Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On learning management systems

For those in the know, you know that what used to be WebCT (Vista and Campus Edition as far as I know) has been scheduled for product end-of-life sometime in 2013. Because of this our campus, along with many other schools that have WebCT installations, have been looking for other platforms to migrate to. Having spent the last few months testing systems I've come up with a candidate that I'd like to see my campus adopt. I feel like a required disclaimer should be here before I proceed: the views expressed in this blog post are my own and not of my institution, I am only one member of a much larger team that did testing so my views also don't reflect the views of my team and don't constitute any official product endorsement on the part of my employer.

OK, now that that's out of the way, here are my views on systems that I have tested. I gave some systems more hands-on time than others since I was informally assigned to those, but I did make an effort to try all of them, and I did go to the vendor presentations. The total time I spent on each system is denoted with an asterisk next to the name of the product (5 = max)

Instructure Canvas (*****)
The clear winner for me in this testing phase was Canvas.  Canvas is essentially the new kid on the block and they've changed the paradigm of the LMS.  The interface is nice and clean and it appears that you can't really get lost in it. It's just intuitive.  Because it is the new kid on the block it may not have all the features that one is used to in a traditional LMS, however the team seems to be nimble, their code seems to be modular, and they seem to be able to turn on a dime!  Their philosophy seems to be similar to Google's, that is they will pilot new features, listen to the community and release often! Their vendor demo and Q&A was quite open and they weren't afraid to admit dropping the ball on any feature that they didn't implement because they didn't think it would be useful to their customers. Any feature requests that we brought to them as part of the Q&A was something that went on their work queue. On the mobile side of things, the LMS looks great on an iPad (as is) and a dedicated client for the iphone is coming along. Quite simply amazing!


Desire2Learn (****)
Desire2Learn is my runner up choice for a new LMS. D2L is the former new kid on the block; it's been around for ten years or so and it's Blackboard's main competition it seems.  The energy that came from the presenters during the demo and Q&A session was great! I truly felt that this company has customer service as its top priority. The LMS is great too! It's extensible, the company is active working toward implementing additional features, and as a designer it's great because you can wireframe courses and have instructors go in and add materials. It's a bit weak on the web 2.0 integration (canvas' strong-suit) but I am sure that will be remedied. The one ding in D2L's armor is that it may come off as too complex, the UI isn't as clean as Canvas' UI, incoming newbies may feel inundated. On the plus side, the mobile safari page of the LMS is awesome! You could really do homework on your mobile device with this LMS!


BlackBoard Learn (****)
OK, so blackboard is the 9000 pound gorilla in the room. It's been around the longest, it's got it's own product in addition to buying up other learning management systems like Prometheus, WebCT and Angel, as well as buying both Elluminate and WIMBA synchronous conference tools. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on whose view it is), it appears that blackboard may be up for sale, so its future instability may be  an issue.  As far as the product itself goes, Learn 9.1 did not impress me. It seems like a step backward from WebCT Vista and as far as additional functionality goes (the Web 2.0 kind that is available in Canvas for example) - it's just not there. It seems like an LMS built for yesterday, not for today and tomorrow.
The underlying philosophy of functionality additions seems problematic as well.  Blackboard, instead of making features part of it's core, they have a community building plug-ins for the LMS. I think that it's nice to have APIs to allow the community to make extensions that they really need, but some of this functionality is not peripheral - it's core functionality that the company itself should address (like instructure and desire2learn do). If the core Bb learn product gets updated some of these plug-ins may not work for a while and people who use them, for class, could be SOL.  Blackboard mobile also failed to impress in that the UI was inconsistent, with some elements using iOS visuals, and some just opening up a mobile safari page which showed the desktop version of the LMS. To add to that, you can only access Blackboard mobile if you are on WiFi - major fail!
As far as the vendor demo goes, I felt like there was goo, or sleaze, coming off the sale's people's pores.  I felt like they were unnecessarily dodgy.  I am sure that they are all fine folks, but I just don't think that they were honest about their product, and I don't know if they've got their customer's needs at heart.  The cynic in me thinks that they will try to maintain as many customers as they currently have by any means necessary.  This, plus their accumulated intellectual property should make the company worth a pretty penny when it comes up for sale.

Pearson eCollege (*****)
eCollege, in my opinion, was a bit of a disappointment. The usability was an issue, as was the functionality.  I felt like it was something from the late 90s, as far as usability and features go; something that accompanies a textbook rather than something that is out there in the cloud waiting to be used by faculty and students alike. To be fair, pearson does have a new product coming out soon, so perhaps eCollege is end-of-lifed, but they didn't have something better to show us.

Sakai (**)
Sakai is something I played with by going through a couple of free rSmart webinars and getting my own sandbox. We also had a peer institution do a Q&A and demo session for us to show us what they had done with Sakai.  What really impressed me with Sakai was the ability to do your thing, including library functionality! The bibliography function is pretty cool in this LMS.  Sadly, in order to make it really work for our institution we'd need staff to contribute to the effort (staff which we don't have), and we'd need to have an open source philosophy - anything we make goes back to the collective, and anything the collective makes comes to us. This too we don't have. I think Sakai would be a good product five years down the road, if we could get started next year with rolling our own and testing.

Moodle (***)
Moodle, Moodle, Moodle... You know, moodle isn't a bad LMS, it's just too linear. It works great for smaller workshops and as a course repository, but I think that it would fail miserably in a purely online environment, for classes that are 12-15 weeks long. I think the philosophy of the LMS says it all: it's simple enough to be installed on a machine and used by a classroom teacher. It's good for Mr. Tom's K-12 classes, but perhaps not as functional or powerful for  university with online students in all corners of the globe.



Your thoughts on these and other LMSs?


Update: Apparently Blackboard has been sold
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