Teachers, schools, districts, and higher ed institutions have a wide range of platforms to use as their online “home base” for their students. Companies like Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Moodle, Edmodo, Schoology, and more recently Canvas by Instructure are all vying for the chance to become your Learning Management System (LMS) of choice.
With all of these options (along with dozens more) available, how do teachers, administrators, and tech coordinators decide which platform is best for their students? As a middle school educator and instructional coach, Here are some of the areas that need to be considered when evaluating which LMS is right for you:
1. Straightforward Set-up and Maintainance
In order for any LMS to be successful, it needs to be fairly simple for teachers to set-up and maintain their classes/courses in the online environment.
While additional training and professional development is almost certainly required for any new system, the administrative interface of the LMS needs to be intuitive. Teachers will not buy-in to the system if it is not user-friendly, and will be less likely to implement the system to its full potential if roadblocks are continuously encountered.
Additionally, maintaining class rosters and posting updated content for units and lessons needs to be as streamlined as possible.
2. Simple Student Access and Navigation
Although the learning-curve for a teacher to learn any new LMS is integral to its adoption, the ability for a student to pick it up easily is exponentially more important.
Students need to be able to join groups/classes, access content, and submit assignments with as little interference as possible. You will also want to keep in mind how content is presented from the student’s point of view (is it presented linearly in a “playlist,” as a page of multiple entry-points, etc.) and if it allows for students to easily explore related content on their own.
With this in mind, even the LMS with the most intuitive user interface may be challenging for students who are not as tech-savvy. Whatever LMS you end up deciding to use, a system of support for students (and parents) needs to be set up.
Whether this is by a help-center or FAQ section developed by the LMS company or a series of lessons/screencasts that you develop yourself, students and parents need somewhere to turn when they have questions about the learning system.
3. Ability to Embed Various Content
Most learning management systems can easily embed video and images, but any other content (interactives, ebooks, etc.) need to be tested to make sure that they can be embedded into the system easily.
I have been using Edmodo this year with middle schoolers, and for the most part embedding content has been successful. Some more complicated content did not successfully embed, and I had to post it as a link instead. While this worked out for me, I had to preface this to students and remind them to read the post and follow the link accordingly.
4. Connectivity to Student Information/Grading Systems
The biggest selling point of many learning systems and applications today is complete, back-end integration with student information databases and grading systems (such as Power School or Progress Book in the K-12 realm).
Having information about student enrollment, scheduling, and grades continuously connected and updated makes any learning application or program that much more effective. It allows for almost instant feedback and communication between the instructor and the student/parent, and aids in the analysis of data to make important instructional decisions.
What is even more rare to find among web-based learning platforms is the ability to link all student performance and assessment data into one central hub. While many companies are working toward this goal, finding a perfect combination of LMS with compatible learning tools and programs is somewhat challenging.
5. Universal Hardware Compatibility
Depending on the hardware that you school or organization has adopted, this is crucial to successfully implementing an LMS. While most of the popular systems tout cross-compatibility, there are some major differences in the user experiences of, say, the iPad app versus using the LMS on a desktop.
It is important that you know what features of your selected LMS will function of each hardware device that your learners may be using, and having foreknowledge of this before signing on to using one for a specified period of time will be very important. Testing out the experience of the LMS on all possible devices – from the administrative and student perspective – is extremely important.
Next Steps – Further Investigation
Over the next few weeks, I will be spending time researching some of the best Learning Management Systems available to educators and blogging about them as go. I will be looking at the feature-sets of many LMS platforms and evaluating them in the mentioned categories, and will note any major features that set each apart from the rest.
If anyone would like to share their own thoughts or experiences about a specific LMS, I invite you to comment to this or any of the future posts. Knowing exactly what you get from each system is very important, and getting a more complete picture of each available system will help educators and administrators make more informed choices for their students.
Also, any representatives from LMS companies are welcome to comment and leave their own feedback or add more information about the features that I may overlook. You can also follow me @EdTechToolkit on twitter to let me know what you think and keep up to date on my venture through different learning management systems in the coming weeks.