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2 Learning Management Systems

Virginia Reischl and Janice T. Mercado Toro

A learning management system (LMS) is a software program that allows the administration of instructional materials through various educational activities, the tracking and reporting of student information, and the ability to facilitate and distribute communication. For educators, an LMS serves as a centralized place where they can post their learning resources and communicate with both parents and students. Currently, the new LMS programs are becoming more student-oriented and are fostering more social and collaborative learning (Lonn & Teasley, 2009; Simba Information, 2011).

Historically, learning management systems were designed for organizations to use for in-house compliance training. The LMS program license would be purchased and the company/organization would install the system on their own servers and network to purchase and install the programs. In addition to the purchase of the LMS, many offer a “software as a service (SaaS) with hosting provided by the vendor” (Lin, 2015). Since the early 1990s, the proliferation of online learning and the concept of e-learning caused the industry to redesign and enhance LMS products. As of fall 2016, “the higher education market in U.S. list the top three LMS installations as Blackboard (33%), Moodle (19%) and Canvas (17%). The same three systems lead in terms of the number of students enrolled, but in a different order: Blackboard (45%), Canvas (24%), Moodle (17%)” (4th Annual LMS update, 2016).

In addition to the aforementioned benefits, school districts and school sites utilize learning management systems as the “infrastructure that delivers and manages instructional content, identifies and assesses individual and organizational learning or training goals, tracks the progress towards meeting those goals, and collects and presents data for supervising the learning process of an organization as a whole” (Watson & Watson, 2007, p.28). However, if your school or district has not adopted an LMS, there are still options available. You may choose to operate your course by using an LMS like Schoology, Jupiter Ed, Engrade, Canvas, or Google Classroom. Many school districts have implemented grade books that mimic the LMS grade book, but lack the accessibility in linking and hyperlinking to the array of assessment tools that they use regularly. The systems previously mentioned allow for you to run your course virtually as minimally or involved as you would like, and are tailored to accommodate all levels of technology users. The experienced or novice teacher may manipulate the LMS in a way that suits the needs of their students and their course design.

This chapter defines and explores the use of learning management systems that effectively support teachers in making the most of their instructional time. This is followed by a personal narrative from a Special Education teacher who uses a district-provided learning management system to support her students’ independent study and to modify existing curriculum.

Benefits of Using a Learning Management System

The key benefits of using an LMS are hinged on the various areas of flexibility it offers teachers, students, and guardians. Communication outside the classroom can be facilitated through discussion forums, real-time messaging, video-conferencing, email, and announcement posts. The accessibility regardless of location promotes globalization with open and flexible learning environments. Assignments and course content can be accessed from home and away from home. Students have the opportunity to learn at their own pace and go back and review lessons and content as needed.

The online platform of the LMS, also, promotes a variety of collaborative opportunities for all stakeholders. Students and teachers can share and learn through group projects, blogs, wikis, and file-sharing. Guardians can support student learning by monitoring assignments and communication. By moving the lessons outside of the classroom walls, an LMS can create and support a community of learners that work together in order to build knowledge (K-12 Blueprint Learning Management System (LMS) Guide, 2014).

Supporting Student Learning

Currently, there is a shift moving away from the traditional classroom to a classroom that promotes a balance between structure and learner autonomy. The blended learning classroom models an environment where both teacher and student strive for more self-directed learning opportunities through the use of technology. The idea of the networked student and the networked teacher “promotes inquiry-based learning and digital literacy, empowers the learning, and offers flexibility as new technologies emerge” (Drexler, 2010, p. 371).

The blended classroom is a type of LMS structure that is gaining popularity. From her blog, Catlin Tucker, author of Blended Learning in Grades 4–12: Leveraging the Power of Technology to Create Student-Centered Classrooms (Corwin, 2012), suggests these 5 tips for starting a blended classroom:

Tip 1: “Think big, but start small.”

Tucker understands the overwhelming thought of blending multiple web tools, computer programs, and learning management systems. She suggests that teachers choose one piece of technology that will complement the existing classroom instruction.

Tip 2: “Patience is a virtue when trying something new.”

Make mistakes and then refine them. When refining lessons, Tucker will survey students and ask for their feedback in order to improve her lessons.

Tip 3: “Technology shouldn’t be a frill.”

Avoid adding more to the lesson but instead, replace or improve what is already in place. Tucker replaced a handout with an online discussion board and found the students’ responses to each other were more insightful and demonstrated deeper thinking.

Tip 4: “Weaving media together makes them stronger.”

Tucker stresses the importance of weaving the classroom and virtual media together. She states that when students recognize the work they do online connects with what they do in the classroom, it makes their online discussions more valuable.

Tip 5: “Students need to know where they can get online.”

Tucker understands that not all students have internet access away from school; however, she argues that “many educators don’t want to disenfranchise students without computers or reliable Internet access at home. But disenfranchisement is exactly what will happen if students walk out of our classrooms without cultivating the skills necessary to succeed in our rapidly changing and increasingly digital world” (Tucker, 2013). She provides students with maps of the local community with pins where they can find free internet access and computers. She, also, has learned how to leverage the mobile devices the students bring to class.

To learn more from Catlin Tucker, follow her blog catlintucker.com or @Catlin_Tucker.

Student-centered learning is at the heart of a blended classroom. Creating learning environments that promote self-regulation and personal learning opportunities are essential in preparing students for the ever-changing 21st-century world.

Types of LMS platforms

Throughout this section of the chapter, we will discuss several LMS platforms used in K-12 schools and at post-secondary institutions by teachers and students. The LMS platforms we will discuss are Blackboard, Schoology, Google Classroom, Moodle, and Edmodo. Then, after a brief discussion of each LMS platform, there will be a conversation regarding its strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, we want to introduce you to some of the most popular LMS platforms available for use within a single classroom, school-wide, or even for an entire district or post-secondary institution to implement.

Blackboard

One of the most popular LMS choices is Blackboard.  Blackboard is currently being used in K-12 schools and at post-secondary institutions. Since Blackboard is a cloud-based LMS, Blackboard can be used on computers, tablets, and mobile devices in a classroom setting for all ages. In addition,  this LMS can be used as a mobile communication tool to keep parents informed about their students progress in school (Gross, 2014).

  • Strengths: The strengths include accessibility, up-to-date user interface, compatible with other Blackboard products, file storage and management, strong support for collaboration, personalization, and specialized grading tools.
  • Weaknesses: The weaknesses include a steep learning curve, overlap of multiple message tools, less student-centeredness, restricted authority, permission, section management, and no time zone support (University at Buffalo Center for Educational Innovation, 2017).

Schoology

Schoology is a cloud-based LMS system that was created in 2009 by three undergraduate students at the University of Washington in St. Louis. While Schoology was initially used as a note-taking and sharing platform, it ultimately developed over time into a fully functional LMS. Now, Schoology is complete with resource folders, tracking systems, and communication programs that can be used by teacher and students at  K-12 schools. Schoology accounts are free to use for parents, teachers, and students; however, “a license is required if a school wants to link data from the platform with its other programs” (Gross, 2014).

  • Strengths: The strengths include streamlined sharing and content management, offers a systematic approach to content creation, personalized homepage, grades and attendance easily accessed through student’s homepage (Wikispaces, 2016).
  • Weaknesses: The weakness include students need to sign up, difficult to upload images, school systems and districts are required to purchase licensing to link data, individual teachers have to have students sign up separately and provide them with information for “joining a class” (Wikispaces, 2016

Google Classroom

Google Classroom is a cloud-based LMS that allows teachers to create assignments, bulletins, and even formative questions for students to answer. Within Google Classroom, teachers can see how students are doing on their assignments and can provide real-time feedback to students all while online. In addition, Google Classroom is currently free for all schools; most LMS platforms are costly to implement. Thus, this is a huge plus for schools who want to become more technologically integrated and high-tech while working on a tight budget (Gross, 2014).

  • Strengths: The strengths include how it is easy to use for students and teachers as well as accessible from computers, tablets, and phones. In addition, it allows teachers to communicate with students and parents as well as provide feedback on assignments in a very fast and efficient manner. Finally, Google Classroom eliminates the need for paper to be used and it is easily organized with a friendly user-interface (Pappas, 2015).
  • Weaknesses: The weaknesses include the lack of multi-question automated multiple choice formative assessments cannot be created using Google Classroom. Also, Google Classroom does not integrate well with other Google Apps like Google calendar. Lastly, Google Classroom does not provide automatic updates for teachers to schedule in throughout the week. Therefore, each time a teacher wants to post an assignment or information on classroom, it must be done manually on the day of when the teacher wants to update their Google Classroom (Pappas, 2015).

Edmodo

Edmodo is a free online platform (open source) emphasizing collaboration and social media to customize learning. Designed specifically for classroom use. The platform includes tools for homework, assessment, discussion, and mobile learning. Communities connect teachers to a global network of educators (K-12 Blueprint Learning Management System (LMS) Guide, 2014).

  • Strengths: The strengths include the ease of use for first-time users trying to set it up, free with the ability to organize courses and load all relevant digital resources into it, largest k-12 social learning community in the world, connects with other educators, students, and parents easily and securely (Hicks, 2016).
  • Weaknesses: The weaknesses include a heavily dependent upon the developer, less centralized, and risk of discontinuous service (may be shut down, or incorporated into a competitor’s product due to a buyout) (University at Buffalo Center for Educational Innovation, 2017).

Moodle (Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment)

Moodle is a free web application (open source) that educators use to create effective online learning sites. Includes an educator community and support center.

  • Strengths: The strengths include its ease of use, customization, rapid deployment, and it’s cost effectiveness.
  • Weaknesses: The weaknesses include its accessibility (not certified from the National Federation for the Blind), heavily dependent on third-party add-ons (increases time lag and workload to update, insufficient maintenance investment (lacks the scale to make an investment in maintenance) (University at Buffalo Center for Educational Innovation, 2017).

Through this short discussion, you have been introduced to several LMS platforms that teachers use in K-12 settings as well as at post-secondary institutions. Each of these platforms has several strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, it is best to evaluate the situation in your classroom or school and research the most applicable LMS before implementation. Next, we will discover from Janice T. Marcado, her experience of utilizing an LMS in her secondary Special Education classes.

My experience using Learning Management Systems

Janice T. Mercado

As a teacher of Special Education students, I believe that we need to provide new ways for them to learn or “go to school.” Many of the special education students find it difficult having to go to a classroom and sit still for 55 minutes at the same time the teacher is providing instruction and to then produce work. There are companies that have created their curriculum and made it available to different districts and other companies that have created the programs where teachers create their classes and make them available for students.

Independent study is an option that is becoming more available for all students and it has been tested in different districts. My district has embraced PLATO Learning Environment (Plato) and CANVAS. Plato has their own curriculum aligned to Common Core Standards so it is a program ready to be used. The classes are divided in units and each unit includes at least four tutorials that students need to complete. It also includes different activities that the students can be assigned to complete at home or the teacher can have them come for a small class instruction for a day. In the tutorials the students read and at the same time listen to the information on the screen, they can watch/read extra information in hyperlinks, and answer questions about the information read in the same tutorial. It has objectives for each tutorial and lesson activities or questions to ensure understanding. After they have finished the tutorial they take a simple mastery test of five questions; if they pass they continue to the next tutorial and if they score less than 60% they have the ability to retake the test. At the end of each unit there is a more inclusive test, that again if they score less than 60% they can retake.

The program provides different ways for the teacher to check the time the student spent at each tutorial and test to ensure that the student is spending the appropriate time in the lessons and not just browsing through. It shows the student when they are Off Pace, On Pace, or Ahead during the time allotted for the class. I mention this because our school is divided in quarters instead of semesters and the students only have nine or ten weeks to complete a class depending on how long the quarter is. To reinforce responsibility and time management, the teachers can close the units as time passes so the student is responsible and slightly forced to stay on pace.

Another feature that Plato provides teachers is the ability to modify the curriculum that has been prewritten. Teachers can create, modify, change of order, eliminate, and hide as much or as little as they need the students to work on, and what things they can see at any particular time so they don’t work ahead or stay too long behind. All the work is done online but the student and teacher have the ability to print if necessary at any time. Unit and mastery tests for the lessons are scored by the system so the teacher doesn’t have to spend time in that area. Students know immediately after a test what their score is and can request to retake accordingly.

Canvas is a system that can be accessed by the students by invitation of the teacher. They have to log in with an email and create a password and then once in the class they can change the login information. This system is designed in a way that it will guide the teacher step by step on how to create their own class. It has tutorials, modules and samples that can be used as guidelines to create the class. It provides for discussion boards were the teacher can leave accessible for a period of time or continuously throughout the duration of the course. The teachers create the work the students need to complete and add them to the different units or weeks according to how they want to divide the class. The teacher can add assignments or sections in the different units of weeks and have students turn in the work as they complete it. The teachers can provide feedback to students as they turn in the work in a chat box once they submit the work, or if they have chosen to work on Google documents the student can edit and add information at the same time the teacher is correcting and providing feedback on the work.

Canvas allows the teacher to keep open or closed different sessions at a time or if they choose or need to differentiate the assigned work for a group of students, they can give access to the lessons only to the students they deem necessary. In the assignments the teachers can also include when the work is due and how many points is the work worth. Students can see their grades and the percentage they have accumulated, and can also see if they have any work due or late. One other attribute of the program is that tells the teacher when was the last time the student logged into the class and the total amount of hours the student has spent working on the class.

Canvas can connect with Google Drive if given permission by the student and teacher to connect to that server and the process of turning in the work is faster. It collaborates with Office 365 as well, allowing to have more than one person working in the same document.

The independent study program has been a shelter and a great new choice for my special education students. They enjoy the independence that brings to them at the same time that takes them away from conventional schools and the anxiety of not being able to keep with the pace of a general education classroom. They find the inclusion without the pressure and they can really show their intelligence in creative ways without the stigma of special education. In an Independent Educational Program (IEP) a parent said: “I have been looking for a place like this for my son for many years. He will be successful here”. And he was; he graduated last year from high school.

Conclusion

Throughout this chapter, we discussed the benefits of utilizing an LMS in your classroom as well as the benefits of using an LMS to student learning. In addition, a number of LMS’s were outlined and reviewed. Through the comprehensive review of LMS software described in this chapter, we hope you have a good idea of the options you have as an educator in utilizing this tool in your classroom. Overall, we believe using an LMS will make your life easier as new teacher because it will help you become organized, flexible, and transparent with students, parents, and administrators.

License

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Learning Management Systems by Virginia Reischl and Janice T. Mercado Toro is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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