Navigating Learning Management Systems (LMSs)

Updated article originally published May 3, 2016.

In university course management, the learning management system (LMS) or virtual learning environment (VLE) has become a centralized hub for all matters pertaining to the class, whether for in-person or remote learning. The syllabus, assessment instructions, submission portals, evaluations, grades, and course announcements all exist primarily on the LMS. While the centralization of core management dynamics onto one platform is hugely beneficial, the complexity of course delivery via an LMS can lead to headaches. However, adhering to a set of basic principles can ensure a stress-free LMS course presence.

LMS Organizational Techniques

Given the breadth of material stored in one place, the actual structure and placement of information is significant. Every LMS–Brightspace, Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas, among others–is different. These differences mean that what can be done organizationally varies, but the same general approach applies: create and apply a consistent organizational strategy.

A guide created by the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Queen’s University, provides a solid foundation for thinking through course organization.

Questions to ask Before Organizing Your LMS

Prior to developing the organizational strategy, instructors should define the course makeup. Is the course built on synchronous classes, or does it operate as an asynchronous classroom? What structure governs the material? Of the many choices, some popular models are:

  • Pyramid – Content and skills are sequentially built in an attempt to reach a specific peak at the end of the course.
  • Module – Content is self-contained within sections, and the order is not important.
  • Spiral – Content is sequential, but earlier sections are revisited later in the course—to view from a different perspective.

While all are popular and many more exist, the most likely structure in higher education is the module design.

Once instructors recognize and define these aspects, they can select an organizational strategy by determining a plan for how the course design will be delivered, including: by week, by module, by skill, and by topic. For example, it may make sense to organize a weekly synchronous module course into 13 weeks with 4 modules. Whereas, an asynchronous pyramid course could, reasonably, be arranged by skill.

Resources to Consider When Developing LMS Organizational Scheme

Beyond organizational strategy, instructors need to consider allocation of course resources. Always be clear about which course aspects will be placed in what area of the LMS. Focus on consistency: pick one organizational scheme, and stick to it.

Course Readings and Materials

Course materials can be placed in the week, module, or skill. Or they can be placed in a separate section altogether. While the organization of these resources can seem straightforward, organizational structures can become complicated when library systems are integrated. This complication arises because links to library-supported resources typically force the user off the LMS. However, ensuring you are clear and consistent about where materials may be obtained is what remains essential.

Assessment Descriptions

Since assignments occur throughout the term, instructors often question where to place documents that detail assessment instructions. Commonly, assessment instructions are placed solely on the submission page, on a specific subsection of the LMS, or within the module during which it is due. Each of these options represents logical placement of instructions, so consistency remains the key.

Assessment Submissions

Where and how to submit an assessment is perhaps the most important facet of the LMS organizational design. Some options include submitting in a specific assessment tab, submitting in the specific module, submitting via a course calendar, or submitting through an LMS-integrated external platform—like Crowdmark.

When thinking about submission approaches, keep technical failure and platform capabilities in mind. Have a backup plan listed for students to use in case the submission portal fails. Email or an external dropbox, for instance, may be viable backup options. No matter what primary and backup mechanisms you choose, you will need to understand and communicate the submission limits (file size, file format, late submissions, etc.) of submission platforms.

LMS Course Dissemination

Beyond organization, the main aspect of effective LMS usage is communication. Developing a specific communication strategy alongside your LMS organizational strategy will ensure the platform is being used optimally to manage your course. Again, while every LMS is different, there are a few core concepts that can be addressed with every platform.

The dissemination of course announcements is typically the primary communication need within an LMS. These announcements may include scheduling notes, upcoming deadlines, syllabus changes, housekeeping items, and university news. To decrease the likelihood of students missing announcements because they were unaware of where to find them, it is crucial to pick one specific way for announcements to be delivered to students:

The most clear option is the announcement feature on the LMS. All major LMSs offer this functionality, which notifies students when an announcement is posted. Messages are then clearly archived, and easy to refer back to at later dates.

Alternatively, some instructors prefer to make announcements via mass email. This method allows for a higher level of awareness since students may check their email more often than the LMS. Keep in mind, though, that email announcements can become messy when referring back to previous announcements, and emails may get lost in inboxes.

Building a Tidy and Communicative LMS

While organization can seem like a difficult aim, the principle of consistency can provide a greater sense of ease for all involved. Further, making full use of communicative features and ensuring all course material locations are articulated with clarity significantly reduces stress in the long term.

Learning is complicated enough, so taking the organizational and communicative steps that make for a high-functioning LMS is a worthwhile endeavor for effective teaching and learning.

Interested in more organizational and communication strategies?