Following in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the school shutdowns, schools rushed to deploy alternative learning systems to substitute for live class interaction and allow students to complete course requirements. Some schools are confident they are prepared to shift to the alternative learning mode without much difficulty. This is reassuring and will cushion the sense of anxiety among students, teachers, and parents. Most who think they have the solution are schools who already have a subscription to hosted course creation platform from the big names in the LMS industry. These LMSs do not come cheap and carry hefty subscription fees. Because of their powerful features, having a top-of-the line LMS is the envy of schools who cannot afford it. However, it is easy to choose an LMS for the wrong reasons especially the belief that if it is expensive it must work.
Whatever is the motivation for the choice of an LMS, there should be no false expectation that having one will necessarily result in advantages expected of online learning. Subscribing to a hosted learning platform is the easiest part in the shift to an online environment. It is activated instantaneously as soon as the initial subscription is paid. The providers offer excellent setup assistance and training for faculty in the use and functionalities of the LMS. All have 24×7 help desk and regular updates. Even with a lofty price tag, a top LMS brand may still be a cost-effective solution depending on school population and the number of users who actually use the features the way these are intended to be used. If not, it can be the biggest white elephant not only in the room but in the entire campus.
Indeed, an LMS is just one of several components in the e-learning ecosystem. Just as important are the subject matter experts, instructional design, authoring tools, and the assets needed for content development. Like the LMS, authoring tools and assets such as images, videos, and graphics can be bought off-the-shelf. The most critical and should have the highest priority in any e-learning endeavor are the subject matter experts and instructional design. In a school setting, faculty is a rich source of subject matter expertise. Not only do the teachers have mastery of their domain, they have proven their teaching prowess in the classroom. The challenge is how to bring those positive forces to the online classroom. Instructional design and authoring take care of that.
Unfortunately, subject matter experts may not be knowledgeable about instructional design, which is different from lesson planning or syllabus preparation. It is about designing activities for online application in the online classroom that will keep the student’s attention. Activities and exercises, interactivity, gamification, leaderboards, badges, and other techniques are in the realm of instructional design. It is commonplace in most successful e-learning environments to have subject matter experts and content authors work closely in course development. Seldom are they the same person. Authoring and the use of multimedia assets, with all its attendant issues of copyright and content attribution should also be considered. The faculty cannot just be told to prepare content without the necessary training, guidance, and supervision. Potential contentious issues like intellectual property rights, compensation, working schedule, and other arrangements should be covered with carefully crafted policies.
If content development appropriate for the online environment cannot be developed, the LMS will just be an expensive alternative to post announcements and share static files like PDF files, or to snatch non-interactive YouTube videos. These are functions available in any free email service and social media accounts, or, to those who remember, the old Yahoo group of years ago. LMS is not content; it needs to be used. Like any tool trained hands must wield this.