Content management systems have taken a growing share of web development over the past decade. It is hard to know exactly what share of all websites in the universe are run by a CMS, but with the ease of use of systems like WordPress, even personal sites are increasingly being developed within these structures.
Education has been no exception. Online education has been around since the late 90s, providing a boon to established learning institutions, corporate training, and even less-than-reputable diploma mills. As with all-purpose CMS's, off-the-shelf Learning Management Systems (LMS) offer quick development, assignment of roles for various types of users, and relatively easy management of content. The three main LMS's in use are Blackboard, ANGEL (acquired by Blackboard in 2009) and the open-source Moodle. Across campuses in the eastern NE and western IA regions, each of these LMS's is represented.
Three Learning Management Systems compared
Three Omaha-area educators recently weighed in on the online platforms they use. Charles Klinetobe, Adjunct Professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, uses Blackboard at UNO and ANGEL at Metro Community College. Eric Murphy, Business Instructor at Iowa West Community College, in Council Bluffs, IA, uses Moodle. Jeff Hug, Professor at Bellevue University, in Bellevue, NE, uses Blackboard.
In each case, the educational institution made the decision on which platform to use, while leaving the teachers the ability to customize and add content to their courses. The ease of doing so, however, varies greatly with platform. While Klinetobe and Murphy use course templates provided by their schools, with some content of their own, Blackboard user Hug manages all of his own content. However, he finds Blackboard to be very unfriendly to the user. "Blackboard is horribly designed: the UX is terrible. It doesn't work cross-platform, always having strange problems."
Moodle user Murphy has issues with the complexity of Moodle, which offers a wide range of features in its basic installation. "They need a simple mode and advanced mode. 60% of the stuff you don't need and just complicates things."
Prof. Klinetobe, however, has an easier time as an ANGEL user, describing it as "pretty easy and accessible system for both faculty and students." However, he does find some issues. "The date management is a bit of a nightmare and almost inevitably gets messed up to some extent or another. Also, and this could be a problems with the set up, there seems to be some trouble getting the gradebook to work properly."
However, while difficulties in using each system do present issues for each of them, the impact on the teaching experience is a bit different for each. UNO's and MCC's Klinetobe finds that online learning environments enhance his ability to present subject matter. "I can more easily share primary sources and internet resources; I no longer have to assign a primary source reader. It's a cost savings to the student."
Bellevue's Hug is a bit less enthusiastic about how Blackboard has impacted his teaching online. "It hinders it without a doubt. It's slow, painful to manage. Students complain about it all the time."
IWCC's Murphy sees both an upside and a downside to it. "It both helps and hinders it. The biggest thing is lag time and input time. It’s about 7 – 10 seconds between screens and significantly longer if you are actually giving the LMS a command. Learning what any feature does is tedious because you are at the mercy of the delay."
"Last semester my students' chief complaint was the gradebook. I spent about a little over an hour trying to make it more presentable. Then during one command the page actually timed-out and the entire gradebook was destroyed. I had to reload and restart."
Each instructor has a wish list for their own online environments. Klinetobe would like to see a simplified date management option in Angel. Murphy would find a pop-up help screens useful for navigating Moodle's many features. Hug's list includes eliminating Blackboard's Dropbox, linking to sites like Flickr and simple integration with YouTube for posting videos.
Whither online learning systems?
As increasing numbers of college courses are being offered online, and a greater number of options are offered to facilitate these courses, the input of educators and students alike will be valuable in improving the user experience. While educators and students are often not involved in deciding which environment to use, the success of an institution may find itself resting on the accessibility of online offerings. The non-locational nature of online education may mean that students finding one college's online offerings too inaccessible are free to look elsewhere, even outside of their state or country. Those developing these environments also need to take note, as the playing field will only become increasingly competitive.