the first feature missed: the ability to utilize a single LMS to serve multiple populations.

“Any LMS that is part of a unified talent management strategy should be able to serve multiple populations. … The use of collaborative features such as communication and community capabilities are often overlooked by faculty as they do not view these to be associated with learning.

“In a world in which collaborative learning is now imperative, open communication and communities are essential to the faculty member to keep up with real-time development opportunities.”

—Tom Tonkin, principal consultant of thought leadership and advisory services, Cornerstone OnDemand