Chaos concept.Do you use a Learning Management System? Because I can’t function efficiently without them.

I’m an online teacher. That means all my students are “elsewhere” — on average about 10,000 miles away from my home office in Jerusalem, Israel. I meet them in person maybe once a year, sometimes never. When I assign activities, it’s online. When I give out readings, videos to watch, and other assignments, it’s all online.

Without an LMS, these assignments get messy. With students in different age groups, in different places and contexts, I cannot imagine how I’d keep track of what’s been assigned, when it’s due, who’s completed it (and when), and where the email is they attached it to. For me, an LMS is one giant teacher notebook.

Organizationally challenged

I was not the most organized of students in high school. I would have loved an LMS. Lost the homework assignment? Yep. Had to call a friend. She’d be grounded, out to eat (life before cell phones!), at a basketball game, etc. I’d be in a jam.

LMS’s serve many fine purposes in life, including assisting both teacher and student to remain on top of things. They’re efficient. Comprehensive. Complete. No lost assignments. No confusion. But some are better than others. Each LMS I’ve studied seems to excel in some areas and be sorely lacking in others.

The LMS of my dreams

I’m looking for a Learning Management System (sometimes called “Learning Management Solution”) to post instructions, host activities that include differentiated instruction, organize online discussion forums, be compatible with Google Apps, post due dates, and keep track of rubrics, grading systems, teacher contact info, and more — all on one site. Preferably free. And with easy instructions.

global-networkNow that I’ve defined that my online students and I cannot function efficiently without LMS’s, which one to use? There are literally hundreds. I read with interest Jeff Dunn’s 2012 article The 20 Best Learning Management Systems at the Edudemic site.

His key takeaways are:

• The LMS industry is now a billion dollar plus sector.

• There are hundreds of LMS solutions out there.

• Moodle, Edmodo, and Blackboard are the big names in the industry.

• The most popular tool is not the most popular on social media.

Yet I was surprised to see that two of my favorite Learning Management Systems — Wikispaces and Haiku LMS — did not appear on the top 20 list. So I made a short list of my own. My list includes three LMS platforms that combine to meet most of my needs as an online educator: Wikispaces, Haiku and Edmodo. Here’s what I use them for and why I love them…sometimes.

Wikispaces

I learned to use wikis first, when LMS’s were just emerging. I loved the discussion forum — how kids could comment easily on one another’s posts and maintain access to others’ responses. It was the ultimate in asynchronous engagement.

wikispaces-225My company, JETS (Jerusalem EdTech Solutions) also coordinates twinning programs between parochial and Jewish schools in Birmingham, Alabama and Rosh Haayin, Israel. Students on both sides of the ocean shared their responses on Wikispaces, discussing their favorite cultural interests (wow — everyone loved Harry Potter and Justin Bieber!), as well as engaging in more meaningful wiki discussions such as “who are my heroes?,” environmental issues in our respective regions, and diversity during the holidays.

We received fabulous feedback from school administrators about the wiki’s discussion forum format, the sharing of photo albums and videos both schools posted, as well as written participation.

Wikispaces wikis are easy to use, easy to access (if you make them public), costs $1 if you’re an educator, and you can create an unlimited number of wikis. I’m up to 33. (It’s actually getting overwhelming). They recently adjusted the way the discussion forums are accessed and they are now much easier to find. I love embedding other forms of multi-media: YouTube videos, lino boards, voicethreads, scribblars. My home pages became launching pads for lots of other online tools. (I might have gotten a little overexcited about that. :) )

Wikis aren’t perfect LMS vehicles, however. And there are some aspects of Wikispaces that I would love to alter: For example, I could not place discussion forum questions in any particular order; the questions switch around depending on the last person who clicked on it. Once I posted a question, I could not edit it. If I found a mistake, or wanted to add information, I had to delete it and post it again. If students had already posted responses to the question, I couldn’t delete it at all without deleting the students’ posts as well.

I would have loved to have divided the questions into ‘categories’ on the page. It got very heavy looking. Also, as you accumulate a lot of wikis, they are not categorized on the wiki dashboard. All the wikis you create are automatically categorized alphabetically. And I would love for there to be an option to create folders. It’s annoying to look for everything individually. I decided to look for another LMS.

Edmodo

I heard Edmodo was the latest craze, so I opted to try it out. One of the reasons kids love Edmodo is that it looks like Facebook. I’m going to admit it, even though this is very un-techy of me: I’m not a huge fan of Facebook. Twitter, LinkedIn, yes. Facebook? Not so much. So its similarity to Facebook did not attract me. But I was doing this for my students, not for me, and I decided to give it a try.

edmodo-logo-225I loved how the different assignments could integrate smoothly into pages, how teachers can upload lots of content into the Library, and best of all, create an assignment and (zap!) send it off to multiple classes simultaneously. That is a huge drawback in wikis. If you have another class, you have to create a whole other wiki and copy and paste all the information all over again. Time consuming! Edmodo was speedy to work with.

I also created quizzes that were graded by the system and sent students instant feedback. My students loved that part. Quizzes and assignments could be edited in the Edmodo interface, another bonus over wikis. Due dates were required as an attachment to every assignment (another feature the wiki doesn’t offer), as I received constant updates about which students had submitted which assignments. My email inbox was flooded, but I kept close tabs on my students and was able to better plan lessons each week when I knew which student completed which assignment, and which material clearly needed review since everyone failed the online quiz.

Logging on is a breeze, as is creating multiple classes. Create a group, receive a 7-digit code, send it to your students, and they’re in. Wikis involve a bit more thought and private wikis often became a major log-on hassle at the schools which required them.

Downsides? Discussion forums, which I had so loved on the wiki, required more detail work to create at Edmodo. And I completely disliked the Facebook-like feature that pushes all content down to the bottom every time you add something new. What if I wanted to refer to a previous assignment later on in the year? It was not easily accessible.

So I kept looking for other LMS options.

I was about to begin teaching an online professional development program called No Teacher Left Behind. I needed something more sophisticated. While speaking to a fellow colleague in August 2012, the principal of a large Jewish Day School in New York mentioned Haiku. “Like the poem?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, ”but it’s a really cool LMS. We’re using it in our entire school, grades 1-8. 1000 students.” I was intrigued. I decided to check it out.

Haiku

I created an account and was happy to see you could log in with Google accounts. Haiku seemed to have the easily editable features and heavy content-uploading capacity of Edmodo, along with the easy-to-follow discussion forums of Wikispaces. The potential for Differentiated Instruction and activities management is staggering; I still haven’t utilized all the options and I’ve been managing 6 different Haiku classes over the past ten months.

haiku-lms-225All assignments have the option to include due dates but, unlike Edmodo, they are not required. You also have the option to decide whether you want to  receive email updates whenever students post responses. I was in love. It took me a good many hours of fiddling to master the different options, layouts, themes, and tools. Like I said, I still don’t know all of them. But I enjoy that. When I fall in love with a web tool, I like knowing there is more to learn.

The Haiku look is much like a newspaper. You can decide the number of columns displayed, as well as choose from different column sizes. I found it to be aesthetically pleasing and easy to follow. The second time I created a Haiku for the No Teacher Left Behind course, it looked about ten times better than the first. Like I said, it took me a while. But it was totally worth it.

Haiku even offers free help support via phone and email, and they responded to my queries within a day or two. Five Haiku accounts/classes are free. After that, you have to sign up, but the rates are quite affordable. I’m up to 7 Haiku classes now, and I absolutely love it that, with a click of a mouse, I can copy and/or move entire pages, blocks, and all my content to a completely new class.

Unfortunately, my 7th grade students did not love Haiku as much as I did. They had trouble logging in, and found the interface difficult to follow. Even adult learners had trouble logging in. I usually get the adults logged on after a few explanations,  but some of my seventh graders never figured it out, even after I had posted weeks of lessons there. So I’ve made the decision to use Haiku for PD courses, but pretty much stick to wikis for younger learners.

Making a choice

While singing Haiku’s praises one day to a colleague, he asked, “What if Haiku goes under? They’re not one of the bigger players in LMS. Do you have backup for all your course content?”

smadar-headset-225Backup? Yikes. The thought of all my carefully designed content…going under… that was not a happy thought. But do Edmodo and Wikispaces have backup? Does any LMS? I was clueless. Still am. I’m hoping that the interest in learning management systems continues to grow and I won’t have to worry about that particular bump.

Until Haiku can devise a simple log-on, I recommend Wikispaces or Edmodo for grades 4-8, and Haiku for the upper grades, 9-12, though I have heard from fellow educators that wikis have served upper grades with lots of good results. You have to decide what your priorities are and then choose the LMS that best matches them.

I’m happy to share my LMS’s to visitors who would like to take a peek. Drop me an email describing what you are looking for and I’ll send you the log-in info.

Here’s hoping that these three LMS’s earn a place in a top 10 list soon.

About the author
Smadar Goldstein is an online educator based in Jerusalem, Israel, who has taught in over 20 schools in three continents, and feels the potential of online learning has just begun. Smadar is the Founder and Director of JETS, Judaic online and distance learning providers. She's passionate about merging the movements of yoga into online learning. Follow Smadar on Twitter @jetsisrael.