Universities need better learning software

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Millions of teachers cuss out their computers every semester. Why? Their learning management software (LMS) crashes every week. They lose grades and sometimes entire assignments. Even on good days, the average LMS stalls and stalls like a hungover coworker. He’ll find that report he was supposed to write. Just give him a minute…

Think about how a slow, clunky LMS impacts the college experience. Uploading my syllabus can take upwards of 20 minutes. Sometimes the upload fails, and I have to start all over again.

Students spend so much time muddling through our course sites that they come to class tired and angry — at least more than they normally would. Teachers accuse them of missing work and stupid questions. They blame teachers back for poor organization. The real culprit always sneaks away unpunished, with loads of cash.

Collecting and organizing my course readings might take me an entire week of fits and starts with our LMS. When I’m done, it looks like shit. I have zero control over design, layout, or presentation.

Every visit to my course site becomes a trip to my parents’ house. Get in, get out, as fast as possible. Try your best not to break anything. Preferably under cover of night. It’s just that ugly and unpleasant.

In a perfect world, my course schedule would glide like a waterfall down a student’s screen, with little icons and images winking at them, guiding their experience. All my assignments, readings, and multimedia materials would lie a single click away. So rad. Uploading my materials would take minutes, and I could change them with a few clicks.

But we can’t seem to make that a reality.

You don’t believe me? Guess how long it took our LMS to introduce a simple drag-n-drop feature for file uploads.

Your time’s up.

I’ve worked in education for almost a decade. We didn’t see drag-n-drop until last year. So about ten years, that’s how long it took them. You couldn’t even upload multiple files. You had to upload them one-by-one.

Nobody knows how long it’ll take our current LMS to give us mobile apps that actually work. Sometime recently, they gloated about unveiling a smartphone and tablet app. But it doesn’t do anything except post updates and let you scroll the content. You can’t even use the mobile app to read student work or enter grades. So it’s an app in name only, for PR.

If the GOP wants to get angry at someone in higher education, they should target LMS designers and their salespeople. They drain us of tuition dollars and provide a sub-par product that costs even more time and resources to manage. They make everyone miserable.

Students suffer the most in this current landscape. Mine constantly complain about how many hours they spend navigating course websites, uploading assignments over and over again, and re-doing work that disappears during frequent glitches.

What a tragedy. Life doesn’t have to be this way for teachers and students. If universities would stop bending over for shitty LMS designers, we could actually do our jobs.

There’s more than one LMS. The problem is that a couple of them have monopolies on education right now. Entire university systems enter into contracts with them in order to “save money.” By doing so, they plunge almost every campus in a given state into an endless abyss of terror. What teacher hasn’t awoken from nightmares about their course site?

Sure, we can sneak around the official LMS and use alternative platforms. But that puts our jobs at risk. Anyone who doesn’t use the sanctioned LMS always worries about getting hacked, or somehow accidentally leaking confidential student information.

As much as we hate certain parts of our jobs, we ultimately like teaching. And we’d prefer not to get fired over something that stupid.

The most common LMS is by far the worst. I’ll try to avoid saying their name, so I don’t wind up in a defamation lawsuit. Let’s just call it SlackFord. Almost every single teacher I know hates this platform. It’s slow and clunky. The user interface looks like a throwback to 1997. Seriously, an hour in SlackFord makes me want to binge watch Friends.

If veteran teachers find the leading LMS options confusing, imagine what newbies think. Back when I started teaching, I had to attend a 2-hour workshop just to figure out the basics. Something simple like emailing your students requires 4–5 steps. God help you if you want to use it to collect assignments or grade papers.

It’s a sad state of affairs. Technology should make our lives easier. Instead, bad experiences with shitty LMS have encouraged many teachers to shuffle backwards in time. Great instructors who used to herald the age of technology now require hard copies of papers submitted to their mailboxes. A few still cling to hope, asking for students to email papers as attachments.

Thankfully, some of us have just discovered Google Classroom. This LMS actually makes some degree of sense. Easy to use. Intuitive. A contemporary interface that students can navigate.

The best part? It doesn’t crash.

You’re wondering how I found out about Google Classroom. Some high school teachers recommended it to me at a conference. That’s right, high schools have figured out a problem that colleges can’t seem to solve.

This year, some of us have finally gotten so fed up with our LMS that we’re making our own alternatives. I’ve been learning how to do more with site builder tools and Excel spreadsheets. After a few YouTube videos, I’ve figured out how to do everything that my current LMS does, in about half the time. The important point here? The public should know how much money state’s waste on bad learning platforms. Teachers should know that they can figure out workarounds that will save them time. Thank the gods for an open, neutral Internet that doesn’t privilege one LMS over another.

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She’s the funny one. jessica.wildfire.writer@gmail.com

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