Surprise: A Painless Process to Choose a New LMS

Faculty members praise the Indiana University System’s implementation of its new LMS -- and other institutions are seeking insights from the university's thorough and public evaluation of three systems.

August 30, 2017
 
Indiana University
Bloomington campus

The Indiana University System’s relatively pain-free implementation of its new learning management during the past two academic years is being called “amazing” and “surprising” by faculty members and administrators.

“We didn’t have very many ‘You ruined my life. Whose idea was this anyway?’ comments,” said Anastasia S. Morrone, associate vice president for learning technologies at the Indiana University System.

“We approached this with a reasonable amount of rigor, especially because we are doing more and more with online teaching and online proctoring,” Morrone added. “We needed to do a pilot with each of the companies, and ask instructors and students for feedback. We needed to factor in all those things that faculty and students had to say.”

Faculty members say they were heard. “I believe my thoughts were taken into consideration,” said Tammy Fong-Morgan, an associate professor of Spanish at the South Bend campus who was involved in one of the university’s three LMS pilots.

Canvas by Instructure now is fully functioning at all of Indiana’s campuses after a two-year implementation process that began with the 2014-15 academic year. Canvas operated in tandem with the Sakai Oncourse platform, which was Indiana’s LMS for 10 years, so that faculty members and staff had plenty of time to learn the new system and transfer their course content and other materials to Canvas.

Indiana administrators and faculty members say they were not dissatisfied with Sakai, the open source LMS that the university founded in collaborated with the University of Michigan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the uPortal consortium. However, they thought it had limitations that wouldn’t allow the university system, which has 115,000 students, close to 18,000 instructors and staff, and a growing online presence, to meet teaching and learning needs in the coming years.

“We ran Sakai for 10 years. It served us incredibility well once people were used to using it,” Morrone said. “But it was it was hard [for it] to keep pace with what was happening in the technology industry.”

The Search Begins

Indiana began researching LMSs in 2012, but found that no system was “head and shoulders above another,” said David Goodrum, who served as director of teaching and learning technologies at the time. So in 2013 administrators conducted a semester-long pilot of three products: Desire2Learn (now called D2L), Blackboard Learn and Canvas.

Before Indiana began using Sakai in 2007, administrators did not ask for input from instructors or learners. The implementation didn’t go well, and Morrone said administrators didn’t want to make that mistake again.

“When it came time to select the next LMS, we wanted to know this is what the faculty and students had to say about the LMS,” she said. “We wanted to show ‘You are part of the decision.’ I can’t tell you how important that has been.”

After the pilots ended and the analysis was completed, Indiana selected Canvas for its new LMS and implementation took place over two academic years: 2015-16 and 2016-17. The first year, the campuses ran Canvas and Oncourse in tandem, and let instructors move to Canvas at their own pace.

Chera LaForge, Faculty Senate president at Indiana University East, said she built her courses in Canvas while continuing to teach with Oncourse during the first year so she wasn’t trying to learn the new LMS and teach with it at the same time. That decision worked well, she said. But, she added, she’s a “digital native” who enjoys learning new technologies and is a strong advocate of online education.

During the last academic year, Canvas was solidly in place at Indiana, although instructors could still view their old documents in Oncourse, download them or move them to Canvas.

LaForge, an assistant professor of political science, said the transition to Canvas on her campus was “amazingly smooth.” “We didn’t have to do the transition in a few weeks,” she said. “The long transition phase was key. It really allowed us to have a lot of training sessions and work with our centers for teaching and learning.”

In addition to extensive training, LaForge and Fong-Morgan, the South Bend instructor, said that the availability of digital migration tools provided by the university system to aid instructors in the transition, as well as additional support from instructional designers and technical staff, made the switch from Oncourse to Canvas relatively easy.

The two-year implementation process also gave students time to learn the new system, the professors said.

Although she’s been happy with Canvas, Fong-Morgan said she wishes all the faculty members involved in the Blackboard and D2L pilots also could have participated in a controlled pilot of Canvas before it was implemented at the campuses.

She also wishes implementation hadn’t started during the summer. “Roll-outs tend to be while faculty are away, and then there is a rush in the fall,” she said. “There is a learning curve for the older faculty.”

LaForge noted that faculty members will no longer have access to Oncourse starting Sept. 1, which does make some of them nervous.

Public Reporting

After the LMS pilots concluded, Indiana posted reports online comparing the functionality of the three systems as well as detailed instructor and student evaluations. (Indiana did not include pricing information, however, and officials declined to talk about the systemwide deal with Instructure.)

Morrone said Indiana administrators thought it was important to publicly share the university’s thorough evaluation so that “faculty don’t ever feel that the administration made that decision without any input.”

As important, Morrone said that institutions are in great need of this type of qualitative and quantitative data, and that Indiana officials thought they needed to publicly share it. “I don’t know anyone doing it quite so intentionally,” she said. “Cornell does have some really good (technology) reports, but they don’t make them public. But we have colleagues there and we can ask them for them.”

Goodrum, who has been director of academic technology at Oregon State University since December, said detailed documents of institutions’ LMS evaluations were not available when Indiana was exploring systems. He said he knows that officials at several universities, including Virginia Tech and Colorado State University, have looked at Indiana’s reports for insights.

“It’s very time consuming and resource-intensive to do a full pilot,” said Goodrum. “But it was really important for IU [to conduct pilots] because it had been with Sakai for a decade. People were happy with it, but around online education, there were perceived limitations.”

After Indiana finished the pilots, Goodrum reviewed about 50 LMS evaluations conducted by universities and colleges for his doctoral dissertation because he said “we were all inventing the model again and again.” He noted that most of the documents showed that institutions were mainly relying on ed-tech companies to provide demonstrations to faculty members, who afterwards filled out surveys about the LMSs’ benefits.

Some universities and colleges do conduct LMS pilots, Goodrum said, but only after they’ve “confirmed” their choice. (He noted, however, that his research shows that Penn State University piloted four systems, and then decided not to go with any of them. Penn State is now moving to Canvas.)

Because of budget and other constraints, institutions are starting to share their research and evaluations of technology products. For example, Indiana and Oregon State are part of Unizin, a consortium of 12 research universities that formed in 2014 to discuss and share ways to enhance student success through digital technology. (As reported in Inside Higher Ed, Unizin recently announced a deal to bring predictive analytics services to the consortium's members through Barnes & Noble.) As a group, the institutions are working with Instructure, and many now are transitioning to Canvas.

“Members of the Unizin consortium decided together that if we were going to use the same learning management system, then we would share the data and have more common variables,” Goodrum said.

“The notion that ‘it has to be invented here’ no longer makes sense,” Morrone added.

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