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The Study Hall

Evaluating an LMS? Start With These Three Questions

At Instructure, we know that migrating to a new LMS like Canvas is a big deal. Big like running a marathon, adopting a puppy, and making a Baked Alaska—all on the same day. 

How to Choose an LMS

And you wouldn’t undertake any of those crucial endeavors without first asking some equally significant questions.

  1. How far is this marathon anyway?

  2. Which kinds of puppies are best at running marathons?

  3. Wait. You bake the ice cream, then set it on fire?

Likewise, you shouldn’t invest time and money to evaluate and implement a new LMS without first asking some thoughtful and often complex questions. Choosing an LMS can come with a lot of feelings and a wide range of unique needs.  A hastily chosen system can leave students and teachers feeling frustrated (like someone who's Baked Alaska keeps emerging from the oven as a Baked Hawaii). So while there are many questions to ask, here are three key questions to help you determine whether an LMS is the right fit for your college or university while making sure your complicated evaluation process goes as smooth as possible.

1. Are everyone’s goals aligned? Before digging into the workings of an LMS and debating over what features you need, we’ve seen it work best by identifying your institution’s key goals. That’s the easy part.  The hard part is getting everyone aligned with the institution’s vision.  Work with committee members, administrators, faculty and even students to define the few foundational items that matter the most.  This could be the student experience, technology adoption, mobile availability, reliability of the system, or innovation to name a few.

One of the best examples I have seen is the California Community Colleges and their Online Education Initiative (OEI) to find one LMS for all 112 community colleges.  When we went onsite for an all day presentation, Pat James, the OEI Executive Director, reiterated before we started to all of the evaluators that were there, “Remember why we are here.  It is because of the students and their success.”  It was obvious to see how student-centric they were as we went through discussions that day as well as when it came to their final choice.  It was nearly a unanimous LMS decision for OEI, which is a challenging endeavor with that many hands involved.

Committees don’t always have to be large.  It is very important that you involve all of the right people that will influence and make the decision along the way.  This is not only faculty and administrators, but this means procurement, board members, legal, finance, etc.  Iron out your process so no surprises cause a hurdle.  Nothing is more heartbreaking than seeing an LMS committee choose an LMS only to find they can’t go with their choice, or have to postpone it because of technicalities.

2. How will the technology be applied? Those institutions that get the best results, take the time to really understand their faculty and students even if they already think they know them.  Modern technology progresses, so do the possibilities for learning platforms. Both teachers and students know this, and they’re always looking for ways to streamline workflows and explore new resources. Not to overcomplicate it, but to choose the best LMS technology, you need to know which tools are relevant to students and teachers, how and where they’re using those tools, and how they hope to use a new platform.

This means recent and consistent 1-1 office hour time with numerous faculty, administrators, and other key users.  Committee members are getting a wide breadth of feedback across different departments, colleges, demographics, etc.  For institutions that evaluate thoroughly, some of the common topics they explore include-

Does the LMS:

  • Strengthen interactions between students, teachers, and content.

  • Provide easy, reliable, anywhere, anytime access.

  • Save time and effort by simplifying tasks.

  • Provide flexibility without compromising the benefits of face-to-face classroom interactions.

3. If you could only have 3 things in an LMS what would it be? As you get going, it is easy to get a wide variety of requirements.  The hard part is pairing it back down to what matters the most.  We see this again and again where one or a few faculty members get really hung up on one feature.  It matters to them and should be valued, but is that feature the end-all in your final decision?  Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.  This is why getting everyone aligned at the beginning makes it easy to get everyone regrouped at the end as discussions get heated.

David Thomas, from UC Denver, in a recent Canvas Webinar compares the LMS evaluation to purchasing a house.  It is very easy to get a large wish list, but then you realize you don’t have an unlimited budget and you have to pair it down to what matters the most in the house you are looking for.  Does the nice neighborhood with good schools for the kids matter more than the pool?  Both come with good arguments, but in the end as a family you have to decide what is the most important - likely the pool. :)

The moral of this story? Any decision, no matter how big, begins with figuring out where you want to end up. Carefully answering those questions will help you make sense of your options, so you can ensure the best outcomes for teaching and learning, running and baking, or just sitting in the grass enjoying unbaked ice cream with your puppy.

Keep Learning,
Cade Krueger
VP of Higher Education Markets