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Close your eyes for a second and picture yourself standing in the middle of the quad on your campus. Now, what do you see? Most likely visions of buildings representing your institution and its culture and services surround you. To your left is potentially a residence hall; to your right maybe is the Memorial Union and an athletic complex; and possibly in front of you is an administrative building and classrooms. This may not be the exact order and placement of buildings on your campus, but regardless you will likely envision a well-designed campus with intentionally placed buildings to maximize the student and faculty experience.
"When planning, choosing, and utilizing an LMS, an institution should approach it much in the same way as completing a master plan for physical facilities"
Now open your eyes and take in the computer screen in your home office which has likely been your base of operations for the past 10 months. If this pandemic has taught us anything it is that we must expand the horizons on how we traditionally conceive our campuses and the student experience and build processes and systems that are defined by the life experiences of students and faculty in an online environment. As a result, the Learning Management System (LMS) should become the bedrock for a new foundation at our institutions given it is the hub of our students’ virtual experiences, and we should treat the LMS with as much care and planning as one of our buildings on our physical campuses.
When planning, choosing, and utilizing an LMS, an institution should approach it much in the same way as completing a master plan for physical facilities. Administrators should think of the impact of the LMS on the global services and structures on campus, and how it will influence the faculty and staff experience to add value to the overall institution. Using an analogy of the type of factors that go into planning a physical building on campus, I will detail some important considerations institutional leaders should ponder about the importance and place of the LMS in the modern institutional structure.
First, an essential consideration for an LMS - just like a building - is access and ease of use. Do your students know how to get to the LMS, and all of the ways to access it? This may seem like a simple thing but can be overlooked especially when you consider mobile responsiveness. An LMS and all its functions should be natively mobile responsive. As educators, we want to make it easy for students to access our classrooms, and the pandemic emphasized the importance of leveling the playing field for the digital divide. Students who may not be able to regularly access a desktop PC or a wi-fi network because of limited resources or travel restrictions, likely could get into the LMS with their mobile device and data plans. Ensuring a completely mobile responsive experience that offers students full functionality on-the-go in any situation creates greater access and ability to learn. Although many LMSes may “function” on mobile devices, this does not mean the LMSis fully responsive and normed to these platforms. Ensuring a unified experience that is easy to find and access throughout the learning experience is imperative regardless of device or access point. After all, we would not give a student a different experience in a physical classroom if they entered the building through a different door.
Next, in a similar vein, comes the need for accessibility and accommodations. When building a safe and productive campus environment we ensure our buildings meet ADA standards and requirements. The same is true of the LMS. It is imperative that the LMSbe accessible under the applicable law for the institution. . Moreover, given that the needs of students in physical space are different than those in a virtual space, it is essential that the LMS be malleable enough to adapt to different requirements and abilities of different learners when in a virtual space.
Whether this means speech to text functions, accessibility checkers, or aspect ratio/visual adjustments; the LMS should be treated just like a physical classroom in ensuring accommodations for learners with different needs.
Moving beyond the need for access and accessibility comes the requirement for an integrated experience. When we conduct facility planning, we take great care of how our buildings will connect or fit with each other. Moreover, limiting the number of churn students and faculty have when moving within our facilities is a key component in how we design and allocate space. As a result, when choosing and working with an LMS, generally, the more tools that are native and integrated into the LMS itself - the better. For example, if a student or faculty member does not have to leave the LMS environment to connect with students through synchronous chat or video-conference sessions, check their assignments for plagiarism, or access course materials, this improves the overall experience and wayfinding for students. As evidence of this, during the pandemic schools that already had a native synchronous video-conferencing tool in their LMS were able to pivot to virtual instruction more quickly than other schools that had to deploy third-party tools requiring associated downloads, passwords, and credentials to accomplish the same task. Ultimately, not all learning tools will be native to the LMS environment, but this does not minimize the need for integration.
Therefore, ensuring that your LMS provider and educational technology partners have the appropriate LTIs and APIs for interoperability with each other is critical to keep the experience seamless. We spend a lot of time on campus ensuring our buildings provide a similar look, feel, and experience regardless of the services we provide; and as such choosing an LMS provider and educational technology tools that work together is crucial.
The final consideration when building a new foundation around your LMS to optimize the modern student and faculty experience is the ability to obtain and leverage data. With physical buildings, we have numerous visual and other sensory cues to determine the usage, efficacy, needs, and benefits of our facilities (e.g., the building is worn-down or our classrooms are not being used to capacity). However, with an LMS these cues do not exist in the same way. Because of this it is important to be able to get robust data around student and faculty interactions, exchanges, progress, and behaviors. Strong data pipelines and analytical tools can help faculty members and administrators quickly identify opportunities for improvement, solve problems, or implement interventions to improve the learning experience. Essentially, data feeds can help us uncover the issues or cracks in our LMS foundation that we would normally be able to physically ascertain and remediate with our senses in a physical environment.
As we conceptualize the future of our institutions post-pandemic, it will become vital to place a greater emphasis on virtual tools as a normal part of our cadence for institutional continuity and structural planning. The LMS is central to this process - and although many other features can exist for an LMS -focusing on the foundational core-competencies of access, accessibility, integration, and interoperability, and data for an LMS is a good place to begin building a foundation to the most important building on your campus without four walls.