The best learning management systems are still missing course authoring tools

By Greg Jarboe

The best learning management systems are still missing course authoring tools.

Now, some may think that I am biased because I write for SoftChalk’s eLearning Blog.

But, from 1999 to 2001, I was the Vice President of Marketing for WebCT, the leading provider of Web-based teaching and learning solutions for the higher education marketplace.

Built by faculty, the WebCT product provided faculty with a comprehensive set of tools to develop, deliver, and administer compelling online curricula to supplement their classroom-based courses. From WebCT’s online platform, students could access course content, take quizzes, submit homework, and interact with their instructors and fellow students.

Greg Jarboe teaching a course on Coursera for Rutgers

In October 1999, WebCT had the most rapidly growing and largest installed base of users in the web-based learning marketplace, totaling nearly 3.7 million seats at 806 institutions in 46 countries. In October 2005, Blackboard acquired WebCT for $180 million, combining the two pioneering academic e-Learning organizations into a single company.

I still follow the latest learning management system (LMS) usage trends.

According to edutechnia, the most popular learning management systems by number of adopting institutions across the US are Instructure Canvas (1,326), Blackboard Learn (775), Moodle (476), and D2L Brightspace (406). The most used learning management systems by enrollments paints a similar picture: Canvas (8,408,886), Blackboard (4,492,756), Brightspace (2,230,546), and Moodle (1,552,752).

However, just because an LMS is popular doesn’t mean it’s the best one for the faculty and students at your institution. So, you will want to compare the key features and benefits of different learning management systems, including:

  • Interoperability: Does an LMS support Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) standards, a specification developed by the education community to provide seamless integration with course content and tools provided by external, third-party systems?
  • Accessibility: Does an LMS provide students with disabilities a better opportunity to access web content in accordance with the internationally recognized Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 Level A and Level AA?
  • Reusability: Does an LMS enable educational content to be reused? This is a critical aspect in lowering the high expenses of developing eLearning experiences with Open Educational Resources (OER) and a Learning Object Repository (LOR).
  • Maintainability: Does an LMS allow college educators, instructional designers, and K-12 teachers to continually enhance their content and courses to increase student engagement and improve learning outcomes?
  • Adaptability: Is an LMS always improving, updating, and adjusting to the rising adoption of technology into academics as well as the suspension of in-school learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although these features and benefits are important, they won’t magically help your educational institution deliver impactful learning with improved outcomes.

Why? Because an LMS cannot teach an educational course by itself.

To create the best online learning experience for your students, you need three more ingredients:

“What is the hashtag for this course?”

There’s a second reason why I believe that the best learning management systems are still missing course authoring tools. In addition to my background at WebCT, I am an online instructor.

When Market Motive was launched in August 2007, I was a member of the faculty, which was called the “online marketing dream team.” Our curriculum is still used by higher education institutions like Duke, Benedictine, and Polk State College. I am also a member of OMCP’s Standards Committee, which maintain the standards for over 900 universities and training institutes worldwide.

In July 2010, I became at instructor in the Rutgers Mini-MBA: Digital Marketing certificate program. Now, I initially taught two three-and-a-half-hour-long modules in a classroom on the Livingston Campus. But in 2011, I started teaching online versions of these executive education courses.

To give the participants in our online executive education program something a little more interesting to watch than a “talking head” video, we used two cameras to shoot me teaching my modules in actual participants in the classroom program, which was held at the Heldrich Hotel & Conference Center in New Brunswick.

I explained to my classroom students that they were free to engage in a face-to-face, synchronous learning experience, but the cameras were there to provide a remote, asynchronous learning experience to another group of online students.

That’s when one of the students in the classroom asked me, “What’s the hashtag for this course?”

She assumed that I was ready, willing, and able to have my classroom students interact with their fellow online students. I wasn’t. But I was willing to learn.

Today, I teach asynchronous courses on Coursera for Rutgers and synchronous courses at the Mohammad Bin Rashid School of Government in Dubai for the New Media Academy. Each structures their programs differently.

So, I may be biased. But that’s because my background at WebCT and experience as an instructor has taught me to put faculty first.

Why? Because your faculty – your college educators or K-12 teachers — are the people who will play the most central role in the success or failure of your institution’s learning management system.

Despite advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, even the best LMS is less capable of sensing its environment and moving safely with little or no human input than a self-driving car.

Faculty define the culture and intellectual climate of a school system or college campus. They are responsible for the success of current students and the important governance decisions that shape the institution, like curriculum. Faculty are uniquely equipped to steer your institution through the myriad external pressures that affect education by means of their expertise, talent, drive, and dedication.

Despite this very clear value, very few learning management systems are available to make faculty work easier or more productive. As mounting costs create demands for efficiency, institutions across primary, secondary, and higher education have tried to reduce spending by hiring even fewer full-time faculty. In doing so, they have exacerbated many of the issues they sought to alleviate, creating more service and mentorship demands on faculty, and fewer faculty resources for students. As the remaining full-time faculty have more and more on their plate—mandates, assessments, and reports that demand more paperwork and time on top of existing obligations—what tools exist to help prioritize the lesson planning, course development, and online teaching that faculty were hired to do?

I believe that the right technology—when it accounts for faculty requirements, work, and decisions—can make faculty life easier and more productive. Too many times, technology decisions are “forced on” faculty. Some education administrator buys something and hopes that it makes things a little more effective. But if you seamlessly integrated tools, training, and support into the work that faculty are already doing, then technology isn’t an additional burden for them. By engaging faculty work, decisions, and data directly, technology has the potential to make institutions far more efficient and effective than they are today.

Integrating SoftChalk’s course authoring tools with your learning management systems

That’s why I would strongly advise education administrators who are looking for the best learning management systems to adopt a variation of the “10/90” rule. What’s that?

Back in May 2006, Avinash Kaushik, an author, Digital Marketing Evangelist at Google, and co-founder of Market Motive, published “The 10 / 90 Rule for Magnificent Web Analytics Success.” He said:

  • “Our Goal: Highest value from Web Analytics implementation.
  • “Cost of analytics tool & vendor professional services: $ 10.
  • “Required investment in ‘intelligent resources/analysts’: $ 90.
  • “Bottom-line for Magnificent Success: It’s the people.”

In other words, when exploring and evaluating learning management systems, you should plan to invest 10% of your budget on the best LMS for your school or higher education institution, and 90% on instructional design, training services, and course authoring tools for your team.

Why? Because learning management systems are designed to help K-12 teachers and college educators manage student coursework, assignments and evaluations, but most have limited content authoring features.

And don’t take my word for it. Read some of the case studies that tell how SoftChalk has helped institutions deliver impactful learning with improved outcomes. Here are three examples:

  • Canvas Content Authoring Tool: Nancy Terrell, a National Board-Certified Teacher (NBCT) and Librarian who uses SoftChalk for both her teaching and professional development needs, says, “SoftChalk allows us to easily organize information for both teaching and professional development because it makes it so easy to integrate our own content and then add SoftChalk’s interactive activities. Here in Hampton City Schools, we love having this resource to assist us in our instruction. Using SoftChalk for my work has helped me be more productive so that I am working smarter, instead of harder.”
  • Blackboard Course Development Tool with LMS Integration: Nancy Edwards, Tier One Support Analyst, Blackboard, says, “Once I saw SoftChalk in action, I knew it was the solution faculty needed when creating content. I decided to use SoftChalk in order to make our tutorials more dynamic and interactive. The lessons are now much more interactive and engaging for the audience. My colleagues at Blackboard were blown away by the appearance and experience of the new tutorials—if only they knew how easy they were to create!”
  • Brightspace Content Authoring Tool: Stephen Kelly, instructional designer at Century College, the largest community college in Minnesota, says, ““Faculty see (SoftChalk) as a canvas to create the lesson they want, and its ease of use has made it popular not just with younger faculty, but also with older faculty who may not be as technologically savvy.” He adds, “Rather than text-based lessons that were difficult to create, they could easily add multimedia, color, links and make their courses truly interactive. Interactivity is what gave it the ‘wow’ factor with students, who found the interface intuitive.”

In all three of these case studies:

  • College educators, instructional designers, or K-12 teachers were ready, willing, and able to adapt their curricula from face-to-face lectures to impactful eLearning experiences.
  • They found SoftChalk’s content authoring software not only easy to use, but also delivered high-quality learning experiences that integrated seamless with their LMS.
  • Faculty thought sample lessons and sample interactives were inspiring, training videos and webinars were enlightening, as well as tailored professional services were helpful.

Of course, you will still want to conduct your own due diligence to make sure that you have explored every option and evaluated each alternative. But hopefully you will reach the same conclusion that I have: Even the best learning management systems are still missing course authoring tools.

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