The popularity of learning management systems (LMSs) is well documented with usage expected to continue to grow. According to the 2009 ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology LMS student use increased from 79.7 percent in 2006 to 91 percent in 2009. In 2008 the percentage of college courses that use an LMS had risen from 14.7 percent in 2000 to more than 53.5 percent in 2008. In 2001 only 41.8 percent of colleges and universities reported a strategic plan for LMS deployment. In 2008 that number was 63.5 percent. These surveys demonstrate how important and critical an LMS strategic plan is for academic institutions.
An Internet search delivers a wealth of information related to LMS strategies. This includes information communicated in formal documents or reports, as news or press releases, or on campus websites or portals. While much of this information is anecdotal this article will present an informal look at what are the catalysts for assessing LMS strategies, the common decision factors in selecting an LMS, and LMS hosting options.
Catalysts for Change
When reassessing LMS strategies institutions are influenced by some common catalysts—discontinuation of the current LMS product, LMS license expiration and a campus-wide LMS consolidation effort. The 2010 Campus Computing Project listed Blackboard as the largest LMS provider although its market shared dropped from 71 to 57 percent, with its competitors asserting themselves into the marketplace after Blackboard revamped its product offerings. In 2009 the company released Blackboard 9 and announced t the WebCT and ANGEL products would be terminated. Institutions that used these products were forced to transition causing many Blackboard clients to review their LMS strategy.
In general institutions closely follow the rapid changes in the LMS market. It may not be in their best interests to make major changes without first evaluating the options in the market. An expiring license serves as an opportunity to reevaluate an LMS strategy. However renewing a license with a commercial LMS provider can be an expensive, long term commitment.
IT consolidation efforts are another opportunity to review an LMS strategy and are almost always initiated at a high level in an institution. These efforts can be directed solely at the LMS or as part of a campus wide IT strategy or vision. LMS consolidation efforts usually include an evaluation of LMS products before choosing a single LMS. Consolidation was often seen as an opportunity to improve the online teaching and learning experience for students. Multiple LMS systems can place an undue burden on students to learn them all; and, more importantly, running multiple systems may not be in line with the overall IT strategy to increase value and reduce costs.
Decision Factors in Selecting an LMS
With much at stake a decision to adopt a new LMS is not something to be taken lightly. LMS adoptions in higher education can be a painful and expensive process. As a result LMS evaluations are almost always extensive and time consuming. The reasons for selecting an LMS vary, but the most common factors are the types of features or tools offered as part of the package, the total cost of ownership of the system, and the quality and availability of support service for the system.
Because LMS evaluations are performed by student or faculty groups rather than IT support staff or administrators, it is important for the features and tools to better meet student needs and improve student learning and faculty teaching. Some LMS products may also provide features that more closely align with the institution’s pedagogical goals and strategy. Of course there is also the desire of institutions to embrace emerging technologies, like mobile device support for an LMS. Finding the LMS product with the appropriate features and tools that meet these needs is critical to the success of online teaching and learning.
Not surprisingly, the total cost of ownership of the LMS is also a very common decision factor. Many institutions indicate that escalating licensing costs are a reason to switch to a new LMS. It is not unusual to find institutions reporting yearly licensing increases of more than 10 percent. Not all institutions seeking to reduce licensing expenses select an open source LMS. Some institutions have achieved reduced licensing costs with Blackboard’s commercial competitors. Operating costs also appear to be an important issue, some institutions are of the belief that different LMS products would be cheaper to operate.
Finally quality and availability of support service also appear to be an important factor in the decision-making process. Many institutions note that poor service from a vendor or support provider affect how well they can internally support the LMS. Poor service impedes operation and potential system improvements. A successful LMS implementation requires the institution to provide not only a high level of service for system operation, but competent and timely support for faculty and students.
The decision factors in selecting open source software (OSS) LMS do not vary much from the decision factors previously mentioned. There is a strong feeling that the features provided in an OSS LMS are much better, or at the least, are comparable to what is available in commercial LMS products. Additionally, if features or tools are missing in the OSS LMS, institutions seem very confident in their ability to create new features as needed. Some OSS LMSs provide additional features like ePortfolio, which would most likely require an additional licensing cost with a commercial LMS product.
One of the most often cited benefits in selecting an OSS LMS is the elimination of the cost of annual licensing. By removing the annual license cost, many institutions plan on redirecting the cost savings either into hiring additional staff to customize and to support the OSS LMS, or supporting other teaching and learning initiatives at the institution.
Community support and improvements and flexibility are also important factors in selecting an OSS LMS. Participating in a community-supported LMS project may give many institutions better cost of ownership and greater flexibility for their own LMS. The idea of a community of educators and institutions collaborating together on a LMS is very appealing to most OSS LMS adopters. There is a very strong belief that this group could offer an institution better support and no-cost LMS improvements.
LMS Hosting Alternatives
It is common to evaluate hosting alternatives when formulating an LMS strategic plan. Locally hosting a large LMS deployment can require a large IT staff and a significant financial commitment over many years. As vendor hosting prices continue to become more attractive and as IT budgets remain under pressure, institutions may be hesitant to continue the significant commitment of local hosting. Blackboard’s press releases from 2009 and 2010 indicate the company continues to increase its number of managed hosting clients. And there is a small, but growing, number of institutions moving into cloud hosting—Moodlerooms’ service being the most popular choice.
The large and medium sized public institutions that continue to locally host their LMS, rather than using a hosting provider or cloud provider, may have a larger IT staff capable of supporting and operating large LMS deployments. And in some cases these institutions may have gained valuable experience by operating and supporting an LMS for almost a decade.
There are valid concerns when pursuing a hosting or cloud provider solution. Institutions may not be comfortable trusting providers with confidential institutional data. And, of course, hosting or cloud providers may not be able to offer a cost effective alternative to a locally hosted LMS.
As more institutions embrace open source LMS solutions, it appears peer institutions will follow. Smaller institutions benefit from the trial and error iterations larger institutions experience as a system is adopted, modified and adapted. The appeal of open source LMS, such as the ability of institutions to control their own destiny, to choose more options for support, and to tailor the LMS around the institutions’ specific teaching and learning needs should continue to drive LMS adoption
Certainly budgets play an important role in this decision, but most institutions are focusing on the importance of the features and tools found in an LMS product. Universities are under intense pressure to keep up with emerging technology and to attract and retain students. As new LMS features and tools are introduced to address student and faculty needs, and improve the learning process, it is clear that institutions are ready and willing to revise their LMS strategies.
About the Author
Daniel Reed works in the LMS operations group at Colorado State University (CSU), where his primary responsibilities are to provide a superior level of support, project management, communication, and documentation to the University’s LMS stakeholders. Prior to joining the CSU he worked as a Web programmer for an Internet service provider. He received a bachelor’s of science degree in computer information systems from CSU.