Important Considerations to Keep in Mind When Implementing an Online Learning Program
You're in the snack aisle, and the question arises: Do you buy the box of cookies or make them from scratch? After three hours coated in flour in the kitchen, that package of Oreos on the grocery store shelf seems like the better choice. But what if you want a lighter recipe, or a richer chocolate? That's when it's time to build on your existing product. Learning management systems work in much the same way; there's a big difference between ground-up customization and ground-up creation, and the benefits of creating your own system might be outweighed by the ongoing workload for you and your team.
Customized hardware and software team up
Richard G. Bush, Ph.D., director of eLearning Services at Lawrence Technological University, knows about custom recipes. His school's LTuZone offers students unlimited access to the school's software and computing power. Engineering degree majors find their personal computers are loaded with CAD, design, modeling, simulation and statistical management software. Imaging students get a MacBook Pro, while architecture students get a Lenovo W510 ThinkPad.
Customization at LTU goes beyond hardware; Dr. Bush knew that a custom LMS would be necessary for online programs. “We use Blackboard,” he says. “However, a unique online campus is not a matter of the LMS you use but the way courses are designed, faculty trained, and to the extent the university supports online learning. We did not customize Blackboard; instead, we designed a process and standards for course development that took advantage of the functions and features in Blackboard.” It's not uncommon: Some schools add their own systems to monitor student progress, or build in functions that accurately test papers for plagiarism.
“We created a framework that made it work better for us,” he adds. That simple concept — to take existing framework and make it work for you — is at the heart of LTU's technology department, and it could fit in any technology manual for schools making the transition from campus-based programs to online education, or for those considering an update to old distance learning framework.
Online education should connect teachers and students
It doesn't matter how good a cookie is if it's behind three walls of bulletproof glass. In the same way, it doesn't matter how intuitive and elegant your LMS is designed if your faculty and students aren't incentivized to connect with one another. “We take the approach that the technology should not get in the way of learning,” Dr. Bush says. “We have adopted a standard look and feel for our courses. We have developed a process for course development that enables us to roll out new courses in a fairly short order and free up faculty to focus on teaching and engaging their students.”
It's important to note that LMS's like Blackboard and Canvas evolve with the times. Canvas is automatically updated every three weeks, while Blackboard's newest version includes inline assignment grading and other features. Unless your school employs a software development team that rivals the LMS giants — and chances are, it doesn't — your best bet is taking advantage of the existing framework and encouraging access from students and teachers.
Dr. Bush's Engagement Tips
- Adopt a standard look and feel for courses across departments
- Streamline course development in order to introduce new courses quickly
- Consider the different hardware and software needs among majors
Heeding student response in the scaling process
Student response to LMU's Blackboard customization and hardware and software programs has been an excellent start to a new and growing program. “We serve over 600 students per semester; they generate over 2,000 occupied online seats per semesters,” Dr. Bush says. “They take more than one class, and they generate over 8 percent of the total credit hours produced for the university.”
It's important to learn ahead of time how individual learning management systems scale to a growing community. Blackboard does performance and scaling testing with each of its releases, and Canvas automatically adds server load capacity during peak load times. Once you have a LMS customized to your needs, you should be able to trust it to grow with your student body. You've got the perfect plate of cookies and milk, but if 300 students come back for seconds, you need to have reserves in the pantry.
Building a better cookie
Creating or improving an online education system shouldn't mean throwing out all your recipe books and starting from scratch; rather, an intelligent assessment can better determine how students will interact online, how progress will be monitored, and how well the system will scale. When it comes to setting up a learning management system, customization is key. And with smart management, the results can be sweet.
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