United we learn
As colleges and universities find new ways to partner with each other to improve services and reduce costs, the idea of sharing an LMS is starting to gain traction.
For instance, selecting and sharing a learning management system was key to an online teacher training and certification partnership established in 2017 between the schools of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University.
While both universities are part of the University of North Carolina System, there is no required LMS for member institutions.
However, the newly launched teacher licensure program—the first to focus on competencies rather than traditional semester courses—requires major collaboration between the two partners as well as flexibility in course design and development.
The project also needed a system that students from either location could easily access and use, notes Diana Lys, assistant dean of educator preparation and accreditation at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education.
“Working together on a new platform puts us on a level playing field,” says Lys, adding that D2L’s Brightspace LMS was selected.
While sharing services has become an important cost-cutting trend across many areas of higher ed operations, sharing an LMS remains fairly rare. For many, it seems too complicated to install a joint administrator or governing body to determine the LMS catalog structure, which courses to include, and other key issues.
But for some institutions, making the effort to collaborate on choosing, implementing and managing a shared LMS is paying off significantly in terms of student opportunities, costs and faculty collaboration.
Accessing a shared LMS
Institutions: East Stroudsburg University, California University of Pennsylvania
Shared LMS: Cornerstone’s LMS (for employee training and development)
Making it work: East Stroudsburg adopted the LMS and invited other institutions to join its portal via a cost-sharing partnership. A governance committee, with members from both institutions, meets quarterly and communicates informally throughout the year. “Now that we have others on board, it’s important that everyone understands they could easily do something in the system that could impact others with regard to security or a change in structure,” says Teresa Fritsche, director of human resource management at East Stroudsburg. “We determined upfront who would make decisions about changes and we just stay in close touch with each other.”
Payoff 1: Opportunities
As growing numbers of students take courses from multiple institutions within their state or system—and increasingly take those courses online—a standard LMS could simplify their lives and improve educational outcomes.
A few years ago, the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education mandated that member institutions in the North Dakota University System move to a single LMS “to provide a better experience to a growing group of collaborative users,” says Darin King, chief information officer.
“Collaborative users are people taking or teaching classes from multiple campuses. In our previous environments, that could mean using multiple, different LMS systems.”
With multiple systems, users had to keep up with various usernames and passwords as well as remember how to use each different system, or regularly relearn systems they might use only once every couple of semesters.
Six of the system’s 11 institutions are now adopting the shared system, and others will be online soon.
The State University of Florida System explored a common LMS after surveys made the student benefits clear, says Nancy McKee, associate vice chancellor for innovation and online education for the systems. Fifty-nine percent of the approximately 16,000 students surveyed felt a common LMS is important.
In the previous three years, 65 percent of responding students had used multiple learning management systems—and nearly half said this hindered their learning efforts.
But using the same LMS isn’t a requirement. In 2016, administrators entered into a master agreement for a common, opt-in LMS, and each participating institution signs its own agreement with the vendor, Instructure.
Eleven of the 12 system universities have opted to either continue using or transition to Instructure’s Canvas platform, McKee says. The remaining university is evaluating the system.
The system’s master agreement is also available to the 28 institutions in the Florida College System, many of which are community colleges are traditionally two-year schools. Several have chosen to use that agreement.
“Florida has a strong 2+2 policy,” McKee says. “It is advantageous for transfer students to be using the same learning management system when they enter the state university system.”
A shared LMS may offer new opportunities for faculty and staff learning as well. East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania recently adopted Cornerstone as its LMS for employee development, inviting other nearby universities to join its portal. California University of Pennsylvania began using it this fall.
“Our universities can get about double the training content for the same price,” says Teresa Fritsche, director of human resource management at East Stroudsburg.
The universities meet each semester to determine needed content. Each will develop or purchase courses on their assigned topics, aiming for four or five new courses per semester. Staff at both schools now have access to training content their HR departments may not have considered before.
For example, Fritsche recently discovered a Cal U course that filled a hole in her new employee onboarding program.
“If more schools came on board, we would be able to expand our training capabilities even more,” she says.
Accessing a shared LMS (cont.)
Institutions: Six of the 11 North Dakota University System member institutions (with additional universities transitioning into the shared system)
Shared LMS: Blackboard
Making it work: Successful implementation “starts with a good contract with the vendor that includes implementation services,” says Darin King, chief information officer for the system. “Our project management office did a great job laying out the project and worked closely with project managers from the vendor during the implementation. We also established a governance structure that included an executive steering committee and an implementation team made up of representatives from across North Dakota system institutions.”
Payoff 2: Lower costs
California Community Colleges’ Online Education Initiative has saved the state roughly $8 million by adopting a common LMS across 108 of 114 community colleges, says Jory Hadsell, executive director of the program. In 2015, the initiative made a contract available for colleges to adopt Canvas from Instructure.
At the time, only two institutions were using the system, with a few others considering it. Before adoption, each college underwent a decision process that included academic senates, technology teams, distance education staff, students and other stakeholders. The system office offered incentives to make the decision easier.
By leveraging statewide funding through the Online Education Initiative, at least two years of centralized funding covers the full cost of Canvas—as long as colleges committed to moving to it as their sole LMS, Hadsell says.
The rapid adoption encouraged the state to provide additional funding because the initiative was saving millions of dollars each year.
“By driving the cost down, colleges can invest more local dollars into their online programs,” Hadsell says.
“And by moving colleges away from their individual contracts with various LMS providers, we have been able to create shared, system-wide infrastructure that yields efficiencies in terms of cost, training, professional development, and back-end data gathering and analysis.”
Elsewhere, institutions have found they can also save on personnel costs.
At the Kentucky Community & Technical College System, where all 16 member colleges use a shared license of Blackboard, “costs are lower because we’re eliminating a lot of people who would have to be involved at each campus otherwise,” says Paul Czarapata, vice president of technology solutions.
“Instead of each campus having a staffer managing their systems, we just have one person who administers the LMS for all and handles support if students or faculty have an issue.”
Payoff 3: Collaboration
As demonstrated by the North Carolina teacher training program, sharing an LMS can help faculty at various colleges and schools work together easily.
“We are collaborating to create a teacher licensure program unlike any other in the country, so we are having to establish our own set of norms, including response times, messaging and office hours,” says Michelle Soler, director for competency-based education and assessment at the University of North Carolina system office.
“Our shared LMS is providing us with a tool for establishing those.”
For California community colleges, collaboration among faculty has been a surprisingly valuable benefit, Hadsell says. “One of the most dynamic developments has been the ability for faculty to form a community of practice outside the walls of their own college.”
For example, in an online mathematics community facilitated by the system office, faculty members can share ideas (such as for course resources or assignments) and seek input from colleagues.
“The effect is that faculty have a community of peers who are also teaching math online, further reinforcing that teaching online can not only lead to rich student interaction, but can also foster sharing and creativity among faculty,” Hadsell says.
In addition, faculty from throughout the system are engaging in peer-oriented course design review for the shared LMS, which has led to a greater awareness of issues such as accessibility for disabled students and regular instructor-initiated contact.
Some faculty have since advocated for increased professional development or even replicating the statewide review process.
Hadsell says, “With a common platform, we are seeing new collaborations and innovation through a more system-wide approach, and are better able to provide professional development and student support.”
Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based writer and frequent contributor to UB.
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