A CRITICAL EXAMINATION OF THE EFFECTS OF LEARNING MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS ON UNIVERSITY TEACHING AND LEARNING INTRODUCTION - PDF

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Tertiary Education and Management 11: 19 36, Ó 2005 Springer HAMISH COATES, RICHARD JAMES AND GABRIELLE BALDWIN A CRITICAL EXAMINATION OF THE EFFECTS OF LEARNING MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS ON UNIVERSITY
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Tertiary Education and Management 11: 19 36, Ó 2005 Springer HAMISH COATES, RICHARD JAMES AND GABRIELLE BALDWIN A CRITICAL EXAMINATION OF THE EFFECTS OF LEARNING MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS ON UNIVERSITY TEACHING AND LEARNING ABSTRACT. The rapid uptake of campus-wide Learning Management Systems (LMS) is changing the character of the on-campus learning experience. The trend towards LMS as an adjunct to traditional learning modes has been the subject of little research beyond technical analyses of alternative software systems. Drawing on Australian experience, this paper presents a broad, critical examination of the potential impact of these online systems on teaching and learning in universities. It discusses in particular the possible effects of LMS on teaching practices, on student engagement, on the nature of academic work and on the control over academic knowledge. INTRODUCTION There is a significant change taking place in higher education that has received surprisingly little analysis. In the last few years, integrated computer systems known as Learning Management Systems (LMS) have rapidly emerged and are having, and will increasingly have, profound effects on university teaching and learning. LMS are enterprise-wide and internet-based systems, such as WebCT and Blackboard, that integrate a wide range of pedagogical and course administration tools. These systems have the capacity to create virtual learning environments for campus-based students, and are even being used to develop fully online virtual universities. They are becoming ubiquitous at universities around the world, adding a virtual dimension to even the most traditional campus-based institutions. Unlike other financial or human resources management systems recently introduced into universities, online LMS have the potential to affect the core business of teaching and learning in unanticipated ways. Despite this, research into the ramifications of LMS, in particular the pedagogical issues, is still in its infancy. In spite of widespread levels of adoption, and although the systems are essentially devices for teaching, attention has been most often focussed on their 20 HAMISH COATES ET AL. technical, financial and administrative aspects. In this paper, therefore, we explore implications arising from the incorporation of LMS into university teaching and learning programmes. After critically examining the significance of these online learning systems in contemporary higher education, we will discuss four specific academic issues associated with their implementation. THE RAPID EVOLUTION OF LEARNING MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS An overview of online Learning Management Systems While it is not our intention to present a technical analysis of LMS, it is helpful to give some background for those who are less familiar with the systems. LMS grew from a range of multimedia and internet developments in the 1990s. In the last four years, the systems have matured and been adopted by many universities across the world. Also referred to as learning platforms, distributed learning systems, course management systems, content management systems, portals, and instructional management systems, they combine a range of course or subject management and pedagogical tools to provide a means of designing, building and delivering online learning environments. LMS are scalable systems which can be used to support an entire university s teaching and learning programmes. With appropriate elaboration, they can also be used to drive virtual universities. International standards for LMS are only starting to be developed (ADL SCORM 2003; IMS 2003; OKI 2003), and the various vendor products currently available vary in terms of their conformity with these. While the precise specifications vary from system to system, they typically provide tools for course administration and pedagogical functions of differing sophistication and potential: asynchronous and synchronous communication (announcement areas, , chat, list servers, instant messaging and discussion forums); content development and delivery (learning resources, development of learning object repositories and links to internet resources); formative and summative assessment (submission, multiple choice testing, collaborative work and feedback); and EFFECTS OF LEARNING MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS 21 class and user management (registering, enrolling, displaying timetables, managing student activities and electronic office hours). Within limits, the structures, processes and online appearance of the systems can be customised. The systems can be linked with others within an institution. Different types and levels of support and training are offered with particular systems, and in commercial systems these typically constitute significant parts of a package. While many of the commercial and technological aspects of online LMS are in the relatively early stages of development, a number of systems have assumed prominence in international markets. Examples of commercial systems include: Topclass/Firstclass (WBT Systems 2003), NextEd (NextEd 2003), WebCT Vista (WebCT 2003), Blackboard (Blackboard 2003) and LearningSpace from Lotus (IBM Lotus 2003). Most LMS were commercialised after originally being university development projects, rather than as direct results of business development activities. In recent years, several major USA universities have chosen to release their LMS under open source rather than commercial licenses. The most prominent open source systems have been gathered together in the Sakai Project (Sakai Project, 2004), and include CHEF (University of Michigan 2003), Stellar (MIT 2003) and Coursework (Stanford University 2003). These have grown in collaboration with a standards development programme called the Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI) (OKI 2003). The Open Knowledge Initiative has drawn much interest due to its potential to forge genuine industry-wide standards for the first time. Global and Australian trends in Learning Management System adoption The adoption of LMS across the world has been swift. A briefing in the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE 2002) provides an overview of the spread of the WebCT and Blackboard LMS. In around five years, these two products have grown from inhouse developments in North American universities to dominate international markets. In Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada, over 70% of institutions hold licenses for at least one of these products. In South Africa, Finland, the Netherlands and the USA, between 55% and 62% of institutions use WebCT or Blackboard. The figures in the briefing demonstrate the seriousness with which universities around the world are treating the need to deploy LMS. Indeed, in a recent 22 HAMISH COATES ET AL. discussion of distance education, Oblinger and Kidwell (2000) comment on the almost herd-like mentality underpinning the attraction of universities to online teaching. There has been a remarkable level of adoption of LMS at Australian universities. A survey of adoption trends was conducted in 2002 (Smissen & Sims 2002). Despite the new and relatively unstable nature of the market, the WebCT and Blackboard brands have a clear market dominance, and are being used at three quarters of Australia s 39 universities. Results from the same evaluation indicate no obvious patterns of brand selection in terms of university characteristics such as size, type, history or discipline focus. While such trends may reflect the developing global LMS market and the relatively small size of the Australian market, they are somewhat surprising in a sector which claims to strive for diversity and innovation. Being relatively new technologies, there have been no large scale studies of the actual uses and pedagogical effects of LMS. In a recent study of online education, however, Bell, Bush, Nicholson, O Brien and Tran (2002) found widespread incorporation of online technologies into programmes at Australian universities. Although penetration is greatest in the areas of commerce, education and health, where there is often strong demand for mixed-mode or off-campus delivery, the study found that around 60% of Australian postgraduate subjects and around 25% of undergraduate subjects are using some form of online technology. Overall it was found that around 54% of subjects contain an online component. The report concluded that even though the percentage of fully online courses and units is low, the percentage of web supplemented and web dependent units seems to be a clear statement that many institutions are using online technology to add value to teaching and learning (Bell et al. 2002: 27). It seems likely that the use of LMS will increase. These systems are simplifying the development of basic online materials and making possible the creation of virtual content by an increasing number of academic staff. Within limits imposed by particular systems, staff are able to develop interactive web pages, upload and integrate digital resources, and develop assessment tasks and spaces for online discussion. Templates are often provided to guide and standardise such activities, and to help reduce workload demands placed on individual staff. Universities are encouraging or requiring each subject to have some kind of web presence, and some have policies and incentives to stimulate content development activities. Enterprise-wide LMS are EFFECTS OF LEARNING MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS 23 providing a context and impetus for the development of highly structured single-entry-point online teaching and learning. THE DRIVERS BEHIND LEARNING MANAGEMENT SYSTEM ADOPTION Universities have been quick to adopt LMS, despite the costs, complexities, and risks involved. From a university planning point of view, the initial selection of an enterprise-wide LMS is a high stakes and high risk decision which involves a great deal of technological and institutional forecasting. It can involve dealing with intertwined educational, administrative and technological issues, the interests of a large and diverse range of stakeholders, and considering new dimensions of established institutional policies and procedures. The management and use of LMS can require developing new forms and lines of accountability and control, and considering dimensions of the interface between the academic and the administrative. Clearly, there is something so seductive about LMS that, despite their complexities and risks, almost every university seems compelled to have one. Access, cost and quality are three commonly given reasons for the contemporary importance of information technology to higher education and the paradigm shift in delivery modes that is underway (Daniel 2003). It is possible to isolate far more specific drivers, however, which have enhanced the attractiveness of the systems to universities and driven their rapid uptake. First, LMS suggest a means of increasing the efficiency of teaching. They offer institutions a means for delivering large-scale resource based learning programmes. They help to facilitate flexible course delivery, the identification and use of resources, communication and conferencing, activities and assessments, collaborative work, and student management and support (Ryan, Scott, Freeman & Patel 2000). More general claims are often made that LMS will bring new efficiencies to teaching. Despite the large upfront capital investments required, universities are attracted by opportunities to reduce course management overheads, reduce physical space demands, enhance knowledge management, unify fragmented information technology initiatives within institutions, expedite information access, set auditable standards for course design and delivery and improve quality assurance procedures (Bates 1995; Brown 2001; Dutton & Loader 24 HAMISH COATES ET AL. 2002; Johnstone 1995; Katz 2003; King 2001; McCann Christmass, Nicholson & Stuparich 1998; Turoff 1997; van Dusen 1997). It is also often argued that LMS will offer universities new economies of scale, although it is still too early to confirm such claims. Second, the attractiveness of LMS is associated with the promise of enriched student learning. These systems, and online learning in general, are seen to reinforce and enhance a diverse suite of constructivist pedagogics (Gillani 2000; Jonassen 1995; Jonassen & Land 2000; Relan & Gillani 1996). Constructivist theorists contend, for instance, that online modes can enrich learning by allowing students to access a greater range of resources and materials. It is further argued that internet technologies can be used to make course contents more cognitively accessible to individual learners by allowing them to interact with diverse, dynamic, associative and ready-to-hand knowledge networks. LMS may also enrich learning by providing automated and adaptive formative assessment which can be individually initiated and administered. Third, universities are also driven by new student expectations. It is possible that student expectations for advanced technologies are increasing almost as quickly as the technologies are developing. Green and Gilbert (1995: 12) write that growing numbers of college-bound students come to campus with computer skills and technology expectations. Frand (2000) further argues that contemporary students have an information-age mindset, and that these skills and expectations are tacit and profound. In the increasingly competitive higher education marketplace in which students are increasingly perceived as some type of client (Gilbert, 2001), these expectations need to be matched or exceeded. It is increasingly expected that institutions embrace leading-edge technologies. Green and Gilbert (1995: 12) write that The old competitive reference points describing information resources that used to distinguish between institutions the numbers of science labs and library books are being replaced by a new one: information resources and tools available to students. This brings us to the fourth point. Put simply, competitive pressure between institutions has been a driver behind the adoption of LMS, at least in Australia. Predictably, traditionally distance-learning orientated institutions have embraced new generation technologies and opportunities to reconfigure and expand their programmes (Garrison & Anderson 2003). But more traditionally campus-based teaching institutions have also seen the adoption of new technologies as EFFECTS OF LEARNING MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS 25 necessary for developing the campus environment. The University of Melbourne Strategic Plan, for instance, asserts that despite the magic of the campus... for the campus-based university to survive, the campus experience will have to capture all the pedagogical richness of the new teaching and learning technologies and modalities (University of Melbourne 2001). Almost regardless of their history or strategic direction, institutions have seen LMS as a means of leveraging the internet to offer some kind of competitive advantage. Universities are being forced to offer the best of both worlds, real and virtual. Fifth, LMS are sometimes proposed as a key means of responding to massive and increasing demands for greater access to higher education, though we are doubtful about the extent to which this is a serious influence at the institutional level. The development of virtual places for learning has been regularly heralded as a key means of overcoming access limitations caused by the lack of physical infrastructure. Perhaps more significantly, however, LMS have also been identified as a means of qualitatively reforming higher education so that it can most effectively confront new types of demand. Analysts contend that without substantial change, traditionally structured universities will be unable to deal with a new era in which they no longer monopolise the provision and certification of tertiary education (Daniel 1998; Dearing 1997; Gilbert 2001; Hanna 1998; Johnstone 1995; Moe 2002). Contemporary learning technologies, and LMS in particular, are placed at the heart of these calls for renewal. Finally, and not least, LMS are part of an important culture shift taking place in teaching and learning in higher education. LMS offer universities a hitherto undreamt-of capacity to control and regulate teaching. From a managerial perspective, the disorder associated with academic independence and autonomy in the teaching and learning process can appear chaotic and anarchic. The management and leadership of academic communities requires, correspondingly, a high tolerance of uncertainty, but such tolerance is in increasingly short supply in an era of attention to quality assurance and control. LMS may appear to offer a means of regulating and packaging pedagogical activities by offering templates that assure order and neatness, and facilitate the control of quality. The perceived order created in teaching and learning by LMS is, we suspect, one of the more persuasive reasons for their rapid uptake. 26 HAMISH COATES ET AL. THE EDUCATIONAL ISSUES There is limited educational research into the pedagogical impact of LMS. In efforts to identify salient topics for research, there has been an explosion of small-scale, localised and descriptive case studies looking at the effects of information and communication technologies in teaching and learning (Kezar 2000; Merisotis & Phipps 1999). These studies typically focus on the use of specific technologies in particular classes or subjects (Flowers Pascarella & Pierson 2000; Kuh & Hu 2001; Kuh & Vesper 2001). With technological and economic factors often the primary drivers behind the adoption of the technologies, researchers have frequently produced post hoc observations and explanations of their pedagogical qualities. Despite considerable practical impact and much exploratory attention in the research literature, therefore, researchers are only just beginning to identify the underpinning practical and theoretical issues. With this context in mind, we will examine four general issues related to Learning Management Systems. The influence of Learning Management Systems on teaching and learning Analyses of LMS in undergraduate programmes often devote attention to economic and technical issues. Such research tends to reduce the analysis of LMS to an examination of the deficits they eliminate in current pedagogical practices, or to the institutional efficiencies they claim to offer. LMS are primarily tools for teaching and learning, however, and it is essential that discussions about LMS are informed by pedagogical considerations. On paper, LMS are described as supporting an extensive range of teaching and learning activities. It appears that features which enable access to learning resources, communication between staff and students, conferencing, interactive multimedia, personal bookmarking and note taking can well support the discursive interactions underpinning individual students learning (Britain & Liber 1999; Laurillard 2002). A recurrent message arising from the study of educational technologies, however, is that it is not the provision of features but their uptake and use that really determines their educational value. It seems that, to this point, LMS have been largely based on training-type models, even though many have emerged from universities. Used in their most utilitarian form, it could be argued that EFFECTS OF LEARNING MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS 27 LMS are based on an overly simplistic understanding of the relationship between teachers, knowledge and student learning. In-built functions may not encourage awareness of or experimentation with sophisticated pedagogical practices. Indeed, the textual nature of the internet may reinforce conceptions of teaching as the transmission of decontextualised and discrete pieces of information. It has been argued that the flexibility and nuance essential to effective teaching can be compromised once pedagogy i
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