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Getting Their Money's Worth

March 21, 2012

Lasell College’s new five-year strategic plan contains some typical goals for a small, private college: hire new faculty, renovate old buildings, improve advising and student support, and identify signature programs.

But Lasell’s short-term roadmap also includes another, more unusual goal: It wants 100 percent of faculty to be actively using the college’s Moodle-based learning management system (LMS).  And it wants comprehensive LMS usage -- every course, all sections -- before the end of this year. That means at a minimum, an instructor will have to use the online platform to take attendance, post assignments, and post grades.

“We’re basically mandating it,” says Michael B. Alexander, Lasell’s president. The hope is that those baseline requirements, plus compulsory training, will lead to even more extensive usage over time.

Less than two decades since professors and students traded exclusively in oral discussion and printed documents, online learning environments have become ubiquitous. More than 90 percent of all colleges and universities -- small and large, public and private -- have invested in an institutionwide LMS, according to data from the Campus Computing Project. Even traditional institutions, where classes still are held primarily in classrooms, have deployed online platforms to run parallel to their face-to-face courses.

Whether faculty use the LMS, and to what extent, is a different question. Some colleges that have shelled out licensing fees -- or at least implementation and upkeep costs -- to give instructors the opportunity to track attendance, post learning materials and grades, start threaded discussions and collect submitted work have found that some faculty are uninterested in using many of these tools.

“It would be almost a rarity for a client of ours to not be struggling to some extent,” says Katie Blot, a senior vice president of consulting services at Blackboard, an education technology giant that sells the most popular LMS product. Even if a preponderance of courses have a live page, instructors might be using only the most basic features, Blot says.

Institutions that approach Blackboard’s consultants with an LMS usage deficit typically report that fewer than 20 percent of faculty members could be classified as “robust users” of the platform, she says.

Not surprisingly, the colleges that struggle to get faculty to use some of the platform’s more advanced tools are institutions at which the LMS is still a supplement to the classroom, where most of the teaching and learning still occurs, says Blot. At colleges that run a lot of online programs, where the learning management system is frequently the primary point of contact between instructors and their students, the instructors use the online platform (and its more advanced features) as a matter of necessity. LMS usage tends to be less robust at colleges where it is still possible to run a class almost entirely face-to-face -- even if the licensing fees, typically priced according to student headcount, are the same.

Lasell’s push to get 100 percent faculty usage of its learning system by the end of 2012 is tied to another of its strategic goals for 2017: “Institute [an] online undergraduate and degree completion program.” The plan calls for the college to enroll at least 100 undergraduates (out of 1,800) online within five years. The idea behind comprehensive LMS usage is both to increase the existing teaching tools for faculty and also to prepare them to teach online, says Alexander, the president. And you cannot do that, he observes, without being fluent in the platform.

The plan does not appear to have run up against much resistance from Lasell faculty. But while the usage thresholds proposed by Alexander are slight, the president might be treading a fine line when it comes to requiring that faculty use particular features in Moodle. “If you’re going to see faculty resistance, it’s going to be if they are told what tools they have to use,” says Cristina Haverty, chair of the department of athletic training and exercise science. (Haverty says there has been no public discussion of Alexander’s expectation that faculty will use the attendance, assigning and grading tools specifically.)

Lasell’s online ambitions aside, the LMS is being seen as increasingly crucial to the modern college -- not necessarily because it enables students to learn more, but because it enables colleges to learn more about students. Online colleges in particular are discovering the power of data analysis in understanding the dynamics of teaching and learning -- both in general and with respect to particular students and instructors.

“This whole notion of big data and analytics is just exploding all around now,” says Randy Swing, the executive director of the Association for Institutional Research. Swing points out that some of the major funding entities in higher education, especially the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have put an enormous focus on projects that propose to use technological infrastructure on college campuses to harness data. Learning management systems stand to play a central role in collecting those data.

At the same time, Swing says he is not sure that colleges that are not already online are using learning management software to boost their data intelligence. “When I have talked with the regular institutional research people in the world, they look at me like [they] don’t know what I’m talking about -- they haven’t even started to think about social media or LMS clicks or any of that,” he says.

Swing says he is hoping to survey the association’s members about the extent to which they are in fact drawing data from the LMS. Regardless, the ability of traditional institutions to share in the presumed dividends of the Big Data era may turn on their ability to push course activity into the online classroom.

“What I think is intriguing about all of this is we love to do this comparison of traditional classes with online classes, starting out with an assumption of the inferior nature of online,” Swing says. And yet to the extent that quality might soon depend on how effectively colleges collect and analyze information about their students, traditional classrooms might find themselves at a disadvantage to their data-rich online counterparts.

For the latest technology news and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.

 

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