Perspectives on the LMS from an IT Ledge
By Scott Finkeldei, Kansas State University
Figure 1: "The Power of Canvas" Training Course for K-State Faculty and Staff
Q: How have learning management systems (LMSes) evolved over the years? Why do you think LMSes have evolved this way? What are some alternate ways that LMSes could have evolved, from your point-of-view?
A: Evolution has been mostly around moving from a collection of tools that are jammed together into a system that interacts as parts of a whole. Real-time analytics, current trends around building social communities or creating more engagement by fostering more frequent and ‘real’ interactions are the evolution of better systems than we started with. Simplicity is important and that has been a key theme of all LMSes; making it easier to interact with each other and to accomplish the tasks that need to be out of the way to allow people to learn with an LMS and not ‘operate’ an LMS. LMSes have evolved in a variety of ways and no two take the same approach. One major evolution has been that the vast majority of the tools and systems were developed with the instructor and teaching tools in mind and less thought about how the student would be the focus of the tools and how they would interact with them. Most modern LMSes have turned this upside down and are focused on the student experience.
Q: In terms of “alternative LMSes” (different technology systems used for online teaching and learning), what sorts of approaches have you seen? What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of such approaches?
A: Social platforms like Facebook have also caused people to take that specific tact and create tools that focus on facilitating interaction rather than pushing content and accepting quiz scores. These are reasonable directions and logical progression. I think that LMSs are dynamic reflections of how people expect to interact. Until the internet, those interactions had not changed in a 1000 years but now the internet is evolving our communication, interaction and social and learning frameworks radically and rapidly. This is pushing people to be revolutionary in their thoughts of how interactions can be meaningful without being face to face.
Q: Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) has had a high impact on learning management systems. Could you describe what LTI is and some core effects it has had on LMSes? Also, how can users of LMSes capitalize on the affordances of LTIs?
A: The LTI spec has allowed for a democratization of developing ‘plug-ins’ for LMSes. Vendors, local IT staff and even individual users can now create powerful interactions and leverage powerful infrastructure features to extend the LMS. Mostly they make it easier for vendors to allow powerful integrations with LMSes or in some cases less-than-powerful integrations that can make things easier for instructors and students. It is an evolving idea as well and is getting richer in its opportunities.
Q: LMSes have been used for automated learning, such as through Kansas State University’s (K-State) Global Campus. Would you describe how that is set up?
A: Currently most automated learning is a simple gating and release type mechanism. Educators indicate what items students must complete and in what order. They can also indicate what must be accomplished to pass the ‘gate’ and move to the next item in the learning path such as an 80% or better or complete by submitting something by a deadline. This allows learners to work at their own pace and for instructors to have a more ‘hands-off’ approach. The main issue with automated learning is it does not serve all learning styles and requires a high degree of motivation from the learner and strong attempts at interaction from the instructor. Personalized learning addresses some of these issues by allowing for more customized content to be determined by workflows and some light forms of data analysis and AI to provide the most appropriate types and levels of content to users as they progress. This scaffolds their learning better and offers a more complete approach.
Figure 2: "Canvas Commons" through the K-State Instance
Q: What are some of the more creative uses of LMSes in terms of different configurations? For committee work? For distributed collaborations?
A: As tools for collaboration and interaction on the web have matured, people are using the LMS less frequently as a secure location to share files and communicate. There are just better tools to do that now than LMSes. That being said people certainly still use them for collaboration in scholarly settings and research and they are useful, with their assessment features, to allow organizations to provide light training, compliance type assessment of work or project knowledge and as a way to create a highly focused and secure space on the web easily. People understand and trust the framework of an LMS at this point and use it as a hammer whenever they see a nail!
Q: How important is the user interface for an LMS? Why?
A: I think the LMS is mostly about the user experience. Of course it is really just a collection of tools, many being quite common. File upload and sharing, chat rooms, message boards, video conferencing, online polls, surveys and quizzes that are point and click are all tools common in other spaces as well. An LMS provides the instructor some command and control over those tools to shape them for how they would like their learning and interactions to take place. Students need an easy way to find stuff, interact with their peers and instructors and share things when they want/need to. All of these tools and processes are quite common but a good user experience is the difference between being frustrated or ineffective using those tools and having an enlightening and positive experience where the tools ‘melt away’ and it is just about the interactions, regardless of the tool.
Selecting an LMS for a University
Q: When K-State first transitioned from Axio Learning, what processes did the university go through to select the new LMS? What were critical required affordances of the LMS? How was Instructure’s Canvas LMS selected?
A: Because K-State faculty or students were not implicitly asking for a new LMS, the direction of central IT services to K-State was that for continuity of operations of online course tools, for progression of tools and processes to meet K-State’s and individual teaching faculties goals and to provide a more modern and robust learning environment, a new tool had to be selected. The institution agreed and we worked with existing bodies of advisory groups within K-State to propose appropriate solutions. K-State had the luxury of having clear feedback over the years of what tools and processes were key to the success of Axio and we looked to match those with a commercially provided tool.
Because of the high degree of match between K-State’s homegrown Axio tool and what Canvas was building, K-State looked first to see if that fit was appropriate via two pilot semesters utilizing early adopter instructors and those looking to make a change offering real courses in Canvas as the rest of campus continued to use Axio. The feedback was so positive and the desire for faculty to move to the new system was so strong that after some additional evaluations on paper of other solutions with the supporting committees at K-State, it was decided to move forward with Canvas.
Q: When you first set up an LMS, how do you decide what default settings should be applied? How do you evolve the instance over time based on people’s needs?
A: Some specific requirements drive the default settings such as the dates of terms and how the institutions wants students to come into and out of the online courses and what kind of access they are expected to have. Otherwise we try to shoot for default settings that allow for flexibility where it is needed (such as what tools a course will have) and restrictions where it is required (such as how courses are created and named). Because everyone has a unique view on how to use a collection of tools to achieve some teaching and learning goals and because everyone interacts with software differently, setting options to help define the user experience in a positive way and a way that is clear and easy to explain to most is a helpful guiding principle.
Figure 3: Some Available External Apps
Q: People may not want to change from a beloved homegrown LMS. What strategies did you use to help the campus adjust to a new LMS? How did you help people learn the new tool and to move online contents? What were some of the most difficult challenges?
A: While it is true that people generally do not like change and do not like to move from a tool or system that they do not think is ‘broken’, it was not as difficult as expected. First of all, people had expectations about modern interactions and how the internet would empower them. An old Model-T may be a great car and does the basics but when people see a new, shiny car that specifically addresses problems and experiences that they have come to "live with" but knew could be better , it does not take much convincing.
We also knew from our own experience supporting new applications and tools with faculty and students that the best way to ensure success was to try and understand the user’s unique concerns and address those specifically. We had understood from our own experience and that of others that one-on-one sessions with instructors was the best way to transition. Unique needs and computer experience, legacy expectations and new ‘what-ifs’ had to be addressed directly. Putting together a small but focused team of professionals who knew how to work one-on-one with people to answer their questions and envision the best solutions to their ideas was a time intensive but successful strategy.
Of course, not everyone wanted to meet or felt they had to and moved on their own, usually with the encouragement of successful peers. And on that point we tried to leverage "local" champions or "K-State Online Coaches" we called them. These coaches agreed to make themselves available to their peers to help share their positive successes and show them how to do things in the LMS so they would not "have to" call IT. They could learn locally and from their peers. This teaching and learning, of course, further strengthened the successful instructors and helped elevate those who were struggling. We stuck with the one-on-one process until people no longer needed it and them moved to "standard" operational support mechanisms to complete the transition.
Q: A recent enablement has given you access to LMS data portal data. How do you plan to use this data? What are some practical applications? How do you make the business case for using this data?
A: As you can imagine, an LMS generates a remarkable amount of "big data". Some is useful and critical to solving real-time or reoccurring problems such as understand how someone might be cheating or how a person keeps failing to successfully submit a file. Others are potentially useful for predicting what will happen with students who are following patterns. We can use the data for more personalized and specialized learning as well. Insights into how tools or processes are being used, what benefits or downfalls they might bring and what one could try and infer from that data. But "big data" and data analysis are complicated and messy business. It is easy to make mistakes and/or not utilize the data in a properly considered way. I think the business case of "there is something to be learned out of all this data we generate" is not a hard case to make, but the difficulty of defining what it is that is meaningful and useful and how one would store, manage, mine and analyze is a complex, modern problem that K-State hasn't figured out. We are just getting into this area and have not yet refined what it is we will do with it.
LMS Updates and Customizations
Q: The update cycle for the Canvas LMS is a fast one, every few weeks. Would you mind describing how this system works? Is it a challenge to accommodate such fast changes for the system users?
A: Canvas (like many modern IT development groups, K-State ITS included) uses a form of what is termed "Agile"development. Key to this is a continuous improvement model that says that it is valuable to put out an MVP (minimum viable product) and let people use it and build on that instead of making a giant, allegedly perfect skyscraper and then letting everyone in so they can tell you if you were successful or not. If you were not, you are left with little flexibility. If you go with an ever-evolving tool that evolves through meaningful feedback from users regularly, you can build a better tool, faster and with less churn. Although it means that things are changing quite regularly, because it is often incremental, people are more accepting. People like to see improvements and when they come out regularly, they become in tune with that idea and relish the evolution of tools. Of course there are times when a change is too radical or too fast or the change didn’t match expectations and that can be difficult to manage sometimes but it comes with the territory.
Q: Kansas State University has contributed some tools and customizations to Canvas. Would you mind describing that process? How does K-State decide what features to address?
A: K-State has always been willing to extend and customize a tool if possible. Canvas and LTIs have made this more straightforward than it has been in the past. Basically we can build a tool that does what we want and how we want it and then "package" it as an LTI, The LTI wrapper then facilitates the communication between the LMS and the programming we put inside that wrapper to interact with Canvas. We have decided what to tackle by weighing what important needs our users have with what Canvas is likely to provide now or in the near future. If we think it is not something that Canvas would provide sooner or later (such as a K-State specific need or something that we do in our own way that would not be the way a generalized tool for that task would work), we consider building it. Then we look at how many people it would effect, what is the bang for the buck. If that all makes sense, we usually define a preliminary solution and then take that to advisory groups for feedback.
Validating Learner Identities
Q: Several years ago, institutions of higher education were made responsible for validating the identities of their learners. About the same time, there was a lot of interest in validating learner identities for high-value assessments. Where is that issue today? Were the related issues solved? If so, how so? If not, please update us on this issue.
A: This is still an on-going and evolving issue. We are doing more to identify learners who are remote, and the software to facilitate this is becoming more robust and affordable. Currently the leading edge of this is biometric identification in real-time at each checkpoint. It attempts to validate who you are when it is needed. Another common method is to have the user be on camera while attempting the assessment, and tools are used to create alerts in a report when it appears on video that someone is doing some action that might be nefarious. K-State and many others continue to use "low-tech" local, human proctors in this role as it is effective.
A Historical Homegrown LMS
Figure 4: K-State Online Classic (powered by Axio)
Q: For many years, Kansas State University has had its own learning management system (Axio Learning). This was co-created with faculty, administrator, and staff input over a number of years. Would you mind sharing some information about this LMS and how it originated and evolved over the years? Also, what were some of its coolest features?
A: I had described a bit in my background about how we decided to build a few tools to help instructors and learners interact on the web when that was a new thing. We started with a tool that abstracted instructors from the technical details of uploading and publishing files securely on the web by giving them a form that allowed them to create a secure website in a few moments. Then they could use a tool to upload files to that space and click a Publish button to set the file permsisions instead of having to understand that. We also made it easy to make folders and move things into those so they could organize the files. Then we made it easy to manage a roster of people who should have access to that secure space. We made it easy to email them and see their work from this roster as that seemed logical. Then we added a chat room and message boards so students and instructors could interact securely. After a few more tools and tweaks we said, ‘Hey, we have an LMS here if we would organize it more and present it as one set of tools.’ We did that and called it Axio!
Q: Based on your work with LMS application developers, what do you think is most important for users of LMS platforms to know about which features get rolled out and why other seemingly good ideas don’t? [David Swisher]
A: The interdependency between the tools, the data, and the security model around that means that often logical and obvious features are not as easy than they sound when described. Similarly, people overestimate how much a feature that is meaningful to them will be meaningful to others. So we often have to help people understand how to make their suggestion broadly applicable to all users or help them understand why it is not a broadly useful idea.
Thank you very much for your insights.
About the Author
Scott Finkeldei works as Interim Director of the Office of Mediated Education at Kansas State University. He will be leading a panel discussion on LMSes at the LMS Preconference on Aug. 2. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He shares his professional biography: "Education and information sharing has always been my career path. My first job was at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, KS as a tour and information guide. I completed a degree in political science in 1993 and worked in Topeka for a few years before coming back to K-State to earn a B.S. in Secondary Education with an emphasis on technology and the internet (which was just taking off as a trendy way to communicate)."
"But before I could get very far into a teaching career I was offered a job at K-State working for the Division of Continuing Education (now Global Campus) as a web developer, and the team I was on, under the direction of Dr. Elizabeth Unger and Rob Caffey (current interim CIO of K-State), began to create online tools to facilitate instructors putting course material online and students and instructors interacting with each other online. There was ‘WebCourse in a Box’ software at the time and Blackboard was not founded until 1997. K-State decided to go its own way and build the tools we needed to offer online courses. We eventually called that software Axio and made it available under a community license to other institutions in the state of Kansas. Although we were able to continue Axio as K-State’s main LMS for many more years with reasonable success, in 2011, it was clear that we needed to move to something else that was more modern and capable of leveraging the modern internet."
"In 2013 K-State transitioned from Axio to Instructure Canvas with quiet fan-fare and pretty solid success. I have always been involved in education and information sharing and modern virtual learning environment and tools are one of the most exciting places to be involved in. I love the intersection of IT and education and although I have no formal IT experience, being a part of IT from the education side has been the most rewarding and interesting work I am a part of."
The LMS Preconference subcommittee members were invited to create questions for Scott Finkeldei, as a warm-up to the event. Questions were submitted by the following individuals.
Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer at Kansas State University. Her email is email@example.com.
David Swisher works as LMS Coordinator at Tabor College. Prior to this role, he provided oversight for the instance of Axio on the K-State Salina campus (now K-State Polytechnic). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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