Education’s LMS Challenge

Edutechnica recently posted a fascinating analysis of the LMS (Learning Management System) market. For those unfamiliar with the term of concept, an LMS is a software system that supports an electronic courses, training, or learning.

Estimated to grow from $2.5 billion to nearly $8 billion by 2018 – a serious amount of money by any measure – the LMS market is expanding deeper in higher education, in corporate training and K-12, and around the world. Whether an educational institution is interested in asynchronous, hybrid, or synchronous pedagogies, or simply wants to supplement traditional educational practice, investment in an LMS is common practice. In fact, today having an LMS is somewhat analogous to having a library or lab. It is an expected component in an institution. Within higher education, it is the norm and most institutions are now looking at further generations of their systems.

What does the report tell us? For institutions with FTEs greater than 2,000, Blackboard controls nearly 40% of all higher education institutions and enrollment. There is a significant drop to Moodle, the second most popular LMS at 15.8% of the institutions and 13.3% of the overall enrollment. When looking at the universe of institutions that include FTE greater than 800, Blackboard’s market share drops to 33.5% and Moodle is at 19.5%. Eductechnica also provides information on the global LMS market.

A report from Educause, The Current Ecosystem of Learning Management Systems in Higher Education: Student, Faculty, and IT Perspectives, complements these numbers and provides further insight into the tremendous outlays institutions of all shapes are sizes are making in educational technology. Read in tandem, the studies also beg the question whether education is obtaining a reasonable return on its massive investment.

Bracketing the delivery of online courses, which have been steadily growing, or hybrid courses, which substitute some portion of face-to-face interaction for online, much of how higher education teaches students remains primarily in the classroom, face to face. While an LMS is essential in online or hybrid, its impact on traditional courses is much less certain.

I believe that many higher education institutions commit to an LMS as a backbone resource as a matter of course. It would be odd not to have one. The LMS provides a mechanism to do online and hybrid for some smaller part of the institution’s overall educational activity. For the majority of the institution’s activity, though, the LMS is an ancillary resource. It may be used and it may not, and it use varies. The LMS can be employed to share course information, offer some assignments, and extend the classroom. How this plays out in practice is rarely consistent. Some institutions, programs, and courses rely heavily on an LMS to facilitate learning; others less so. An LMS can also archive material, provide a basis for analysis, and improve certain types of communication. It can also be a very expensive way to send email.

Educause’s survey reveals that “faculty and students value the LMS as an enhancement to their teaching and learning experiences, but relatively few use the advanced features and even fewer use these systems to their fullest capacity.” Satisfaction is highest for basic features.

To render an LMS more useful, the report stresses the need for more professional development, faculty development, training, and investment. The report notes, optimistically, that with an increased investment and a focus on mobile and collaborative technologies, an institution’s LMS may enhance student learning and engagement. All told, it is an expensive proposition for a “may.”

I taught and worked through the implementation of an LMS. I have also worked as an administrator supporting LMS implementation and use. In my professional experience, establishing a reliable and deep understanding of how an LMS contributes in a reliably measurable way to a traditional class and student learning is a difficult exercise. It may provide some convenience, but that does not necessarily equate with more effective student learning – or even increased engagement.

Complicating any analysis of LMS impact is that the early adopters – the faculty who experiment regularly with educational technology – may or may not choose to use an institution’s LMS. I have no reliable data on this, but anecdotally I consistently find that educational technology innovators are most comfortable doing things on their own.  A search of what is available on the internet confirms this. It is easy to find untold numbers of very interesting course syllabi, packets, and assignments that have been created and posted outside of the LMS firewall.

I claim no technological expertise. However, I have been able to build course websites and shared materials with students with a minimum of effort outside of an LMS. It is possible to do good educational work with Facebook, Youtube, and email. People who know more do much more.

Money and time are precious. The cost of an institutional commitment to an LMS claims both. It also requires, per the reports above, an ongoing commitment to training and professional development. It is essential that as these valuable resources are dedicated to our institutions’ respective Learning Management Systems that we ask hard questions about who uses the systems and how they benefit our students. These investments are too large not to make them effective.

David Potash

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