Why do faculty use an LMS?

I think it’s the Gradebook. It’s the primary difference between a learning management system and many of the other tools helpful to teaching such as Box or Google docs or blogs or wikis. A platform like Sakai is quite a convenience for posting grades from electronic paper submissions, from quizzes, from forum postings, from almost any other gradeable student artifact (electronic or not), and securely displaying them to students. The Sakai Gradebook even does calculations for Instructors and provides histograms of grade distributions.

Sakai open source software

Sakai open source software

At last reckoning, March 2014, nearly 40% of Notre Dame instructors used Sakai in some fashion or other. They touch 80% of our undergrad students. More startling to me is the 60% of Notre Dame instructors who don’t use Sakai. Why they don’t use Sakai is probably due to many factors – not enough time to learn it, the perception that it will be daunting, perhaps even a failed attempt to grasp it, or not being aware of the people and resources to turn to when setting it up for the first time. But my bigger question is what are these Instructors using to keep their student grades?
I met an Instructor two years ago who showed me their ledger, the same style as an accounting ledger from an office supplier. All grades for all classes for each student they taught were neatly transcribed. It was elegant. It was permanent. It was accessible to the instructor. It was a tried and true method perfected through regular yearly use. I’m sure the instructor did not share this ledger with their students because it was not possible to see only one students’ grades; I don’t know if the instructor scheduled office appointments with each student for every grade to apprise each student. Surely not… Did they use personal emails to inform students of their grades?
More often though, I talk to instructors who keep grades in alternative electronic gradebooks. The most popular electronic gradebook is plain ole Microsoft Excel. Those who know Excel well have embedded formulas that automatically calculate students’ averages, provide stats, categorize Homework, Quizzes and Exams, and weight them appropriately to their syllabus. – Really, all the things the Sakai Gradebook does but without having to know Excel formulas. These instructors are in the same boat when it comes to regularly and frequently distributing grades to students. How do they do it? I don’t know.
As Notre Dame’s LMS administrator these past 10 years, I can remember when only the technologically adventurous used such platforms – yes, they wanted to easily distribute grades to students behind a secure login, but they also have been ever pushing the envelope of what they can do inside and outside the classroom through engaging students everywhere that students learn, including the Internet.
Today because of this one feature, the Gradebook, more faculty are simply using our LMS, Sakai, to make their grading processes more efficient. Maybe later they’ll find value in some of the other features, but for now, they just use the Gradebook. And because of this, we’re asking ourselves if we picked the right Gradebook. Does it do everything needed for the different ways instructors record grades?
The Gradebook we picked (GB2) does well if the items to be graded are all based on points or all based on percentages. It works with number grades, but not letter grades (except for a final grade). It allows instructors to create categories to weight like Assignments, Projects, and Exams. But recent criticism suggests faculty want more. Not all faculty want points converted to percentages for students. Faculty want their excel spreadsheet imports to do more – to upload comments or letter grades, in other words, non-numeric data not used by our chosen Gradebook for calculations. They want more flexibility in what they display to students. Some want to only display the running course grade (based on work completed to date) but not the percentage it represents – because they will grade on a curve at the end of the term.
Some faculty who do use other Sakai tools love that they can collect electronic submissions, grade them electronically and return both the marked up submission (such as a word doc or spreadsheet) and the grade for it, all within Sakai. Others have built multiple choice quizzes that are automatically graded by Sakai and serve to let students know how well they’re doing on reading or homework.

  • If you have general comments or feedback on Sakai and/or on the Sakai Gradebook, or if you’ve found particular Internet tools helpful, we’d love to hear from you at Sakai_Team@nd.edu . Meanwhile, if you’re exploring tools for the fall, here are a couple of excellent resources to stimulate your thought:
  • NspireD2 “Explore new ways to integrate technology into teaching & learning.” You’ll find this blog at https://ltlatnd.wordpress.com – great tips and reviews by the Kaneb Center’s Chris Clark and others.
  • Why not talk through your course with the Kaneb Center for their direct recommendations? Consultations can be scheduled online at http://learning.nd.edu .
  • Have you seen the site yet for Notre Dame’s Office of Digital Learning? It’s already a great resource. Check out http://online.nd.edu
  • If you already use Sakai, or have a question specific to it, our site is http://sakai.nd.edu


2 responses to “Why do faculty use an LMS?

  1. A couple of observations and comments having worked down there on the front lines:

    * A lot of people don’t use it because they do the cost benefit analysis and don’t think that the benefits outweigh the costs, at least in the short term. They obviously have an established process. Maybe it’s emailing students stuff. Maybe it’s using Box. Maybe it’s using paper handouts. On this topic, I think the lack of easy multiple file uploads is a huge issue. If they could drag a bunch of files to a folder or browser window and be done in 30 seconds, that would be a huge benefit. The process is tedious. Remove friction whenever possible and adoption will go up. Box, Google Docs, Google Sites, CourseWare all have this feature.

    * Regarding Excel and the gradebook, Excel gives them control and familiarity. They know how to do anything and everything without learning anything new and they have complete control over their data. They know how to change the possible total from 100 to 95 because they threw out question 5 because it was poorly worded. They can easily change the ranges for the grades or choose to grade on a curve. The letter grades are also a big deal.

    * I know I helped a lot of faculty upload grades to Blackboard and Sakai just so they could distribute them to students and/or get them into the registrar’s system without manually entering every single student. I suspect that a lot of faculty do just that though. Enter it in the system provided and that they have to use. (Could you find out which faculty manually enter grades using Banner rather than pulling from Sakai and then ask them?)

    * One other thing I ran into: Some faculty don’t want to learn the system because they think it will be changed in a few years anyway. 7 years minimum seems to be the expectation for a system to stay around. I think they need to see it in use for 2-3 before they feel like it will stick. Then they may give it a chance.

    People will only learn new things in a few situations:
    1- They see the tangible and immediate benefit.
    2 – They’re forced to do so.
    3 – They find it fun or interesting.

    2 and 3 don’t apply. 1 is only changed by lowering the barrier to entry to forming relationships with faculty where you can explain the benefits or help them.

  2. Uploading multiple files in Sakai… Yes, the one time instructions for creating that necessary WebDAV connection are daunting. And for so long on Windows the thing broke constantly anyway. Some people embed Box into Sakai and use that instead of the native “resources” tool.
    I completely agree with your assessment that getting value out of an LMS relies on lowering barriers and building relationships with faculty. To do both there need to be more of ‘us’.

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