Saturday, February 11, 2012

What is an LMS?

A Learning Management System, or LMS, is a software approach to organizing and administering a course. Typically, learning management systems are used for online classes. An LMS is basically a web site construction kit that is targeted to education. The LMS allows teachers to manage rosters, design the flow of the course, deliver online content, administer assessments, and calculate grades. For most of us, trying to do just one of these on our own without would be a daunting task. The learning management system makes it possible for teachers to design and administer structured and effective online courses that would probably not be possible without the tools provided by a good learning LMS. Of course web content and technology can be used in traditional classrooms as well as online. The learning management system just makes this far easier. This is not to suggest that today you acquire LMS software and next week you are launching your own Cyber University. There is still quite a learning curve. Because these systems typically can do a lot of things, there is a lot to learn. Although there are many similarities in the different systems, each really has it’s own unique interface and set of tools that you must learn. Compared to the work in a traditional lecture course, I would say there is more work on the front end and less on the back end. This is especially true the first time you offer a course using an LMS. However, the beauty of technology is that once you have that course built, saving, maintaining, and reusing it is relatively easy.

There are many choices for LMS software includng the Open Source program Moodle, commercially hosted systems such as BlackBoard, or systems managed by publishers such as MyHVACLab. Moodle is free, but like all open source freeware, there is a cost, it is just not money. There is good documentation on how things work, but you pretty much have to figure it out for yourself because there is no paid support. There is an active community where you can often get questions answered, but there is no “tech support.” If you are a Linux fan and use Open Office for your general day to day office software, you would probably be very comfortable using Moodle.

BlackBoard is probably the largest and most well known commercially hosted LMS. Many publishers provide Blackboard course “cartridges” to accompany their texts. A cartridge is a collection of resource files, such as pictures, presentations, or test banks that can be loaded into Blackboard to make developing a course easier. Typically a school or school system pays Blackboard to host their courses, allowing teachers to develop courses using their system. Blackboard takes care of the hosting and provides technical support. A downside to this type of hosting is that you can lose all your courses if you decide to go with another system. Our Technical College System switched from Blackboard to Angel a few years back, and the change was abrupt and traumatic. 

A third option is an LMS hosted by a publisher such as Pearson. Pearson has been offering online courseware for many years. One of the most well-known is MyMathLab which is used by thousands of schools all over the country. Publisher managed learning management systems are usually designed to support a particular text, so integration with the text is very easy. A big advantage of the publisher systems is that they deliver a finished product, ready to use. Moodle and Blackboard deliver a platform on which to build, but you still need to build the courses. MyHVACLab accompanies Fundamentals of HVACR. It is a complete course including e-book, interactive activities, and assessments all organized around the structure of the book. You can still make the course your own by editing, rearranging, adding, or deleting; but you start out with a complete course right out of the box. Also, you don't have to worry about your school system's contract expiring and losing all your classes. MyHVACLab does not cost the school anything to use. Instead, students pay a modest access fee. When bundled with the book, the cost is usually only $!5 - $20 more than the cost of a book by itself. 

This post is a little long, but we have just scratched the surface. There is no question that using an LMS requires a good deal of effort, but I believe if you make the effort you will find it very rewarding.

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