From paper-based correspondence courses to the use of radio, television, and videoconferencing, distance education predates the Internet and Learning Management Systems (LMSs) by centuries. Indeed, an individual need for sharing information, combined with a bit of ingenuity, is enough to adapt almost any communication mechanism to education. It is not surprising that experiments with the use of the Internet for distance education showed up very early in the development of the World Wide Web.
UNM delivered its first online class in 1997 with a pioneering faculty member, some visionary staff, student employees, hand coded HTML pages, and e-mail. The course would not win design awards by today’s standards, but in a time before commercial Learning Management Systems, Facebook, Google, and other web giants, it was a miracle. Similar experiments were taking place around the world, and a year later, UNM piloted a course using a newly developed LMS: WebCT.
The relative ease of publishing course content and interacting with students that the LMS afforded meant that the barrier to entry for online teaching and learning was significantly lower. By 2000, it was clear that the LMS was a key piece of educational technology on many campuses. Since that time, UNM’s experience with the LMS is similar to the journey experienced by many schools: faculty and staff selection of an LMS for the campus, explosive growth in system usage prompting evaluation of more robust systems, and rapid growth in the industry changing the product space via startups, mergers, and acquisitions.
"With increased competition in Higher Education and the double-edged sword of online program competition, many schools and faculty may look at their LMS as an opportunity for differentiation"
Today, the LMS is central to the delivery of online classes at UNM, which account for approximately 15% of overall enrollment. It also provides supplemental support for 75% of the university’s total credit hour production—a result of organic growth over the last two decades. A system that was once considered to be experimental has become a mainstream and baseline expectation. The 2018 Educause ECAR study notes that “the LMS is similar to basic utilities on higher education campuses, such as plumbing or electricity—functional, ubiquitous, with high levels of use and satisfaction for its most basic operations.” This statement is reflective of the results of UNM’s own faculty and student surveys as well as in the national results, regardless of which LMS a campus is using. Where there is dissatisfaction on the faculty and student side, it is often associated with the user interface, ease of use, mobile access, and/or institutional decisions related to custom integrations or configurations. From an administrative perspective, uptime, staff resources, and the cost of maintenance are the most likely pain points.
With the possibilities of digital learning and transformation aside, the LMS in its current state has lost some of its reputation as being a game-changing technology in higher education. Nevertheless, it remains a central hub for a multitude of teaching and learning applications on campus, and does a good job of mediating complex roles, permissions, and user interactions while delivering the rich content prevalent in modern classes. Given the quantity of content hosted in the LMS, the large numbers of users and the complexity of many system integrations, moving from one LMS to another is a significant undertaking. Improvements in migration tools notwithstanding, the sheer size and centrality of an LMS on campus makes these migrations much larger than they were 10 years ago.
That is not to say that there is not still innovation and opportunity in the LMS space. The march to the cloud is almost as inevitable in the LMS space as it is with so many other applications and IT services. Uptime, scalability, and promised gains in staff productivity with continuous release cycles are all reasons to move to the cloud from a client perspective. Couple that with cleaner interfaces, better mobile compatibility, and improved functional workflows, and there are definite reasons to engage in an LMS evaluation. This is especially true for schools that are still running older products. Furthermore, with increased competition in Higher Education and the double-edged sword of online programcompetition, many schools and faculty may look at their LMS as an opportunity for differentiation. At the very least, running an LMS that does not meet user expectations for a large institutional majority can be a liability.
Like any educational technology project, success with an LMS migration comes down to planning and inclusion. Faculty, student, and staff voices all have valuable insight to contribute to the selection and configuration of an LMS. Migration of content, faculty and student support, faculty and staff training, ADA accessibility, and integration with other systems across campus are key considerations. Bring it all together, and it’s clear that an LMS evaluation is both costly and a major institutional project. For those institutions running legacy systems, an evaluation may be unavoidable, but it’s important to tie these decisions to institutional strategy with strong input from academic areas.