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What does an LMS offer? March 8, 2016

Posted by ficial in brain dump, Instructional Technology, LMS.
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The spectrum of LMS use can be divided into three general realms: administrative, organizational, and pedagogical. Administrative functions fulfill needs relating to the non-academic overhead of giving and receiving an education: managing course enrollments, providing communication channels, collecting assignments, scheduling, etc. Organizational functions improve the management of information and resources related to instruction: providing access to information whenever it’s needed, placing information into useful, usable groups, searching available information, handle various formats, etc. Pedagogical functions expand and refine the tools that instructors and students can use in the teaching and learning process: asynchronous discussion forums, auto-graded quizzes with immediate feedback, limited-audience authoring experiences, collaborative creation projects, etc.

In the administrative realm, an LMS integrated with other campus information systems offers a clear improvement over doing things piecemeal and by hand. This gives a better experience for students and significantly helps instructors through greater reliability (and auditability), increased consistency of experience, reduced non-academic workload, fewer distractions, some automation, and enhanced versions of traditional tools. Making use of the administrative aspects of an LMS requires little to no work or input on the part of instructors or students; an LMS provides a large net gain in the administrative realm.

In the organizational realm, an LMS allows an instructor better control over how students receive their information for the course, more flexibility in adding, removing or rearranging information, a wider array of information that be be offered, the ability to front-load information management work (allowing more efficient use of time), and preservation of the information associated with the course. For students, an LMS offers a single place where course information can be found and processed, access to that information whenever it’s needed, and the presentation / arrangement of that information that the instructor has determined is most effective. For an instructor to make use of the organizational aspects of an LMS requires him or her to find or to provide information in an electronic format and to organize and to present that information using the tools in the LMS; for instructors an LMS typically provides somewhere from a small loss to a moderate gain in the organizational realm, depending on the information being managed and the instructors comfort with the tools. For a student, taking advantage of the organizational aspects of an LMS requires little to no work or input; for students an LMS provides a large net gain in the organizational realm.

In the pedagogical realm an LMS can offer tools and techniques that would otherwise be impossible or impractical. These can be subdivided into enabling technologies (such as the ability to deliver video, electronic slideshows, etc.) which allows an instructor or student to extrapolate traditional pedagogical methods into the digital world, and alternate technologies (such as asynchronous forums, virtual environments, instant assessment, etc.) which allow exploration of new pedagogical models. Making effective use of the pedagogical aspects of an LMS requires lots of hard work on the part of both instructors and students, but teaching and learning takes a lot of hard work without an LMS as well; the net gain or loss in the pedagogical realm is highly situation-dependent, though an instructor would not invest the time in pursuing this use of an LMS in a particular situation unless he or she had a reasonable expectation of a net gain.

Specific functionality could fall into more than one realm, depending on how students and instructors apply it.  While a given application could be assigned to a given realm, this realms concept might be more useful in a comparative role; e.g. posting a course reading is more pedagogical than posting a syllabus and more organizational than discussing the reading in a forum.

Due to its set of functionality in the administrative and organizational realms and to its integration with other campus infrastructure, an LMS is very useful  for campus organizations and groups in addition to course-oriented academic purposes – ideally an LMS works well for organizations and groups.


fixing a moodle cron problem – lastcron not updating January 26, 2010

Posted by ficial in code fixes, LMS, moodle, techy.
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I recently finished a section of code that’s supposed to send reminder emails to users once per day. Moodle has an interesting approach for how this kind of thing is handled. In brief, there’s a DB table that tracks how often a process is supposed to run and the last time it ran, and the moodle system has a single central cron job that runs once every five minutes or so and calls the sub-processes based on the timing info stored in the DB. In principle that’s a reasonable approach. HOWEVER, it turns out that main cron code was failing to record when each sub-process ran, so the sub-process was running EVERY TIME the main process ran. In my case this meant it was sending out emails every 5 minutes instead of once a day – not good.

It’s a bit strange, since the main cron code looks like it’s supposed to do that update:

if ($blockobj->cron()) {
  if (!set_field('block','lastcron',$timenow,'id',$block->id)) {
    mtrace('Error: could not update timestamp for '.$block->name);

but for whatever reason that lastcron field isn’t actually getting updated AND no error message is being generated.  Perhaps the cron process in the block needs to return true very explicitly? Perhaps set_field is silently failing? Whatever the cause, it’s a serious problem.

The work around I found (in a timetable import script bug fix) was to explicitly update that field as a part of the cron sub-process.  So, after the emailing code I added:


and now everything is working as it should. It’s not ideal – the main cron process should be doing that lastcron update – but it gets the job done, it’s easy, and it won’t interfere if/when the main problem is fixed.

Getting people to use a LMS November 3, 2006

Posted by ficial in brain dump, LMS.
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During the NITLE conference I brainstormed a bit about how to get people to make more and better use of our LMS. This is a collection of things that came to me over the course of the first day.

  1. There are examplary users of the system already – the early adopters, the people who got really excited about one feature or another. Make them superstars. Get them to give talks on campus. Copy their stuff to use as examples. Reference them in our own presentations. These people are both the models for everyone else and the seeds of a user community.
  2. People need to be able to see what others are doing, and not doing. Partly it’s about competition, partly it’s about learning by example, and partly it’s about peer pressure / shame.
    1. This is tricky since most LMS are closed systems by default. Perhaps automatically create a guest user for each course, though that has its own set of problems. Need to think more on this…
  3. Feed back
    1. Add relevant questions to the course evaluation forms. Need to find out who’s in charge of changes to those forms and start working on them.
    2. Create an anonymous feedback form for courses in the LMS. Probably unrealistic to have it used by default, but make it available for instructors to activate if they so desire. Basically, it’s a way for users (students) to make suggestions to admins (instructors). Hmmm… probably call it a suggestion form rather than a feedback form.
  4. Get students to demand it. Run lunches/events for students where some with good LMS experiences can talk about why it was so great. Some events just for other students, some for students and instructors. If the students want it, the instructors will comply.
  5. Initiate an on-going seminar/discussion series for instructors about LMS pedagogy and technique. Bribe with food as needed. Set it going and then step back as much as possible.
  6. Make courses active/available by default. We need to signal the institutional goal that the LMS will be used and that our students expect it.
  7. For specific classes, run a discussion with the professor, the students, and one or more itech people to figure out the best ways to use the LMS for that course. Don’t have the resources to do this with everyone at once, but as we can it’d be a good thing to do on the first day of classes when things are usually pretty admin-oriented anyway.
    1. We can’t just give people a tool and expect everything will work out – we have to teach them how to use it.
  8. Keep and publicize top 10 lists for good uses and bad uses of the LMS. Keep them general and mostly with out attribution (though maybe reference some examples on the good list – see point 1).