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Many teachers and organisations are now experimenting with collections of free online platforms and systems by commercial service providers such as Google and Yahoo! to use in their teaching practices. Some of the more popular uses are things like encouraging learners to submit course work via email, using free online discussion forums, wikis, microblogging, and social networking sites. If all this is available for free, then why bother using a Learning Management System (LMS)?
One place for everything
In their first experiments with elearning, many teachers tend to build a collection of free commercial web services that are “one trick applications”, for example, Facebook or Edmodo for social networking, email or Google Docs for submitting written assignments, drop boxes or file sharing services for media files, Yahoo! Groups for discussion forums, and free test preparation sites. Using all these different services requires learners and teachers to create a number of user accounts, i.e. one for each service, and manage them all accordingly. Admins must keep track of teachers’ and learners’ online activities, and teachers must keep track of their learners’ right across the assortment of services and sites. From an organisational perspective this is clearly not an easy arrangement to administer and almost impossible to do on a medium or large scale.
Presumably, any organisation taking this approach with young learners would also have to get parents’ signatures on Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) agreements, or their equivalents in their respective countries, for each site or service used. Some governments and educational authorities are also prohibiting the use of some web sites and services by teachers and learners such as Facebook.
A well designed Learning Management System will have all the tools and services you need to create and manage user accounts, courses, social networks, news, announcements and messages, discussion groups, assignment and file submission systems, quizzes, tests and exams, presentations and lessons, grading and feedback, etc. in one convenient place, with one user account for each participant.
More coherently organised courses
An LMS allows administration, curriculum developers, course content authors and teachers to create courses with activities, assessment, etc., that are coherently organised and easy to follow. Courses and course content can be quickly and easily updated and adjusted and as such are a more responsive and adaptive approach to developing effective elearning programmes. Teachers and learners can follow a clear, concise timeline of activities and projects, look ahead to see what’s coming up and review past work for critical reflection, all in one place.
More appropriate types of roles for users
Most social networking sites are designed for optimising corporate marketing opportunities and gathering users’ personal information and encouraging disclosures of personal and private details, while most Content Management Systems (CMS) are designed for e-commerce and/or web publishing contexts and user accounts tend to reflect this. eLearning, and learning and teaching in general, have different requirements that can’t normally be met by most CMS’ or social networking sites. An LMS gives finer, more specific control over what groups of users and individual users can and can’t do on the system from the administrative level right down to learners and guests. For example we may want to enable some teachers and staff to edit activities and resources but not others, or we may want to enable some learners to be responsible as moderators and/or helpers for some discussion groups. Another frequently requested role is to allow parents to view their childrens’ grades and attendance. We may also want users’ roles to be different on different courses, for example making teachers learners on professional development courses.
Additionally, in a learning environment it is desirable to monitor learners’ actions and activities in order for teachers, mentors and sometimes even peers to be able to give guidance and feedback. In this respect, most CMS’ provide only the most basic user tracking since guidance, mentoring and feedback are not seen as a high priority.
Record keeping and management
A single centralised record keeping system is easier to manage, analyse and understand than a collection of commercial web services and sites with varying degrees of administrative, teacher and user access and data transparency. A well designed LMS will enable admins and teachers to look up individual users or groups to see their activities and analyse learning outcomes; Teachers can see their learners’ grades and learning outcomes, learners can see their own grades and learning outcomes, and curriculum developers and course content authors can see the interactions and learning outcomes both in individual case studies and in aggregated analyses. Want to know how effective your resources, activities and courses are? – Look up the data, learners’ activities, and the learning outcomes.
More coherent communication
Keeping channels of communication open is an essential part of running any organisation smoothly and responsively. An LMS allows admins and teachers to send messages or make announcements to groups of learners, teachers and individuals. Ongoing channels of communication are easier to find and respond to, and to review. Teachers can provide feedback in relation to particular assignments, activities and learning outcomes for individuals and groups. Teachers can communicate with each other, and learners can also be enabled to do this, in a variety of synchronous (e.g. chat, VoIP “internet telephony” and web conferencing) and asynchronous (e.g. private messaging, discussion forums and assignment feedback) modes. Planning, co-ordinating, and collaborating on activities suddenly becomes easier.
One of the better known strengths of LMS’ is that they can reduce a lot of the administrative work involved in assessment. Some types of summative assessment can be completely automated with self marking quizzes, tests and exams so learners can get their results immediately and teachers only have to analyse the results. There’s less marking to do and no need to enter the results into a database; it’s already done for you. An added bonus is that it can greatly reduce the amount of photocopying your organisation does. LMS’ may also include sophisticated analytical tools to examine test results and assessments to look for areas where the quality of activities, learning resources, curricula, and learning and teaching approaches could be optimised or improved. Additionally, a well designed LMS enables teachers to provide consistent, frequent formative assessment in the form of written or recorded feedback, exchanges of messages, VoIP sessions and learning reviews. Learners can build learning portfolios of compositions, projects and learner generated multimedia for more sophisticated assessments that are more reflective of real world abilities and practices.
Integration with 3rd party software and web services
For smaller organisations that can’t usually justify the expense of running their own dedicated web conferencing systems, many 3rd party web conferencing service providers offer plugins for the more widely used LMS’ so that the LMS can be used to manage user accounts and conferencing sessions along with access to subsequent recordings of the conferences. That means that, for a fraction of the cost, you can provide online classes from within your LMS. All the necessary co-ordination between the conferencing service and the LMS courses, groups, and learners and teachers can be taken care of simply, quickly and easily.
These are just a few examples of the benefits that LMS’ can have for educational departments and organisations of any size. There are many more that won’t be immediately apparent until you start getting more deeply involved in running online communities of learning and teaching. What are you waiting for?