In recent years, the Learning Management System (LMS) has emerged as the enterprise technology for most academic functions in higher education. No longer defined within the narrow parameters of course management, the current generation of LMSs are a powerful amalgamation of many functions including content management, learning analytics, electronic portfolios, program tracking, digital rights management, enterprise academic calendaring, teleconferencing, adaptive instruction and assessment and more.
Your LMS is also likely to be a hub for several other technologies including your student information system, customer relationship management, and a myriad of administrative systems associated with an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning). The LMS is now used to support traditional face-to-face, hybrid and fully online instruction and it is difficult to overestimate the strategic criticality of this system for current and coming academics.
A routine and comprehensive evaluation of your LMS is critical for sustaining and advancing the academic mission of your institution. When conducting such evaluations, you may wish to consider the following questions in your examination.
1. What are my eLearning needs and plans?
The evaluation of any enterprise technology must begin with an understanding of its role in your college or university. This includes both the current institutional context and your plans the use of the system in the coming years. While a fully articulated strategic plan is not necessary to evaluate your LMS, you will need a working document that includes a statement of your institutional needs, goals and/or objectives to be used for determining the standards for the evaluation.
Since the assessment of your LMS can only be as strong as the criteria you use to evaluate, your consideration of these needs should be a thoughtful and complete representation of the Institution’s requirements. You will likely want to create a small team of five to eight critical staff members involved in the use of the current LMS and with broad institutional perspectives in academic, administrative and technical areas.
2. Does the existing LMS meet the current needs and plans?
The evaluation of your existing LMS usually begins with some list of prioritized criteria based on the response to question one. These should reference both your existing needs and your plans for growth and development. Once the criteria are assembled, an honest and thoughtful review of your current system against these standards should be completed.
There are a few important points to consider in this evaluation. First, realize that there will be inherent bias in the evaluation of your existing system from anyone who currently uses it in your institution. The bias can occur both for and against the current system and it will occur even if the evaluators are aware of this possibility and are attempting to control for it. You may wish to consider an external evaluator to augment your staff.
The answer to question two is often not a clear “Yes” or “No.” A careful review of your LMS against the criteria you have identified will likely show strengths and weaknesses of the system as it stands. The team used to create the criteria for evaluation should meet again to consider the output of the analysis. This final determination of question two is generally provided in terms of a short report with a narrative that describes the performance of the existing system against areas of the criteria and a recommendation to maintain the current system, change or redeploy the current system or consider a new system.
3. Can another LMS better meet my needs and plans?
If the response to question two leads you to consider replacing your existing LMS, you should plan to dedicate significant time and resources to the consideration of a new system. Selecting a new LMS can be an intimidating process. The market is large and complex and current systems vary widely. No single LMS is the strongest in all categories of functionality.
While you will certainly want to use the criteria you identified for evaluating your existing system, realize that assessing candidate LMSs is more involved than a simple environmental scan using checklists and questionnaires. This task is a more comprehensive process that includes an RFI (Request for Information) or an RFP (Request for Proposal) created by a team of qualified representatives of the important areas of your Institution. You may also want to include expertise that is external to your college or university to assist in building the documents and assessing the responses.
4. Is the change worth the cost?
In the final calculus of selecting a new LMS or maintaining the existing one, be sure to consider the total cost. The licensing of the software is only one element of total cost. Be sure to include other hard technical costs in the fiscal evaluation. For example, is the LMS to be hosted externally or internally? What are the total relative costs of each solution including staff training and augmentation, new hardware, infrastructure build-outs, networking upgrades, etc.
Try to provide an extensive accounting for the peripheral costs of implementing your new system. Consider the real costs of preparing your students, faculty and administrators. Be sure to reference conversion costs such as the need to maintain concurrent systems if that is within your transition plan. Include expenditures associated with the development of new training materials, help functions, and associated staffing.
Consider also the soft but legitimate costs of the transition of your user community. The hours that students and faculty use to learn the new system may not be directly billable to you, but they may have an adverse effect on the process of learning and teaching. This can be mitigated with a thoughtful transition plan and careful communication but there will be some frustration. Conversely, frustration may occur by maintaining a legacy LMS with outmoded functions that no longer meets core needs of your user community.
Your final determination between an existing system and a new system will be greatly informed by question four. After the careful consideration you have given questions two and three, be sure you provide the same diligence to your analysis of real costs.
The consultants at JenEd Consulting have extensive experience in helping to determine your LMS needs, evaluating your current system and assessing new systems for use in your institution. Whether you need someone to lead the process or just an external set of experienced eyes, we are ready to assist you in your LMS review.
Dr. Rob Sapp