How to Use a Learning Management System to Put Your Class Online
This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com.
Moving your class online can be intimidating and take some creativity. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Bethanie Hansen gives you a tour of the main spaces in a learning management system and some basic ideas for the types of content you might use and how it can improve the course delivery as well as enhance student learning.
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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.
If you’ve taught classes before, but they were live face-to-face classes, moving your class online might seem like a heavy lift. But it doesn’t have to be. In the previous episode of the Online Teaching Lounge podcast, I shared a basic overview about online education to give you a foundation. And today, I’ll walk you through the concept of a learning management system.
If you use one, it will give you an organized space to put different kinds of materials and activities that will build out your class. And in today’s world with widely available internet, teaching online is becoming so much more common. There are many learning management systems you can choose from.
Throughout the podcast, I’ll just call these learning management systems the LMS for short. You might hear terms like learning management system (LMS), course delivery system (CDS), and course management system (CMS) used interchangeably by people in the online education industry, but these all refer to the same kinds of systems.
As of today when I’m recording this podcast, there are more than 200 different free, subscription-based, and sales-based LMS’s currently available to host online courses in business, training, and education. Can you believe that?
Here are some common brand names you might have heard of, of educational LMS’s: Blackboard, Moodle, Schoology, Canvas, D2L Brightspace, Sakai. If you are an independent educator not teaching for a school system or college, you might be using a commercial LMS like Kajabi, Teachable, Thinkific, Adobe Captivate Prime, or Learndash. There are so many, that we can’t talk about all of them right now or get very specific about just one LMS, I’m going to be general but I will go through their basic parts.
Whatever your LMS, the system will function as the main program or software application where you will deliver your class. You’ll keep the lessons there, assignments, and other documentation, and administer the session in terms of attendance, tracking performance of your students, and submitting grades. To accomplish all of these teaching and course design tasks, there are several different spaces in the LMS.
Understanding Each Space of a LMS
There is usually a home page for the course, where you can welcome students and identify the name of the class. You might also have a few other items available on the course home page, like an assignment calendar, an introduction to you as the teacher, and course announcements. And somewhere in the online classroom space, there will be a menu or tabs to click, leading to designated areas that deliver lesson curriculum, host the interaction—like a chat, instant message tools, discussions, and things like that—and accept and retrieve assessments.
The spaces within an LMS each serve a purpose and they help keep things organized for you as the instructor and for your students. These spaces typically include labels like lessons or content, assignments, discussions, blogs, wikis, journals, announcements, tests, quizzes, exams, grade book, progress or statistics, and other editing or reporting features.
As technology continues to develop every day, many LMS’s are now including mobile apps for smart phones and other portable devices, diverse content options, creation tools, customizable learning paths, adaptive learning, badging, assessment variety—like polls, surveys, and traditional quizzes—discussion forums, and new types of reports or dashboards.
Each space, or page, in the LMS has a purpose. And that depends on what it is intended to do. Although each LMS might be a little bit different, these spaces have the same general purpose from one LMS to the next. As I talk about them in with you today, think about the potential uses of these spaces for your own class.
I’ll give you just one example right here. Discussion spaces are designed to allow students and their instructors to post their own responses, reply to others, view entire threaded conversations, and also share linked or embedded content. The discussion forum would be a great place for students to practice using terminology that they are being taught in the class for the subject matter. And they can also apply concepts to their real lives and share ideas, respond to others about their thoughts and ideas, and feel out their general understandings as conversations unfold.
Discussion areas can be particularly useful spaces to give your students the opportunity to practice using new terms and share their formative ideas while they’re being guided and assisted by others, and to expect that these ideas might become more refined through the process of discussion, as they keep talking and posting about these ideas with other people during the class.
I’m going to dive into each of these spaces one at a time and give you a general idea of what you can do with them. I hope this will help you design your class, as you move your live class into the online format. Let’s start with the lessons area.
Using the Lessons Section
The Lessons area is one of the main sections of the classroom and one where students will spend a lot of time. It might also be the space that takes the most time and consideration to build. Most people would consider this a replacement of the live lecture. And that can be one way to use it, if you want to record a video of yourself teaching your students as if they are sitting in the same room with you. And then, you can post that video in the classroom.
While you can do that, and it would be the easiest way to convert your live class into an online version, the lessons section of your LMS can contain all kinds of content like videos, interactive media, links, typed content, images, and other items.
Your goal in the lessons area might be to introduce the subject for the week, give background information on various topics, provide reading selections or links to the online textbook for your students, engage their interest through media and interaction, and wrap up your lesson with a closing summary of the key points.
The lessons section can be vibrant, engaging, interactive, and full of information. Or, the lessons section can be brief and simply include a list of readings and other activities the student should complete and your video.
Whatever you choose to include, remember that when you’re using an LMS and teaching online, you can load up lots of engaging content that actually provides the instruction for the week, as well as opportunities for self-directed learning and exploration. This kind of choice and autonomy is especially important if you have adult learners.
The lessons section does not have to be a substitute for the weekly readings if you are also using a textbook and other materials for the class. Instead, think of it like the guidance and interpretation an instructor would normally provide to help students truly understand the topics.
In my area, teaching music appreciation courses, many students come to the class with little or no background knowledge in music. Other students, particularly those who participated in music during high school or other public schooling years, may have some cursory knowledge of music and music terms.
Because there are so many people with low to no background knowledge in music today, the lessons area is a great place to introduce new terms every week, and give interpretation of the lesson topics within the frame of music concepts. There is a lot we have to include there, to guide students effectively.
The announcements section in any online course is also a place of importance, because it presents instructor information about the ongoing class to students, an overview of weekly goals, and a summary of items to be submitted. This area can be updated once per week or more frequently.
Announcements might contain information such as a brief overview of the topic, a list of items due at the end of the week, and reminders. This section is for all of the messages that are to be publicly provided to everyone in the class. Announcement posts may have the option of sending a copy out to participants’ email addresses, which ensures that students receive updated information promptly.
The assignment section is another space common to most online LMS’s. Here, the actual work to be submitted for grading is described, with some kind of dropbox available to collect the completed work. This section can usually be set with open and closing dates so that assignments appear to students, accept submissions, and lock at the end of a given period.
If the LMS offers the option of linking assignments to the calendar, students can receive reminders about upcoming or missed due dates. In the assignment section, it is common for course designers or instructors to provide model assignments to students, documents that provide sample formatting like APA or MLA style, and other assets that may guide the student in how the work should be completed.
Anything you can do to give them an idea of what it’s going to look like when it’s done, that is going to reassure them. Because the course is entirely online and students do not have the option of asking multiple questions about the assignments in real time, the assignment section typically needs a lot of description and detail, so students can complete the work in a satisfactory manner.
Believe me, I’ve been there where students have misunderstood the assignment. And I’ll get 25 essays where students have all missed the mark. That takes a lot of time to fix.
In the assignment area, if the option is available, instructors may choose to have work scanned through a plagiarism or originality checker such as Bibme, Turnitin, or SafeAssign. Using plagiarism detecting tools or programs enables the instructor to address writing concerns quickly, and it reminds students to write in their own words as much as possible, potentially improving the originality of submitted work.
Discussions are another space common to online course LMS’s, and this area is typically where most of the interaction between participants occurs. Discussions begin with a description of what is to be discussed, requirements of when initial posts and replies to others are to be posted, and some indication of how participation will be evaluated.
In the discussions area, most participants begin their involvement in the discussion by posting an initial thread to the forum. Once a thread is posted, those who reply to that post are linked underneath the initial post. In this way, Posts that are all about the same subject or to the same initial post are linked together in a threaded chain. Everyone who visits the discussion may be able to see the conversation that has unfolded, and separate conversations that are also occurring.
Often, because there isn’t a central location to discuss course related questions or other matters, instructors post a “questions” thread within a discussion area so students can separately ask questions about course deadlines, content, and other matters aside from the actual discussion topic for the week. Discussion forum areas within a learning management system typically have private spaces for grading comments and scoring, and these can be linked to a gradebook to reflect ongoing course grades.
Many people consider the discussion forum area of an online course the equivalent of the live, face to face interaction, that might otherwise occur in a live class in a traditional Setting. An asynchronous conversation, of course, is not exactly the same as a live conversation that would take place in a traditional classroom setting.
Asynchronous discussions are like many conversations taking place at the same time. Some conversations may be missed, and no one could possibly hear every conversation taking place in a live classroom, if group dialogs were simultaneously occurring in this manner. However, in the online classroom, most instructors are expected to read the entire conversation under every single thread that has taken place, especially prior to grading the work.
Within a live classroom, an instructor might not hear or respond to every single comment a student provides. In fact, many conversations occur, especially during group work, that an instructor does not hear and is not part of.
One other difference about discussion forums online is that students and instructors both can post interactive or multimedia content, which might not otherwise be used in a live setting. For example, form discussions have the advantage of being able to host YouTube links, presentations, and virtually anything that is available online or in a presentation format. This can enhance discussions in ways that typical live exchanges may not be enhanced in a normal classroom setting.
The gradebook is one section of the online learning classroom not always considered but vitally important to the management of the course. Many online LMS’s have gradebook sections that can be set up either by points or by weighted percentages. Here, the forum discussions are linked into the gradebook, the assignments are linked into the gradebook, and other categories may also be added. Scores and evaluative comments are published to students as soon as grades are available, so that students are aware at all times of how they are performing in the class. Most LMS’s still require some vigilance on the part of the instructor to double check categories, assignments, and the student view, to ensure that assignments not submitted on time receive a zero, and that the student’s grade book is kept up-to-date at any given point during the class.
Other Sections in the LMS
The lessons section, announcements, assignments, discussion forums, and gradebook are the basic structure available in most LMS’s today. Some LMS provide the option of additional tools, such as blogs, wikis, journals, and other text environment areas. Some LMS’s may also provide a space for listing multimedia content, posting web links within the course itself, or other features.
As an instructor moves to the online format, getting to know the online classroom space is vitally important in order to use it effectively. Although one can reach out to technical support at most colleges and universities for assistance in resolving conflicts within the online classroom, being able to diagnose problems within the course is critical before the course begins.
In contrast to a live class, where lessons can be fleshed out more fully as the course unfolds, an online course is typically expected to be completely set up prior to day one of the class.
Things to Know About Observers
In addition to all the areas described here that exist in most LMS’s, one interesting factor is that all actions to take place within the class are observable and “on the record.” Reports can be drawn based on these activities, such as attendance by the student and the instructor, comments made, assignments submitted, and so forth.
Students are able to see when others are actually in the online course, and so can the instructor or other observers.
In contrast to live courses, where the instructor is generally the only university employee in the room with students during a class, in the online setting, there may be many other observers stopping by the class at any given point.
Observers might include technical support teams, supervisors, faculty coaches, academic appeals departments, and other team members at the institution. Some institutions treat the online course environment similarly to the live setting, giving the instructor complete autonomy and intervening little.
Other universities are quite hands-on, and may be in the space with the instructor much more, observing often, and also producing standardized courses with little to be changed by individual instructors. These differences come from a variety of factors, but it can be helpful to be aware that they exist.
Keep it Simple When Just Starting Out
As you work to move a class into an LMS and take your teaching online, I hope you will fully explore each of these spaces available. Get creative, and let the LMS support the new and interesting things you can do which were not available in a live face to face class. And when you’re finished planning out where you will conduct each activity, and what you need to add in each section of the LMS for a strong learning experience, look for a setting that allows you to see the class in student mode—so that you know whether everything is working and can be seen by your students.
And of course, once you launch the class and you’re teaching it, be as prompt as possible to fix any errors or misalignment in the class, so that your students have a good experience and can accomplish what you expect from them.
Above all, if you’re completely new at this, take it one step at a time. Don’t expect yourself to build an amazing course with lots of bells and whistles from the very first day. Keep it simple, and add more as you feel comfortable doing it, until you’ve developed your class online in the way you would like. Over time, you’ll get better and better at using the LMS.
Thank you for joining me today to walk through the main spaces of an online classroom and think about your own course online. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching!
This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.