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How colleges make the big LMS switch

Why six schools changed their learning management systems
University Business, February 2015
Before switching to a new LMS, campus administrators should determine a learning strategy and the functions needed to support it.
Before switching to a new LMS, campus administrators should determine a learning strategy and the functions needed to support it.

Stable, reliable and adaptable. Those are the key descriptors for a successful learning management system.

When the current LMS doesn’t provide a needed functionality, schools can often add new features or configurations to achieve the desired outcome. But in some cases, it’s time to scrap the old system.

“Universities change on a dime; they’re constantly adapting to new modalities,” says Michael Rochelle, chief strategy officer at Brandon Hall Group, a research, analytics and consulting firm that helps organizations select and implement learning systems. “They often need a system that can grow with them and be flexible with their needs. It doesn’t mean their old system was bad; they just may need more adaptability or reliability.”

Before switching to a new LMS, administrators should determine a learning strategy and the functions needed to support it.

“It’s very stressful to tear out and replace technology in any environment, so part of this process should be exhausting all possibilities with your current provider and current system,” Rochelle says. “Look into ancillary technologies that can be used with the current LMS that will do what you need before you make a wholesale change.”

Some colleges and universities determine that a new LMS is their best option. Here’s a look at six schools that switched, why they did it and how they made it happen.

University of Central Oklahoma (Edmond)

Why they switched: The University of Central Oklahoma had used the same LMS since 1998, and the product was no longer as robust as faculty and students needed, says Cynthia Rolfe, vice president for information technology and CIO. In addition, the LMS had been acquired by another company that raised the licensing fee significantly. The university decided to look for a full-featured solution with an affordable support and maintenance model.

Self-assessment: Should we consider an LMS switch?

A new LMS may be the best move if one or more of the following statements is true:

  • Pricing on the current system has gone up.
  • Our system is missing features that faculty, students and/or administrators need.
  • The current LMS is not keeping up with others in the market in terms of mobile usability or other features.
  • Our LMS can’t handle the institution’s or a program’s enrollment growth.
  • Various schools within our institution are using their own LMS, and enterprise-wide consolidation is desired.

How they did it: The university’s evaluation process started with “Discovery Day,” when multiple vendors were invited to give demonstrations to the whole university community. All technology-related projects go through a similar university acceptance and prioritization process beginning with a project initiation document and culminating with an implementation, Rolfe says. 

A task force consisting of faculty, student senate, academic affairs and technology representatives issued a request for proposals, and then evaluated the submissions based on pre-established criteria. Once Brightspace, D2L’s LMS, was chosen, the IT office handled implementation and training. The entire process took 18 months.

Why switching was worth it: The LMS can be accessed from mobile devices, and third-party applications are easily integrated.

Advice for others: Rolfe recommends building an evaluation team early in the fall semester. “Our only mistake was not starting the project early enough in the academic year,” she says. “There is a short window to engage faculty,” as they often get busy with the new semester and have little time left for tech upgrades.

Marian University (Indianapolis)

Why they switched: With a new medical school on the horizon, Marian officials needed a platform “that would not only effectively serve traditional students, graduate programs, and medical school faculty and students, but also enable growth of the university across all programs,” says Dawn Knapp, director of academic technology services.

How they did it: Academic technology services staff researched various LMS providers and after narrowing the choices, invited the two finalists to present individually to faculty and staff in an open campus forum. Decision makers established a list of requirements, including a cloud-based platform, mobile capabilities, intuitive user interface, collaboration capabilities, video upload capabilities, accessibility and an attractive pricing model.

Leaders picked Canvas by Instructure, and switched in 2011. But before committing, they recruited a few faculty members “who are not afraid of trying new things to ‘play’ in a sandbox and basically take the platform for a test drive,” Knapp says. “The pilot users became our champions and they have helped tremendously to proselytize Canvas and the merits of its use to various departments.”

Why switching was worth it: Faculty and students are embracing the new LMS’ mobile apps and “endless supply of integrations with external applications,” Knapp says. The system is fully integrated with lecture capture, ebooks, proctoring software and a range of other educational tools.

Advice for others: To support faculty during a switch, Knapp recommends locating personnel “who are comfortable serving as coaches, mentors and hand-holders to scaffold the new users as they dip their toes in the proverbial water,” she says. “It also helps to have a support team with a sense of humor. Just when you think you have seen it all, someone will come into your office and say, ‘I deleted my course.’ ”

Metropolitan Community College (Omaha, Nebraska)

Why they switched: Metropolitan Community College leaders realized that with their longtime LMS, the development of new features and usability on mobile platforms was lagging behind other platforms, says Clifton Pee, director of IT Network Services.

How they did it: The college involved faculty, its LMS support team and IT staff in the selection process. These stakeholders reviewed several options, narrowed to three and “did a deep dive on each one,” Pee says. After reviewing the feedback, leaders selected Blackboard Learn, with the LMS hosted on Blackboard servers.

The college’s LMS team attended Blackboard classes and then offered several training sessions on campus to get faculty up to speed. IT staff received online training supplied by Blackboard, and Blackboard staff helped move courses from the old platform to the new one.

Why switching was worth it: College leaders are pleased with Blackboard’s features, especially the mobile tools, and the ongoing additions of new enhancements.

Advice for others: Before switching to a new LMS, college leaders should “involve stakeholders—faculty especially—early and often in the process and decide what is most important to your school,” Pee advises.

The college also benefited from hiring an outside consulting group to help determine criteria for evaluating LMS products. “It helped move the process along quickly and smoothly because everyone at the college was on the same page and was able to give their feedback,” Pee says.

Marist College (Poughkeepsie, New York)

Why they switched: Since the 1990s, Marist has been working to expand its online degree programs. In 2005, leaders realized they needed an LMS that would scale and grow with their needs. In addition to online programs, “we also realized that use of the LMS to enrich our students’ face-to-face learning experiences was going to become increasingly important to our mission,’” says Joshua Baron, senior academic technology officer.

How they did it: After evaluating a number of systems, Marist selected Sakai, an open-source LMS that allows for continuous development based on user input. Marist piloted the system in 2007 and institutionwide rollout occurred in 2008. Faculty were allowed to opt in for the first year, and officials expected 25 percent participation. Instead, almost 65 percent of faculty members adopted the LMS early.

Why switching was worth it: College leaders value Sakai’s open-source development model. “The fact that Marist College, as a member of the community, can bring forward a new idea for an LMS capability based on innovative work our faculty are doing, and then see that capability come out in the next release, is a very powerful concept and one that has allowed us to remain a leader in the distance education space over the past decade,” Baron says.

Advice for others: Baron recommends trying to avoid selecting an LMS simply based on feature requirements. “Instead, try to take a more strategic approach that factors in the institution’s needs and goals over the longer-term,” he says.

“If you are only focused on how many bells and whistles come with the discussion forum tool, it is easy to miss these larger and more strategic business issues that can surface a few years into the adoption of a new platform,” Baron adds.

University System of Georgia

Why they switched: Each of the 31 institutions in the University System of Georgia can choose whether to use the LMS that’s implemented statewide. When the former LMS was being phased out, system leaders decided it was time to shop around. “We wanted something we could deploy across the enterprise, something that was deliverable to a mobile platform, and something agile that would remain current,” says Curt Carver, vice chancellor and CIO.

How they did it: USG formed a task force—comprising personnel from a number of state agencies and universities—that reviewed 77 different LMS products. When they narrowed the field to five, USG implemented all five and gave 310,000 students and faculty members access to the systems for three months in early 2011.

Some 30,000 faculty and students responded to surveys about their experience with the systems, leading the task force to unanimously recommend D2L, which was implemented in 2012, Carver says.

Why switching was worth it: The new LMS has been implemented in 30 of USG’s 31 universities, and is popular with students and faculty. More than 250,000 students log in every day, “grabbing content, taking assessments, or doing other things,” Carver says. The LMS now hosts 120,000 active courses and supports more than 60 third-party applications, such as plagiarism detection apps, e-portfolios and collaboration programs like Blackboard Collaborate.

“With the previous system, we really struggled to add new functionality due to LMS limitations,” says Carver. “Every 18 months, we could add a new app. With the new system, we are adding apps every other week.” Individual institutions also have the ability to customize the LMS as functions are added.

Advice for others: “Put students at the center of the conversation” when discussing an LMS switch, says Carver. If a university chooses well and gets widespread adoption by faculty, “students will only have to learn one interface and go to one place to get all their downloaded content.”

University of Dallas

Why they switched: Until 2014, the university’s various colleges and schools used different learning management systems. But administrative leaders wanted to consolidate all online course management into one system, says Vanessa Cox, director of online learning.

How they did it: The university’s business school was the campus’ primary user of online courses, and had been using Pearson eCollege Learning Studio. Because the university had already made an investment in that product and the College of Business had been pleased with the 24-hour service available, administrators decided to implement eCollege across the campus.

Cox worked with the deans of each academic division to facilitate training and communication with faculty. During the fall semester in 2013, the LMS was implemented on a pilot basis, and faculty could choose whether to begin using it. Training programs and sessions were offered. The entire campus was converted to eCollege in January 2014.

Why switching was worth it: Using one LMS across campus has saved money for the university. It’s also easier for students to learn only one platform for all their classes, Cox says. In addition, faculty members can share information more easily with colleagues in other departments and the campus can, in one place, better maintain a history of courses offered.

Advice for others: When considering a switch, “clearly define the specific needs of the organization, and put forth a project plan that supports those needs,” Cox says. “It sounds easy but it’s not, because each academic unit may have different needs. You need a system that has the flexibility to meet all those needs.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama- based writer.

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