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Courtesy of the University of Virginia

Trial and Error is a recurring feature from “Inside Digital Learning” that examines the successes and struggles of technology initiatives on campuses and in classrooms. Have ideas for future columns? Send them to And be sure to comment below the story with thoughts and ideas for this institution.​​

The Institution: University of Virginia

The Problem: The learning management system started out in higher education as a novelty. “We were able to do many things we couldn’t have done before: create secure log-in locations, post work, get grades, discussion threads, wikis,” said Judith Giering, the university’s director of learning design and technology.

Her university for nearly a decade had used the open-source LMS platform Sakai, which currently lags in market share behind dominant players like Canvas, Blackboard and Moodle.

Tricia Gordon, director of LMS applications, led the institution’s transition during the ’00s from a homegrown LMS to Sakai. She was drawn to the open-source platform’s affordances for creativity. “That was a big driver for us -- we can host it ourselves, customize it and make it our own,” Gordon said.

But over time, institutions’ technological needs and ambitions have gotten more sophisticated, and in Giering’s view, the learning management system has struggled to keep up. The platform’s limitations have become more noticeable and frustrating, Giering said.

Sakai was originally developed by four institutions that received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. As a result, “there’s some inconsistency with namings of things in different areas of the system,” and some parts of the platform don’t interact seamlessly with others, according to Gordon.

“It’s not known for its beautiful interface,” Giering said. But the shortcomings run deeper than that, she said. Many of the platform’s tools aren’t intuitive to use, or their names don’t efficiently convey to faculty members how they can be helpful, according to Giering. Even though the platform hosts a wide range of courses offered in a wide range of formats, each interface looks roughly the same as the next.

Sakai's open-source platform is managed from within working groups that include representatives from participating institutions. Administrators from the University of Virginia have consulted extensively with Sakai's Project Management Committee, according to Wilma Hodges, the committee's community coordinator.

"Institutional priorities are communicated directly within the teams involved in doing the work, and the updates to the product reflect those priorities," Hodges wrote in an email. "The Sakai community is constantly working [to] update and enhance Sakai in order to enable teaching and learning in better, more elegant ways."

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“If you’re doing a lecture course, that does not look the same as if you’re teaching an active learning problem-based course in statistics. That looks different than if you’re teaching a chemistry lab, because they’re very different courses,” Giering said. “The physical environment space looks very different from this, so why shouldn’t the digital learning space look different?”

The Goal: Giering has for the last couple of years grown fascinated with the concept, first developed by Educause, of a “next-generation digital learning environment” (NGDLE). The acronym is unwieldy and the concept is abstract, but to Giering, the possibilities are enticing. The idea is to create a comprehensive platform that functions similarly to an LMS but offers more adaptability and customizability to instructors, and therefore more direct value to students.

No one has yet figured out exactly what the NGDLE will look like or how to get to it. But Giering decided she wanted her institution to make some moves in that direction.

“We were nowhere near tossing out our LMS and starting over with this idea,” Giering said. “The question we were thinking was what can we do within the constraints of the LMS that at least are striving to reach this ideal.”

The open-source nature of Sakai offered more opportunities for tweaks and adjustments than a proprietary platform like Blackboard and Canvas would, Giering said.

The Experiment: The first step -- to the surprise of no one familiar with how higher ed works -- was to consult faculty members, who interact with the LMS on a daily basis. This Giering launched a series of focus groups, for which she expected a handful of attendees. “A ton of faculty” -- far more than she expected -- showed up each time, she said, demonstrating the widespread enthusiasm for taking a fresh look at the LMS.

Next, Giering hired a tech team from the local company Journey Group: a project manager, a user interface designer, a content expert and an application developer. She also brought in a Sakai developer to help transfer the institution's newly developed code to other institutions using the Sakai platform.

They’ve spent the last six months updating the user interface and creating a “wizard” tool that surveys instructors upon creation of a new course with questions like “How do you want your students to participate in the course?” and “How do you want to evaluate your students?” The answers to those questions inform a customized version of the LMS tailored to the specific needs of the course.

“It’s very responsive to the faculty’s particular interest, what they’re teaching, what they need out of their digital learning environment,” Giering said.

Other changes address Giering’s ongoing gripes about maximizing the system’s value for faculty members with limited time to learn complicated procedures. Tools offered on the platform now present themselves to faculty members in order of how useful they’re likely to be based on the type of class, and they’ve been renamed using “teaching and learning language” -- "lecture capture" instead of "Panopto," for example.

How It Has Gone: The rollout of the new features has just begun, and they will be optional for instructors. Faculty focus groups have helped introduce new ideas for improvements, in addition to generating feedback on existing ideas, Gordon said. Involving faculty members earlier on helps them feel more invested in the learning management system and supportive of its transformation.

Some pitfalls of the learning management system might not be surmountable. According to Gordon, students sometimes complain when some of their instructors engage with the LMS more than others. Another goal of the new features is to convince faculty members who were previously skeptical of the LMS that it's worth using for more than just posting grades, but “I don’t think we’ll ever completely solve it,” Gordon said.

Everyone involved in the project was already busy with plenty of other priorities, which made fitting in this new mandate difficult at first. The team spent the early part of the design process fighting "scope creep," according to Gordon. But both think the project team has found a groove that can be replicated in future redesign cycles.

What’s Next: Revisions and additions will continue as the cycle repeats, and the scope of the project could expand. “Is there a place for VR in the LMS? No one really knows yet, probably,” Giering said. “These are some of the questions that you can imagine a second or third or fourth iteration of this process.”

A longer-term goal, more in line with the vision of the NGDLE, is to develop a learning experience for students that seamlessly crosses platforms. A student might start by watching lectures on YouTube, then head to a web-based tool for creating a concept map before wrapping up with a shared WordPress site -- all within the confines of one platform.

“To say that we know what it’s going to look like even in five years -- we don’t know that,” Giering said. “What we’re doing with this project is putting measures in place to say, whether it’s within the LMS or outside of the LMS, that we’re having a dialogue [about] what do we want the digital learning environment to look like for us.”

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