How to survive a breakup with your learning management system

Two universities at opposite ends of the size spectrum talk about their experiences upgrading their learning management systems

The University of Central Florida is the second-largest university in the U.S., with 12 campuses serving 60,000 students. Keystone College, on the other hand, a small, private, liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, is on the other end of the spectrum, with just 2,000 students. Both institutions transitioned to a new learning management system—UCF to Canvas (by Instructure), and Keystone to Moodlerooms. Here, Thomas Cavanagh, associate VP, distributed learning at UCF, and Justin Kraky, educational technologist at Keystone College, talk about the similarities and differences in their migration experiences.

This migration had to be stressful. How were you able to alleviate everyone’s fears and ensure a smooth transition?

TC: The most important thing was open communication. It’s not about the vendor choice, it’s a cultural issue—making faculty feel like they’re part of the decision and are consulted.

JK: We trained our staff to be certified Moodle administrators. Also, for the first year, we ran both the new and old systems side by side and slowly transitioned people to the new system. We could have done a clean break, but we would have lost a lot of progress. There were people developing courses in our Blackboard system for 12 years, so to tell them all of a sudden they have to save their Blackboard package to their local computer and maybe you’ll get some of your work back is frightening.

TC: We would have liked to have had that year, but we didn’t, so it forced us to do things differently. We moved from Blackboard’s WebCT platform to Canvas in one fell swoop. We made the decision to change in spring of 2012. In the summer, we piloted three systems: Blackboard, Desire2Learn and Canvas, while still running WebCT Vista. By fall, we had our soft launch for 40 faculty and students. Then in spring 2013, we moved the whole campus onto it. It was such a fast transition that we literally threw every resource on it to get it done. We assigned “tiger teams” of faculty, instructional designers, technical support and LMS administrators to each platform. The tiger teams met periodically to make sure everything was going the way it should.

JK: Moodlerooms developed a tool that allowed us to take a Blackboard backup document and run it through a course converter tool and it would reformat it in Moodle. We needed that because the folders and topic areas were laid out differently. For instance, in Moodle, they’re chronological, whereas in Blackboard they had all the quizzes in one area and assignments in another area. So getting people used to how it looked and where to find their content was a challenge, but everything transferred fine.

How long did the cutover take and how many personnel were involved?

TC: For us, it was all-hands-on-deck for nine months. In addition to the LMS administration team, everyone in our Center for Distributed Learning—including 60 full-time staff and several hourly and part-time staff—were involved. This included instructional designers, videographers, programmers and graphic artists.

Talking through this process internally was key. Externally, we invited the chair of the faculty senate to the final selection meeting so they could vote on the platform they wanted. They were able to see this whole process and that the faculty were driving it. We could trump their decision, but barring any security issues or integration problems, we wanted them to know it was their decision.

JK: Being much smaller, our staff consisted of myself and my supervisor. We did all the research, comparing and contrasting platforms ourselves. Cost was a factor for us, but capability-wise, we could have used any of them.

TC: For us, their ability to support at scale was a consideration, but we were less price sensitive. Price was just one of the criteria we needed to evaluate. We were looking for overall value and how it would meet our needs.

What other systems did your LMS need to integrate with?

TC: Our SIS system, for sure. We also have learning object development and app game systems that we’ve developed that faculty use. We felt Canvas had the easiest integration with learning technology interoperability, a growing standard for integrating tools together. With Canvas, we’ve been able to leverage LTI powerfully. I think integration will become increasingly important as we look at the evolution of our LMS. The LMS serves as the base, and other programs stack on top. But it’s constantly evolving, because what I might need to be successful in a course might be different from what you need in the same course. Faculty, institutions and students are all growing their ability to customize the learning environment, and as time goes on, I think integration will be more important.

JK: Agreed. We’re not using Moodle to the furthest extent it can be. It has a lot of integration capability. We integrate with our SIS to auto-create new classes every semester and to help with auto-enrollment, but there are other add-ons for areas such as anti-plagiarism and cloud services that we’re not taking advantage of and would like to.

Was advance planning critical to the migration’s success?

TC: Yes. We did have a plan, which made sure we were all on the same page. I assigned a program manager to run the migration, and everyone reported up to her. Then we did some key things early on that drove our plan, such as determining the key features and functions we needed, and prioritizing that list. We also set up a website that contained all our documents, timeline, comparison charts and videos explaining why we were switching.

JK: We set up a rubric of comparison and contrast features with integration and growth opportunities built in. Because it was just the two of us though, we didn’t feel we needed a robust plan. We share an office, so we simply had a lot of conversations.

It’s been more than a year since your installations. Any post-installation thoughts?

TC: Ours is a cloud-based system and Canvas provides automatic updates every three weeks. So we constantly have to learn about new components, test them, communicate with faculty and make sure we can support them. It’s a full-time job just staying on top of the system.

JK: One thing we come across a lot is if an instructor is teaching a new course, he doesn’t have access to the previous instructor’s materials, so we have to intervene and do a copy of the course and put it in the new instructor’s course shell. Without making the whole system completely wide open, I don’t know if there’s a way to change that.

Cavanagh and Kraky are speaking on this subject at UBTech 2014 in the session, “How to survive a breakup with your learning management system.”


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