Virtual classrooms took on particular importance to teachers and students with the quick pivot to remote teaching necessitated by the COVID pandemic. Even before that, however, virtual classrooms were being managed by school IT professionals and teachers were using them to extend their classrooms and enhance information sharing and interaction. Like other cloud-based infrastructure in schools, the learning management system (LMS) managed by school IT professionals are usually provided by a vendor as a service.
Learning management systems are used to recreate many classroom functions commonly found in face-to-face classrooms. Access to the classroom is restricted to those who are enrolled as teachers or students (or other roles) and different user have permissions appropriate for their role. For example, students can upload assignments or take tests, but cannot see others’ submissions or test attempts. While the exact features depend in the LMS that is used and how it is installed and configured (including what optional features are enabled), every LMS provides features to allow:
- Sharing information—Using an LMS teachers never have to worry about students saying “I lost the paper,” as they can log on to the LMS and get a new copy. In addition to word processing documents, multimedia presentations, audio, video, and portable document format (PDF) files, teacher can create pages with links, embedded media, and other items. The what you see is what you get (WYSIYG) hypertext markup language (html) editor available in browsers include equation and chemistry editors and other tools for sophisticated pages.
- Interact—Discussion boards, wiki, blogs, chat, and other tools for online interaction are available on LMS’s as well. These are used to replicate the information sharing and knowledge building that happens in face-to-face classrooms, although the asynchronous nature of some of these tools does change the dynamics of the interaction for student and teachers.
- Administer tests—One of the most useful tools in any LMS is the ability to create tests. Every LMS provides tools for teachers to create tests and add many different types of questions. For many teachers, the most useful are those that can be graded by the LMS (assuming, of course that the correct answers are accurately identified). Setting up online tests can be a very labor-intensive endeavor, as there can be significant individual data elements that must be input, but once the test is created, it can be shared, edited, remixed, and reused.
- Collect assignments—Digital drop boxes are also one of the most useful tools in an LMS. Using this tools, instructors define an assignments and create a digital drop box in which students can upload a file that contains their submission.
- Record grades—The gradebook in every LMS can record and display items from tests and assignments with grades associated (and grades can be automatically recorded for those items). Teachers can also add columns to the gradebook to record items that are done offline. Teachers can further organize the gradebook by assigning grade items to categories, setting weights to categories, adding calculated columns, and setting display conditions for items. Gradebooks are notoriously complicated, in many cases because the language used to describe the configuration is unfamiliar to teachers.
The selection of the LMS is made for several reasons. Google Classroom is the LMS associated with Google Workplaces. Because of the dominance of Google and the fact it is integrated into the productivity suite used by the teachers and students, many adopt it. Some teachers who have experience with a full operating systems find Google Classrooms to be too limited to accomplish much they want to do.
Full learning management systems include platforms such as Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, Desire 2 Learn, among many others. While Moodle is an open source platform, thus available at no cost, the work of provisioning a web server (either a physical server or a virtual server) and administering the server can pose an expensive that prohibits its selection.