Learning Management Systems: Hub or Silo?

Image taken from UNT's Flickr photostream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/unt/4349264863/in/photostream/

North Texas has literally been shut down for the past 3 days, with a 4th day impending. We had an arctic front blow in on Monday night, leaving a sheet of ice and snow, and sub-freezing temperatures to keep it intact. Every college, school district, private school and many businesses have been closed since Tuesday.

For the first day of this freeze I was feeling smug because I had already planned an online class for both of my sections of “Computers in the Classroom,” at UNT. I had most of the materials ready to go, so it was looking like I would just need to make them available to my class and spend the rest of the day hanging out with my family. I released the materials late Tuesday night, and I didn’t think about it again until Wednesday when a student e-mailed to say she couldn’t access Moodle. I went to Moodle, and she was right. Nothing.

In addition to cold weather, North Texas was experiencing power shortages caused by over-burdened power plants. In response to this shortage, the state implemented rolling blackouts. We lost power 3 different times on Wednesday for about 20 minutes each, which was only a slight inconvenience. These same rolling blackouts also cut power to Discovery Park, where the Moodle servers are housed. The servers went down, and as of this writing no one has booted them back up. This experience added another chapter to my love/hate relationship (mostly love) with LMS software.

I have been using Learning Management Systems (LMS) since 2005 to help me teach my courses, most of which have been face-to-face. Over the years I have had mostly good experiences, some bad experiences and many teachable moments. I have use Moodle, WebCT, Blackboard, Toolkit (homegrown at UVa), Collab (built at UVa on the Sakai platform) and eCollege. Each of these packages has its own affordances and constraints, and I haven’t found any of them to be completely idiot proof. What I have learned is that LMS, no matter which one you are using, make a great hub but a lousy silo.

Silo: a self-contained, secure, private space in which only those with credentials may enter. As in, missle silo.

Hub: a central place that brings together many different pieces from several different places.

People who use LMS as a silo upload everything and post all of their content to the LMS. If they teach more than once section of the same course, they do all of this twice. If a document needs to be updated, they take it down from both sections and upload the updated document. Twice. You get the picture.

People who use LMS as a hub, as I do, keep the content from their course in a place other than the LMS. Rather than uploading files and adding content directly to the LMS, the content is all linked to third-party tools. Here is what this looks like for me: 1) all course documents are in Google Docs and linked to the LMS, 2) all course materials (PDFs, videos, etc.) are hosted on Google Docs or YouTube and linked, and 3) my lesson plans for each class meeting are in Google Sites and linked.

This may not seem like a big deal until your servers go down and you have 48 students trying to access Moodle at once. For me, it meant the difference between postponing class and having each student finish the activities in the allotted time. I was able to send the students the links to the docs and lesson plan, and not one student missed a beat.

This does not mean LMS don’t have their place. They are essential for posting grades and giving feedback to students. They are excellent for facilitating discussions within the class. They are also a great hub for content so that students only have to look in one place for course materials. In my experience, they don’t even know I am linking to everything from a third-party host.

Other advantages to using third-party tools are:

  1. When I want to update a document for multiple sections, I only have to make the changes in Google Docs and they automatically show up wherever the document is linked.
  2. If I want to reuse materials for another class, I know where to find them. No searching archived courses to find rubrics, lesson plans or assignments. I just update the materials and link them to the current course.
  3. I have access to my course materials if the servers go down, and I can easily send them to my students if necessary.

This has been quite the learning experience, and I am glad I came out of it on the positive side. What tricks and tips do you have for using LMS in your teaching?

4 thoughts on “Learning Management Systems: Hub or Silo?

  1. Wow. Since the sysadmin in the department can afford twelve screens for his personal office, I’d think he’d order a reliable UPS to make sure the Moodle servers remain online through rolling blackouts! Perhaps that will be done with this year’s budget as a result of this experience!

    I haven’t gotten setup on Wimba at UCO this term to have a synchronous class, so I reached out to a friend and got an Elluminate room I used to teach this week. It worked well, but only 13 of my 50 students in my 2 sections showed up. I made the session optional (since it was a late decision to do it, and I have no idea what the tech situation is for everyone) but overall it was very positive. We were able to record the session and hopefully more students who didn’t come in person will still view the archive.

    In terms of the LMS silo issue you highlight, I think this is a HUGE issue. My approach the last two terms has been to create my curriculum on a public website (Google Site) and link to it from within the LMS, and just use the LMS for quizzes, grades, and other confidential info. This has worked really well overall, and avoids the problem of needing to update material in two courses this term since I have two sections.

    Is there a word for this kind of course design? I think this can support the ideals of OER better than just locking up content behind a LMS login. I’d love to do some research on this at some point… I suspect the vast majority of higher ed faculty today do NOT publish even their syllabus on an open website, much less their course curriculum / assignments. Maybe this is something we could research together down the road? ­čÖé

    • I couldn’t agree more, Wes. If nothing else, faculty locking their course materials up in a LMS is inefficient and creates a lot of extra work for them in the long run. I personally find that keeping my resources outside of the LMS is liberating because I can access and repurpose my own documents so much more easily.

      I would totally be up for a research project in the future, if we can think of a good way to approach this. I think this issue of knowing how and where to host files for maximum efficiency is a major component of digital literacy. Digital literacy, like all other types of literacy, is multifaceted and complex, but knowing how to both navigate the cloud and leverage it for personal productivity is essential these days. I’m still surprised how little pre-service teachers know about this coming into my class. And they know WAY more than the average faculty member!

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