Best Practices for LMS Integration into a Professional Doctoral Program

By: 
Dr. Anthony Piña and Dr. Larry Bohn

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Abstract
Sullivan University, Kentucky’s largest private university, was the first for-profit career institution to receive regional accreditation from the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges (SACS).  Nearly half of the University’s degree and certificate programs are available online.  In 2008, Sullivan opened its doors to its first class of doctoral learners in its new College of Pharmacy.  The program was designed to be delivered via a web-enhanced format and makes extensive use of Angel, the University’s learning management system (Bohn, Piña & Tran, 2009).  This article will explore best practices in the integration of learning management systems into a professional doctoral program.

Introduction
The utilization of Learning Management Systems (LMS) in higher education has risen to the point where, next to the Internet itself, the LMS is the most well implemented and utilized instructional technology at college and university campuses (Piña, 2008).  Educational institutions spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars for these systems (O’Leonard & Bersin, 2006); however, there is a wide degree of variation in how they are actually used by instructors.  While many instructors take the time and effort to learn their LMS well and utilize the tools available in the system to offer an interactive learning environment for their students, others use the LMS as little more than an online repository and delivery mechanism for syllabi and course readings, resulting in dull and rigid instruction (Ioannu & Hannafin, 2008).

In 2005, EDUCAUSE conducted a study of the LMS use of more than 12,000 college students (Kvavnik & Caruso, 2005).  The researchers found that student attitudes toward their LMS were overwhelmingly positive.  The features of the LMS that students used most often and rated the most valuable were the ability to keep track of grades, access sample quizzes, class readings and syllabi, taking tests online, turning in assignments online and getting assignments back with feedback and grades. 

In order to integrate an LMS for maximum learning and instructional benefit, it is imperative that instructors, administrators and support staff be able to utilize best practices to evaluate, select, set up, administer, support and instruct with an LMS (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005).  In this article, we will draw from years of experience teaching, administering and supporting several different LMS products including Blackboard, WebCT, Desire2Learn and Angel, and from the implementation of LMS features and tools in Sullivan University’s Doctor of Pharmacy Program.

Strategies and Practices for Successful LMS Integration
These strategies, listed below in no particular order, have proven to contribute to successful LMS integration.

1. Learn the LMS well: Research has shown that the most significant factor influencing the attitudes of students toward learning with technology is how competent their professors are in using technology to teach (Donnell, 2009). Unfortunately, many of us do not take the time to learn more than the basic minimum operations of the LMS.  Students report that they can tell when a professor reports a “bug with the system,” and when, in fact, it is user error caused by the professor’s lack of knowledge or experience with the LMS.  There are tutorials and training available for every major LMS.  We owe it to our students to take the time and make the effort to be experts in the systems used to deliver instruction to them.

2. Look beyond the document repository: Although putting syllabi and reading materials online is an obvious advantage of an LMS, these systems also allow us to link to the vast resources of the Internet and deliver them from inside our online courses (Piña, 2010).  The universities participating in the OpenCourseware Consortium (www.opencourseware.org), those with channels on YouTube (www.youtube.com/edu) and iTunesU (www.apple.com/education/itunes-u) and those contributing to learning object repositories such as MERLOT (www.merlot.org) and Wisc-Online (www.wisc-online.com), have provided a tremendous service by making content available for anyone to use. 

3. Use announcements: The announcement feature—available in every LMS—is the most efficient way to communicate to the entire class, provide course updates, alert students to current events and, when appropriate, provide humorous anecdotes.  In a typical LMS, announcements are the first items visible to the students when they log in.  Some systems (e.g. Angel) make announcements more powerful by allowing them to be targeted to individual students or groups.  Unfortunately, some instructors elect not to use the announcement feature at all, while others post too much content at one time.  If more than just a few sentences need to be posted, the instructor should consider putting a “tickler” in the announcements to guide students to a more extensive treatment in the lesson.  

4. Use discussions for different instructional strategies: In the EDUCAUSE study, (Kvavnik & Caruso, 2005), students did not rate online discussion board assignments nearly as high as other LMS tools.  A likely reason is that students place the highest value upon those features that make their lives easier and their learning more convenient, such as viewing grades or receiving professor feedback (Piña, 2010). However, another reason is that many discussion forums are perceived as busywork, where students merely answer a question from the text and respond to each other, without involvement from the professor.  Learning must be facilitated—not just graded—including online discussions, just as we would a discussion held in a classroom.  Discussions can be used in conjunction with many different instructional strategies, including case studies, role play, debates, virtual field trips, collaborative learning and peer review (Bender, 2003).

5. Use groups:  The group or teams feature of an LMS allows us to set up collaborative learning environments with smaller groups of students.  Each group can be given its own discussion forums, chat rooms and file sharing to allow them to interact with each other without being seen by other students.  We, of course, can monitor all activities within each group.

6. Use the reporting tools: One of the advantages of an LMS over the face-to-face environment is the ability to track student activity, including when they log in and where they go and what they do in the course.  Tracking can be used to identify the most (and least) popular areas of the course and can serve as an “early warning” system for students who have not logged in for a given length of time.

7. Use online tests as practice/feedback: Many are nervous about the security of administering tests online.  Although it is not possible to prevent all cheating (either online  or face-to-face), there are a number of settings in an LMS to disable exam review and printing and to lock down the browser.  There are also a number of hardware and software solutions available to verify online student identity or proctor examinations (Ballie & Jortberg, 2009).  A survey of these is beyond the scope of this article.  Another strategy is to use the features of online exams, not for graded assignments, but within lessons as learning tools that provide practice and immediate feedback, so that students can check whether they are, in fact, reaching the lesson objectives.

8. Use guest lecturers: An LMS is an ideal way to allow a guest lecturer into the class, without having to incur travel and lodging expenses.  The guest’s biography, representative writings and links can be placed in the course to prepare students for the visit and the threaded discussion forum and live chat can provide either real-time, or delayed interaction between students and the guest lecturer.

9. Use master courses:  To keep quality and consistency across different sections of the same course, it is desirable to build individual online sections of a course from a single master.  This provides a single point of contact for course updates and assures that all sections are addressing the same learner objectives/outcomes.  Faculty can supplement their individual sections with their own customized materials.

Conclusion
Nearly all of our institutions use an LMS to provide for online, blended and/or web-enhanced courses.  An LMS, if used properly, has the advantage of extending the learning, instruction and interaction of a course beyond the time and space limitations of a regular classroom. 

Author Bio

Dr. Anthony Piña
Sullivan University

Dr. Anthony Piña is Dean of Online Studies for the Sullivan University System, and has been a professional consultant to Fortune 500 corporations, small businesses, government agencies, university consortia, and the U.S. Military. Tony is on the advisory board of two higher education institutions and on the editorial board of two refereed journals. He has taught at the secondary, community college, and university levels and he has received eight national awards in the area of instructional technology. Tony is the author of the book ―Distance Learning and the Institution.‖ Tony is a past president of the Division of Distance Learning of the Association for Educational Communications & Technology (AECT) and serves currently on the AECT Executive Board. Dr. Anthony Piña can be reached at apina@sullivan.edu

Dr. Larry Bohn
Sullivan University


Dr. Bohn retired as a Senior Chief Petty Officer in the United States Navy after 21 years of service. He has taught in the community college, university, and seminary setting both face-to-face and online. Dr. Bohn has been teaching with the Sullivan University System for over five years and has served as the Associate Dean – Evening Division Spencerian College, Instructional Designer Sullivan University Systems, and in his current position as Assistant Dean of Outcomes Management for the Global e-Learning Campus. He holds certifications such as Certified Technical Trainer (CTT), Zenger Miller Certified Training Facilitator, and Microsoft Certified Professional. Dr. Larry Bohn can be reached at lbohn@sullivan.edu

References

Ballie, J. L. & Jortberg, M. A. (2009).  Online learner authentication: Verifying the identity of online users.  MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 5(2).

Bender, T. (2003). Discussion-based online teaching to enhance student learning.  Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Bohn, L., Piña, A. A. & Tran, H. T. (2009, October). Practices & pitfalls of angel integration into a professional doctoral program.  Paper presented at the annual convention of the Association for Educational Communications & Technology, Louisville, KY.

Dabbagh N. & Bannan-Ritland, B. (2005), Online learning: Concepts, strategies, and applications. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall. 

Donnell, V. (2009). The relationship between student and faculty attitudes towards technology. ERIC Document ED505329.

Ioannou, A., & Hannafin, R. (2008). Deficiencies of course management systems:  Do students care? Quarterly Review of Distance Education 9(4).

Kvavnik, R. & Caruso, J. (2005), ECAR study of students and technology 2005: convenience, connection, control and learning. Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research,

O’Leonard, K. & Bersin, J. (2006).  Learning management systems 2006: Facts, practical analysis, trends and vendor profiles. Oakland, CA: Bersin & Associates,.

Piña, A. A. (2008). How institutionalized is distance learning?  A study of institutional role, locale and academic level. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 11(1).

Piña, A. A. (2010). An overview of learning management systems.  In Y. Kats (Ed.) Learning management systems technologies and software solutions for online teaching: Tools and applications. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.