A Guide to Picking a Learning Management System: The Right Questions to Ask

A Guide to Picking a Learning Management System: The Right Questions to Ask

Over the past 10 years, new learning management systems (LMSs) have sprung on the scene to rival the Blackboards and Moodles of old. On the EdSurge Product Index alone, 56 products self-identify and fall into the LMS category. And with certain established companies like Pearson pulling out of the LMS ranks, where do you start?

As University of Central Florida’s Associate Vice President of Distributed Learning, Tom Cavanagh, wrote in an article for EDUCAUSE, “every institute has a unique set of instructional and infrastructure circumstances to consider when deciding on an LMS,” but at the same time, “all institutions face certain common requirements”—whether a small charter school, a private university or a large public school district.

Thus, garnered from conversations with both K-12 and higher education administrators, the following checklist provides a starting point for any educator interested in prepping for the inevitable task of choosing an LMS for the 2017-2018 school year. (And for some additional help, each educator has offered rationales for why those checklist items should be included.)

The LMS Checklist

#1: Is the platform straightforward and user-friendly?

For many users, a complex platform is a huge hurdle to get over—and for educators, an overly-complicated LMS is a non-starter. Tara Gilboa, previously a 8-12 Spanish teacher, feels more strongly about this than any other point on an LMS checklist. As an Online Learning Experience Designer at Colorado School of Mines, she stresses that the importance of a straightforward user interface is something that educators and students in both K-12 and higher education need.

“Some things just have to be dead simple. That’s great human-centered design—simple, easy for students to use. We’re not doing any training for students on our new LMS because we don’t need to,” she says.

An example of a "narrative stream" on the Schoology LMS platform. Recent activity comes up as various actions take place. (Schoology)

Lindsey Own, a STEM educator at the Evergreen School and lover of the Canvas LMS platform, agrees—though to her, the most important part of a simple design comes in the form of the long, narrative stream (like the one shown above). It’s the make-or-break point in choosing what products she and her fellow educators like or abhor.

“[Our current LMS] doesn't let you maintain any sort of narrative for the class. The parts—assignments, resources, etc—are all broken up,” she says.

#2: Who do we want to have access to this platform, and can we adjust what they can see?

A major function of most LMSs is that more than one type of person has access—educators, students and administrators, for example. Emmanuel Andre, a Baltimore educator, describes his ideal checklist question as, “How much can administrators, grade level chairs and central office folk see? How many people have access or control?”

Pennsylvania social studies teacher Tami Flood adds that it’s worth checking to see “if there’s a parent app” to share information about student progress.

#3: Can the instructor and student(s) talk to and communicate with each other easily?

In conjunction with item two, many educators and professors want an easy way for educators and students to communicate with each other. Should there be direct messaging capabilities? Should students be able to send assignments directly to an educator or professor through the platform?

For Michael Norton, manager of digital teaching and learning at KIPP Houston Public Schools, this also begs the question of whether teachers and students can communicate about student performance and hold each other accountable. “The LMS is the system and structure of accountability and urgency that’s a handshake to the teacher’s role in creating a culture of accountability and urgency,” he explains.

Given that communication is important, it’s also worth checking whether or not social media platforms can plug directly into an LMS that doesn’t have those features.

“Students and faculty live a significant portion of their daily lives online in social media spaces,” writes University of Central Florida’s Tom Cavanagh in his article on the LMS selection process. “Are your students and faculty interested in these sorts of interplatform connections?"

#4: Does this LMS fit in with how we track student progress? Is it flexible enough to accommodate how we “score” that progress?

Vermont Superintendent Ned Kirsch has a specific ask when it comes to LMSs: “Does the LMS bend with your system,” he starts, “or does the LMS expect for your system to bend with it?”

For many educators—particularly from the higher education sector—the flexibility of the platform and how it fits into the needs of grading or progress monitoring is a huge need. Why? It affects whether or not the LMS supports student learning. Perhaps a community college’s course largely bases grades on projects, where students submit work as evidence of whether they’ve mastered competencies. If that is the model, a good LMS should support that.

“This really has to the at the crux of everything in terms of driving the decision because it connects to everything from accessibility to features and functionalities that support engagement, collaboration, communication, and innovation,” describes Kimberly Vincent-Layton, Instructional Designer at Humboldt State University.

#5: Does this platform plug in with all of the other platforms we have?

In conversations, several educators used a phrase to describe something else they look for in LMSs, and that’s Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI). It’s what UCF’s Tom Cavanagh alluded to above with his question as to whether or not social media platforms plug into a given LMS. For many educators, the ability for an LMS to integrate with tools like Google Suite for Education makes a huge difference in providing a central platform for every teacher and/or student need—and that’s true for higher education techies, too.

“Given the pace of change and the plethora of options with educational technology, it's very difficult for any LMS vendor to keep up with stand-alone tools that will always outperform built-in tools,” explains Michael Truong, executive director of innovative teaching and technology at Azusa Pacific University. According to Truong, “no LMS will be able to compete directly with tools like Piazza (discussion forum), Socrative (quizzing), EdPuzzle (video annotation), etc.” 

As a result, Truong says, “The best way to ‘prepare’ for future technological changes is to go with an LMS that plays well with external tools."

#6: Is the price worth the product?

For readers confused as to why the question of “Is this platform going to cost me an arm and a leg?” hasn’t popped up on this list yet, there’s a simple explanation: few of the educators mentioned price as a consideration. “Free is a nice option,” offers edublogger and Spanish teacher Rachelle Dene Poth, “but I just want the best for students.”

That being said, setting a budget for an LMS—and considering all options within that budget—is a worthy practice. Free isn’t always better (“I'm not a fan of Google Classroom,” says Tami Flood), and contracts do run out, so consider other options when the current LMS doesn’t deliver. “We use Schoology. Don't love it, don't hate it. We will be looking again when our contract runs out next year,” reports Superintendent Kirsch.

A reality check: There is no perfect LMS.

The list above is a starting point. But there is a greater lesson to be learned. When it comes to choosing an LMS, almost every educator did have a lasting message for their fellow educators: there is no silver bullet. “I have experience using several LMSs, and I would say that each has its ‘ups and downs,’” shares Kimberly Vincent-Layton. “Much of the success lies in how the tool is used.”

As with many edtech tools, what may be the biggest contributor to whether or not a campus successfully chooses and implements an effective LMS is—in one, simple word—culture. For Truong, bringing a functional LMS into Azusa Pacific University wasn’t about the product itself. Rather, it was about growth mindset.

“With a growth mindset, a campus will begin to understand that using an LMS is about improving administrative efficiency, teaching effectiveness, and overall impact on student learning,” he says. “This mindset will ultimately prepare the campus as a whole to be better suited to evaluate whatever LMS they're considering.”

Mary Jo Madda (@MJMadda) is Senior Editor at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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