What is the least worst LMS?


I admit it, I don’t like using the LMS. (The LMS is “learning management system” — the software that universities use for the online component of courses.) My campus is a Blackboard campus. I’m not a fan. Maybe that’s because I haven’t used it a lot.

In our LMS, simple tasks feel so cumbersome. Many features are downright counterintuitive. I feel like whatever I’m doing in the LMS, I have to be doing it wrong, because every little thing takes so long and involves so many menu clicks. My university has training sessions and staff to support us to learn how to be more efficient — and I haven’t made avail of these opportunities —  because my classes have been small enough that I haven’t needed to use the LMS deeply. And also I haven’t used clickers in a long while.

If you have a huge class, then I think the LMS might be unavoidable nowadays, and clearly can make things far more efficient, when it comes to written assignments, grades, quizzes, and such.

While I’m familiar with Blackboard,, the two other common options in the US seem to be Canvas and Moodle. While Blackboard and Canvas require the university to pay a subscription (and come with customer support), Moodle is free and open-source. So if your university has deep bench in the support educational technology department, this might be better and/or cheaper? But if your educational technology staff is stretched thin, then maybe paying for a service like Canvas or Blackboard is better?

What is your campus LMS? Have you used more than one system, and do you have a preference? What are things that the LMS does well, and what does it need to do better?

12 thoughts on “What is the least worst LMS?

  1. I have taught at schools which used eCommons, Blackboard, iLearn, and now Canvas.
    The version of eCommons I had to use was awful–very limited ability to do anything, incredibly slow, and cumbersome. I hated everything about it, especially once it inexplicably deleted all of my quiz questions. Blackboard and iLearn are very different from each other but I managed to bludgeon each into submission and now can do what I need to do with minimal angst. I’m in my first semester with Canvas and thought it would be a pretty easy transition from Blackboard, but it isn’t–the entire organization is different and it seems to operate with a different logic. Before the semester I watched hours of video trying to get started, and couldn’t manage to do so without taking a workshop during Flex Week. Canvas organizes everything by modules, but nowhere could I define what a module actually is. Turns out a module is a week. WHO KNEW? And why the hell couldn’t they just say so? By contrast, iLearn also organizes everything by week, but actually calls them weeks!

    I think the difficulty about all of these LMS is that they have so many features to appeal to every possible want or need, that it’s difficult to find the few aspects that I would actually use. I imagine they are indispensable for online classes, though. One universal feature that many of my teaching colleagues like is the online submission and grading of essays and assignments, as well as the plagiarism checks. I don’t want to read any more on a computer screen than I absolutely have to, and have zero interest in grading my students’ work online.

  2. I’ve taught with both Blackboard (including an online course) and Moodle and have no preference – they’re both perfectly fine and make my life much easier in a lot of ways. Particularly grading – the students really appreciate the online gradebook and it keeps me from fielding quite so many “what is my current grade” emails.

    I rely on the courseweb much more overall for my larger intro class, and it helps a lot with standardization across different sections (we can make one courseweb for the lab, for example, and clone it across all sections so that all students have access to identical resources; faculty take turns being the one who sets it up each semester). We use many of its functions – message boards, quizzing, assignment submission – to help manage the large class.

    For my upper-level classes, I mostly use it to share interesting resources (videos, papers, etc) that come up in class. I don’t know how many students follow up on those links, but I like being able to make them available in a central place.

  3. We’ve used Moodle forever and I”m now used to it. What I like: open source, lots of online support from other users. I think what I don’t like is the same thing you mentioned in the post, that everything is cumbersome involving many clicks. But over time and with each upgrade, Moodle has become easier and more intuitive. What I do like (and this is not Moodle-specific), is that I think using an LMS increases communication, security, and transparency. No pieces of paper to lose, no emailed assignments, no question as to whether something was turned in or turned in on time, and if it isn’t posted on Moodle, I didn’t say it. Everyone knows where to go to get instructions and guidelines. Since both students and faculty make mistakes, lose things, have attention blink on and off, or are absent for any of a number of reasons, using an LMS makes keeping track of all this easier. I also get far fewer complaints and questions about grades because it is never a surprise, students can see their grades on assignments instantly and see how they are doing in the course overall. As much as I grumble about the sometimes cumbersome interface and time to set things up, in the long run I think LMS in general are worth it.

  4. We use D2L – Desire to Learn. It’s a bit clunky, but it can do all kinds of stuff, as I keep discovering. For me for now it acts as a repository for course materials, a way to keep track of grades, a simple way to send an email or a message/news alert to everyone in the class, and a repository for student work that I can customize wrt to access, due dates, evaluations. I can share material from each previous course to the current version.
    Not sure how it measures up to the others.

    • My university uses D2L (Desire 2 Learn), whose stupidity starts with the cheesy name. It feels like it was designed by a committee that never spoke to each other and had never taught a college class. There was clearly no user testing on this product. I have had to make myself screenshot videos to remember how to do simple stuff like release grades to students. Every term I have to re-teach myself how to do this. It contributes to repetitive stress issues by requiring 3 click to do 1 task. It’s not intuitive. The UI is confusing and cluttered. No one in the business world would put up with terrible software like this.

      When I am teaching in the classroom I basically use it as a way to distribute materials and record grades. But I have taught fully online classes and in those cases, I think we have to ask ourselves a bunch of harder questions. One of the promises of online education is that “shy” students will feel empowered to speak in the magic space of the threaded discussion. But transferring the main medium of the course from spoken to written simply means that a different set of students don’t feel comfortable participating. In reality, I have to set “post by” dates and “respond by” dates if I want to generate any real interaction–or at least if I want to require interaction.

      Is posting and responding a meaningful replacement for classroom conversation? [All of the courses in my program are discussion-based rather than lecture-based].

      Is looking at student “participation” data online a meaningful way to judge student participation? (I can see whether they opened a document, how long they spent on the site, whether they marked other people’s posts as “read”).

      And why, when the site quantifies everything else, does it not give me simple metrics I need like word count? Arrrggh!

      I find fully online asynchronous classes to be rich in data I don’t need and poor in data I do need (like getting to know the students such that I know their names by the end of the term. It’s hard to nail down what it means to “get to know” someone, but in fully online classes, the students seem vague, distant, two dimensional).

      Then there are the social issues. At my university, tenured faculty often choose not to teach online, so these courses are pushed to adjunct faculty. People with institutional decision making power choose the software, but those people can also choose not to use it. People with no institutional decision making power are stuck with it.

  5. We use Moodle. As Elizabeth Braker mentions above, it has some definite positives (open source, responsive developers, evolving features, etc). I am definitely a “power user” of Moodle at my institution (and sometimes this means I discover bugs for our academic technologists!) and I use it for every aspect of my course: grading, distributing materials, having students hand things in, announcements, online discussions before class, calendar events, etc. It’s invaluable.

    That said, there are a couple of things giving me pause lately:
    1. It’s nearly impossible to share things with people outside my institution, which means if I want to share my course materials or structure with someone, I need to export the relevant pieces out of Moodle. It’s a major pain.
    2. More and more, my students turn things in on GitHub. I can set up assignments on GitHub. And my colleagues increasingly are using Piazza or Slack for answering student questions or holding online discussions before class. These are 2 of my major uses of Moodle. At what point do these tools cause me to abandon Moodle because i don’t need it anymore?

    (although I guess the answer to the second question is “not until I can figure out a way to have grades visible to students in a secure way and have everything automatically calculated for me so I don’t have to do it myself in Excel”.)

  6. I’m a low power user of Blackboard, but just for my one online course. I say “low power” because I was forced to use it for the things that there didn’t seem to be any other way of doing: making lecture videos available, along with distributing other course materials (notes, pdfs of readings) to students off-campus. That’s it. Assignments get turned in as emailed Word attachments, and I grade and comment on paper copies that I print out. Graded papers get snail-mailed back, and on-campus students pick up theirs from my office. (This is an upper-division course which has never had more than 14 students.)

    I’ve been happy with this level of technical unsophistication, and nobody has complained about it.

    But now I find that I’m getting a lot of pressure (based on comments in course evaluations) to use BB for my larger 2nd year class which has a conventional on-campus lecture + lab format. I make available pdfs of my lecture slides, and for years have just been putting them in a student-accessible folder available on our campus network. But the complaint is that this isn’t accessible from off-campus, so would I please use BB? So far I’ve balked, because it’s a lot more keystrokes just to put up one file at a time, compared to copying and pasting from my computer to the networked drive.

    Will I give in? My colleagues seem to think that resistance is futile.

  7. We use blackboard, which is quite easy for keeping a gradebook that students can access but cumbersome for most everything else. A couple of unmentioneds here are Google Classroom and Google sites, both of which I’m experimenting with for the first time. Google classroom is a management system of sorts. It doesn’t do much though. I thought it would be perfect for one activity I’m doing – in an intro course, students have two assignments each lecture, one due before (a simple vocabulary list that they make up) and one due after (a concept map of the lecture). Classroom is very easy for this, they simply share the doc with me. For the concept map, they do this freehand with colored pencils or whatever and snap a photo, then paste onto a google doc and share. Classroom keeps track of who turned in the assignment and if it was late, and I can grade it, comment on it, ask for a re-do, etc. Sites is not a management system but is pretty easy for students to create a lot of sophisticated content.

  8. I used Blackboard for 4 years at my previous institution, and began using Canvas this academic year when I switched to a new University. Canvas is new to everyone here – they used Moodle through last academic year. So, it was a great time for me to switch to a new LMS, because there is tons of support for the change. I like almost everything better about Canvas than Blackboard.
    A few perks:
    -when you make online quizzes ( I use untuned quizzes as homework assignments) you can create quantitative questions that self-grade! Saves me a ton of time!
    -students can self assign themselves to groups for assignments – if one student in the group submits the assignment, they can all see it’s been turned in. Better yet: they can all see your comments/feedback on said assignment, and you only enter the grade/fill out the rubric once and all students in the group can see it.
    -assignment rubrics are easy to make (although I wish you could adjust the formatting more) and use!
    Some things I miss about Blackboard:
    -the TurnItIn plagiarism detection software is better integrated and easier to use (this is actually a big deal!)
    -the “module” format of Canvas (cane you rename the modules? I haven’t figured it out, if so) that another poster commented on is super annoying. In Blackboard, you can name a module whatever you want.
    -in Blackboard, in the grade book you can click on an assignment and it gives you summary statistics (mean, std deviation, max, and min). In Canvas, no standard deviation. More importantly: in Blackboard you can create a histogram of grade distribution. I would always display these in lecture after exams. In Canvas, there is no such tool. I have to export data to excel and create a histogram myself. This is a pain!

    Overall, I’ve been very pleased with Canvas, and the producers seem to constantly be making improvements. For example, their rubric creation tool has improved a lot between August and December 2017. I’m a fan of Canvas and it can save me a lot of time, particularly in larger classes.

    • *untimed quizzes as homework assignments. Easier to proof read on a computer than smart phone. Apologies!

  9. I teach at a school that’s in the second year of using Canvas, and used Moodle before that. (Which I’d also used in a previous job quite a few years back.)

    For me, as a power-user in a STEM field who is willing to read documentation and who has a decent background in computer science, Moodle was a much better fit for my needs and preferences. Almost everyone else where I work likes Canvas better. (One or two of my students still complain about the change, but it’s not common.)

    Canvas is “friendlier” but lacks a lot of power-user features. It’s much easier to figure out how to get started in Canvas by just clicking around for a while, but you run into the limitations of the system sooner too. (Particularly with quizzes, which have a wide variety of annoying limitations and oversights that Moodle did not have.)

    Canvas feels like it was designed by students, with weird oversights that you wouldn’t expect if you’d taught for a while before writing it. Moodle felt like it was built by a computer science department. Neither is ideal, since a system really does need to both support student and teacher needs, but those are where each seemed to me to have their shortcomings located.

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