What should an LMS do, anyway?

This blog posting made me think about the online support I sometimes provide. I spend a lot of time advising people how to click through a series of steps to put their content online in the SFU Learning Management System (LMS). It’s frustrating for me for a few reasons: It’s repetitive and I question if what faculty are doing is actually meeting their instructional objectives.

Unfortunately, the support provided is on request, and if you don’t know the questions I’m dying to answer, then no one is getting what they want.

According to the Blog posting above, that I should be more of a salesperson. So here goes:

My mantra: using an LMS should do at least one of these two things (and preferably both): It should increase student learning, and it should (in the long term), save the instructor time. I really do want this to be a win-win situation! Clearly this is not an exhaustive list, but a start.

1. Increase student learning.
SELF-TESTS: Create some self-tests that students can get instant feedback from. They should be automatically graded, which does reduce the types of questions, but that’s okay. Challenge yourself to write ten good multiple-choice questions. Next time you teach the course, write five more.

HANDOUTS: Instead of posting the PowerPoint slides that you showed in class, why not create handouts for students to print out before class. They can be guided notes, with fill in the blanks – this reduces the volume of notes they have to take, but still gives them a framework to create their own information patterns from your lecture.

DISCUSSION AREA: Post a reading or lecture question each week in the discussion area. Ask students to respond, and give them a reason to – make it worth half their participation mark. At the end of the semester, if you are using the students’ discussion postings for participation marks, have them choose four of their best postings and provide context for each one. They might re-edit their postings for clarity – but that’s keeping them engaged with the material. It also gives you some insight into their thought processes, motivations and learning style and gaps.

2. Save the instructor/ teaching assistant time
GRADE BOOK: add the student grades for the quiz/ midterm/ etc. Download the template that your LMS uses into Excel first (it will likely download their names, student ID, and any columns you had added in the grade book). Excel is more familiar to many, and you can enter grades offline. If there is a network interruption or power surge, you still have the grades. Load grades back to the LMS, and release them for students. Each time you want to make an update, download the grades again. If you have made any changes (due to student challenges) online (and it’s easy to forget), you’d overwrite that by uploading the previous grades. The grade books in LMSs I’ve seen are limited to who logged in (so I only see my own grades, not my classmates). You can often add comments or feedback, and release all grades at once, saving you countless emails.

DISCUSSION AREA: Many LMSs have a discussion area. Tell students to post questions about readings, assessment and grading criteria there. A couple of things will likely happen. Students will respond to each others questions (“Prof Diaz said that the paper should be 10 pages long and include a bibliography”), and they’ll read other students’ questions (and your answer). These might have been questions they were afraid to ask, or didn’t even know they had! If you are going to use the discussion area for weekly questions, assign a weekly student moderator (they should keep the discussion on track and summarize the main points at the end of the week, for example). That reduces the amount of reading and writing you have to do (and increases the moderators learning). At the end of the semester, if you are using a student’s discussion posting for participation marks, have them choose four of their best postings and provide context for each one. That, too, reduces your amount of reading.

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