Blog Post

The Search for a New Learning Management System

We use ANGEL at my college and I’m not happy about it.  I bet you’re not happy with your Learning Management System (LMS), either.   I don’t need to give you my list of grievances, but I’m going to anyway:

·         When I log-in to ANGEL, there’s a ‘What’s New’ panel that shows you what is new (e.g., any new posts by students) since the last time you logged in.  This is nice, except they won’t appear in the list the next time you log-in.  What ANGEL really needs is a ‘What’s unread’ panel that lists everything that is still unread, regardless of if it is new since the last time you logged in.  Or even better, it simply needs to list all of the activity (old or not) in a panel when you log in.

·         ANGEL is not very friendly with math.  My IT department even admitted it.  They told me that the best way to do anything with math in ANGEL is to use a pre-made, publisher-provided cartridge.  The problem is that the publisher of the textbook that my college uses doesn’t have any ANGEL resources.  After explaining this to my IT department several times, I simply gave up since they insisted that if I just called the publisher, that most publishers would have something available. Can you say, #Fail?  Although, I don’t know who’s the bigger failure – my IT department for not believing that I did my research on what my publisher provides and doesn’t provide before calling them or my publisher for not providing resources to go along with their textbooks.  In addition, this means I can’t use MAA’s WeBWorK, etc.  Remember, we are living in the 21st Century.

·         ANGEL is not an access-for-everyone platform.  In fact, it is so difficult to learn that my IT department requires students to complete an ANGEL orientation before they can even log-in to their courses for the first time.  If an LMS is so easily broken that students must complete an orientation before even being able to use the thing, then there is something wrong.  We are living in the year 2012, and we deserve to have an LMS that is intuitive to use and in which a person can choose to learn as little or as much about the LMS as they want to learn.

·         The ANGEL Gradebook sucks.  For example, I have a lot of students who miss the first class in which I give an in class assignment.  The ANGEL Gradebook has no easy way for me to exempt that student from the assignment.  I have a lot of special grading recipes, such as dropping a quiz only if another assignment has a grade higher than a specified assignment.  The ANGEL Gradebook cannot accommodate me.  I guess it’s a good thing that I’m a math teacher and that I know how to calculate my student’s grades by hand.  The major problem, though, is keeping students grades accurate throughout the semester when I know that ANGEL is showing my students incorrect grades.  On the positive side, a few students who should have dropped a class did drop when they saw a grade posted in ANGEL that was lower than their actual grade.

·         The ANGEL Communication system is broken.  If a student sends you an internal e-mail through ANGEL, you have to log-in to ANGEL to reply to that student’s internal e-mail.  First of all, it should be set-up so that if you reply to the notification, it would get sent back to the internal e-mail system.  Second of all, ANGEL is not mobile friendly, so you can’t access it easily on your iPad or other mobile device.  So, if a student sends you an internal e-mail, you have to take the time and effort to log back into ANGEL from an actual computer or laptop in order to respond to the student.

·         Students simply don’t like using ANGEL.  It just looks old and outdated.  And about 50% of my students don’t even know how to spell ANGEL.  They spell it A-N-G-L-E.

This brings me to today.  My college was considering switching to a new LMS, but recently decided to stay with ANGEL indefinitely.  I just wasn’t going to take it anymore.  I felt like I was in a trapped room being beaten by ANGEL.  This isn’t one of those friendly ANGELs with a halo like you might meet in heaven. 

Anyway, one day I was told about Instructure Canvas and the fact that instructors can sign-up for their own individual accounts for free.  I started using Canvas with my students during the summer semester and not only do I love it, but my students love it as well.  The majority of the problems that I listed above are no longer and there are other features available that I would have never dreamed of asking for.  For example:

·         The Recent Activity stream lists all of the new activity on the home screen as it comes in so that you don’t have to worry about checking a special panel every time you log-in.  In addition, the communication system is very friendly, as you can respond to discussion posts and internal e-mail all from the Recent Activity stream.

·         If you leave a grade blank, the Canvas Gradebook is smart enough to exempt that student from the assignment.  And the Gradebook knows how to weight grades properly.

·         There’s a Collaborations tab in Canvas in which EtherPad is already integrated with Canvas.  One day I had my students collaborate in class to make documents on resources for operations with integers, ordering of integers, etc.  At first my students didn’t understand the concept that they were all supposed to be working from separate computers simultaneously.  But after they started using EtherPad, they understood how it could be used as a very powerful tool.

·         The Equation Editor is so intuitive to use that I required my students to use it whenever they posted a mathematical expression or equation on the discussion board.  There were actually not any complaints once I showed the students where the Equation Editor is located.  The only problem was that I had to occasionally remind students that they needed to use the Equation Editor.  Having a pop-up window that asks, “Are you sure you don’t want to use the Equation Editor?” might be a nice feature.  But now I know that I’m pushing it.

The long story short is that Canvas is intuitive and easy enough to use that my students were using it all the time to ask me questions, to ask each other questions, and to form study groups.  And all of this occurred without my students having to complete any special ANGEL Certification Training offered by my IT Department.

Of course I didn’t use every feature that Canvas has to offer.  If I were teaching an online course (or a full-semester course rather than a condensed summer course), I might use the Chat and the Conferences features to hold online office hours.  But it was the summer semester and I was already seeing my students in class 4 days a week.

And that is where I am at in the search for a new LMS.  Until my college switches to something other than ANGEL, I’m going to use Instructure Canvas instead.


By Jon Oaks

College Math Instructor. Tech Enthusiast. Visionary. Creative Genius. But above all, I enjoy what I do. That is why I am a teacher. Because I like to teach.

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