Published on 2014/01/30
—Co-written with Mariann Hawken | Instructional Technologist, Bowie State University—

Navigating the Waves: Curtailing Fear while Managing the LMS Migration
Ensuring faculty are intimately involved with the adoption of new major technologies will support a smooth implementation and transition.

Most online faculty and students expect to teach and learn through a fully featured Learning Management System (LMS). In the last 10 years, the LMS market has grown significantly, offering a wide spectrum of functionalities and business models for their products . [1] Rising costs and the demand for evolving technologies prompt many institutions to explore new systems while also seeking to ensure minimal disruption for students and staff.[2] The decision to migrate to a new LMS is not one to take lightly, but once it’s made, institutions need to consider policies and procedures, content copyright and conversion, training and support and curriculum and instruction to ensure the overall success of the project.

The administration’s focus on the LMS transition process often differs from the perspectives of faculty and students. LMS cost structures can be complex, involving the selection of an array of software modules, features, hosting models, licenses, copyright, maintenance and support. Reigning in costs and curtailing complexity are often driving forces behind administrative decisions surrounding the selection and deployment of a new LMS.[3],[4] Institutions often find themselves trying to avoid future work pressures associate with migration, because they now understand that LMS transitions will be more often and frequent because of evolving products and e-learning trends.

LMS transitions reveal a range of issues, some unconsidered before or not recently reviewed by the institution, many depending on stale policies that require a new perspective given changes in the technology landscape and the business models adopted. Adoption of processes and procedures to automate content conversion rarely produce an adequate course structure. Smooth import functions are rarely available, and content might need to be redeveloped. Faculty (especially part-time) are therefore pressured to work beyond their contractual duties because they are faced with a final course in the new system that does not reflect the flow and the instructional design initially envisioned.

One important concern is about the pace and process of moving courses to the new system. Technical aspects require extensive planning for hosting, content management, user accounts, course shells, enrollment processing, authentication, third-party plugins and policies for data retention or access. In most cases, a phased approach and streamlined strategies are needed to deal with the variety of users being trained.[5] Simulation, proof of concept and pilots are all necessary to clean out bugs, address integration with remaining legacy systems and resolve unexpected software side effects when implemented within a different overall system.

In an LMS transition, users need time to adapt to the system, especially faculty who also need to understand many of the set-up functions.[6],[7] Vendors may provide or license documentation, how-to guides and videos. Yet resistance is to be expected because change is messy and unknown. Therefore, training and support resources, both online and in person, are vital to the success of a migration project. Although extended support hours for users may be a financial challenge, creative and strategic planning — especially during peak periods when the new LMS goes live and during very active periods such as the start of term — ensures satisfied users.[8]

Transition might be perceived, experienced and even communicated as a massive and threatening undertaking. There is a risk that within more complex LMSs, errors can represent major damage — in some cases irreversible. The level of fear, however, has the potential of generating unwanted results. On one side, stakeholders might become even more fearful of the change and scale their resistance up. On the other hand, leadership might feel weary and take a path of increased regulation through policies and procedures with the intent of avoiding mistakes. This may lead to a project management structure that is intensively hierarchical, pushing faculty to the sidelines. This increases resistance and moves the focus from achieving quality instruction to one of facilitating administration alone. A successful transition to a new LMS requires communication and support. End users must be frequently updated throughout the process using a wide range of communication formats. The strength of change management strategies during an LMS migration ensures end users are informed, prepared and excited, rather than overwhelmed and apprehensive, about a major system change. An IT unit may be responsible for the technical aspects of the system implementation, but soliciting frequent feedback, either through surveys or an advisory team, demonstrates to faculty that their voices and teaching strategies matter. Training and orientations may be required and targeted to faculty as well as students.[9],[10]

The attempt to map and align the two learning environment spaces has led to an erroneous focus on ‘content,’ a dismissal of instructional design principles and an ineffective translation of content between systems. Thus, there is a possibility of a drastic effect over instructional quality. An attempt to find a one-size-fits-all solution might take away faculty creativity and personal investment in teaching, which can backfire in the long run. An institution may want to deploy a fixed template or apply tools and system policies across all courses and all users, yet this approach can be restrictive and frustrating, especially when implemented without explanation. Dismissing faculty input can generate courses with lost structures, directly affecting student perception and level of difficulty with the system. For quality purposes, it might be worthwhile giving faculty real experimentation with the system so they can capture the instructional design differences and be able to picture their courses delivered through the new system. Postponing the instructional design issue to another step in the future can be detrimental to the quality of courses and even add additional work and costs.

Recruiting faculty as champions and peer mentors will add a layer of support for the project and ensure effective change management.[11] Instead of critics and cynics, you will have cheerleaders and advocates. Navigating the challenges during a new LMS implementation might easily intimidate the most seasoned of administrators, technicians, instructors and course developers. However, a collaborative approach allows all stakeholders to take ownership and pride during in the migration process.

– – – – References

[1] Stella Porto, “The uncertain future of learning management systems,” The EvoLLLution, December 13, 2013. Accessed at http://www.evolllution.com/opinions/uncertain-future-learning-management-systems/.

[2] Susan Grajeck, “Top-Ten IT issues, 2013: Welcome to the Connected Age,” EDUCAUSE Review Online Vol. 48(3). May/June 2013. Accessed at http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/top-ten-it-issues-2013-welcome-connected-age

[3] Donna Pethridge and Diane Chapman, “Upgrading or replacing your learning management system: Implications for student support.” Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Vol. 10(1), Spring 2007. Accessed at http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/spring101/petherbridge101.htm

[4] Charles F Harrington, Scott A. Gordon, Timothy J, Schibik, “Course management systems utilization and implications for practice: A national survey of department chairpersons.” Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Vol. 7(4),Winter 2004. Accessed at http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/winter74/harrington74.htm

[5] Brandon White, and Johann Ari Larusson, “Strategic Directives for Learning Management System Planning.” EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR) Research Bulletin 19. 2010. Retrieved from https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERB1019.pdf

[6] Thomas G. Ryan, Mary Toye, Kyle Charron, and Gavin Park, “Learning management system migration: An analysis of stakeholder perspectives.” The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Vol. 13(1), 2012. Accessed at http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1126

[7] Kathy A. Smart, and Katrina A. Meyer, “Changing course management systems: Lessons learned.” EDUCAUSE Review Quarterly, January 1, 2005. Accessed at http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/changing-course-management-systems-lessons-learned

[8] Pethridge & Chaptman, 2007

[9] Ibid

[10] Smart & Meyer, 2005

[11] White & Larusson, 2010

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Readers Comments

Yvonne Laperriere 2014/01/30 at 10:12 am

Good summary of the key considerations to manage change more effectively. The most important is communication throughout the process, and it has to flow in two directions. Administrators should keep staff in the loop on implementation timelines, process changes and new/different expectations. But there should also be an opportunity for staff to respond, not only with the negative (resistance to change, fear of the unknown), but with feedback on how to improve implementation. They’re the ones who are using the new technology or following the new process, and they can give valuable information on how it fits into existing business practices and whether it’s working.

Glenda Cullen 2014/01/31 at 10:18 am

Large-scale technological change or migration puts administrators in a difficult position. On one hand, they have to be responsive to staff’s needs during the process but, on the other, they may have to make decisions or move at a pace that staff do not agree with. It’s a difficult balancing act and, having acted as a consultant for numerous administrators, I’ve seen that they rarely get it right.

That’s why — at the risk of self-promoting — I think it’s important for administrators to bring in external consultants to help manage the change process. At the same time, administrators should remain at the forefront of all communications with staff. Leaving all of change management to an external consultant also doesn’t tend to go over well with staff, who see that as a tactic administrators apply to force change or hide an issue.

    Stella Porto 2014/02/05 at 5:10 pm

    @Glenda –
    I think your point is important. Your second paragraph is on the mark. Admins often see consultants as an important value added in informing and managing the processes, but faculty might see that as outside intrusion, and will still have a perception that their opinions are not being considered. It is hard for consultants to quickly understand the culture and the waves of fear that are taking place in the institution. The balance that you propose, where consultants are not directly responsible for the communication is complex. People can quickly feel that their toes are being stepped on…
    –Stella.

Mariann Hawken 2014/02/01 at 4:54 pm

@Yvonne, absolutely! When my campus migrated to a new LMS, we set up an advisory team with students and faculty representatives who would bring information back to their departments and leadership. When the team met again, the faculty reps brought questions, concerns, and issues to discuss — or they’d raise them a lot earlier during the pilot and testing phases.

We kept this advisory team going even after the migration so we could keep our faculty informed and so we could better understand the needs and priorities of our core users. It’s been incredibly helpful for us.

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