North Texas has literally been shut down for the past 3 days, with a 4th day impending. We had an arctic front blow in on Monday night, leaving a sheet of ice and snow, and sub-freezing temperatures to keep it intact. Every college, school district, private school and many businesses have been closed since Tuesday.

For the first day of this freeze I was feeling smug because I had already planned an online class for both of my sections of "Computers in the Classroom," at UNT. I had most of the materials ready to go, so it was looking like I would just need to make them available to my class and spend the rest of the day hanging out with my family. I released the materials late Tuesday night, and I didn't think about it again until Wednesday when a student e-mailed to say she couldn't access Moodle. I went to Moodle, and she was right. Nothing.

In addition to cold weather, North Texas was experiencing power shortages caused by over-burdened power plants. In response to this shortage, the state implemented rolling blackouts. We lost power 3 different times on Wednesday for about 20 minutes each, which was only a slight inconvenience. These same rolling blackouts also cut power to Discovery Park, where the Moodle servers are housed. The servers went down, and as of this writing no one has booted them back up. This experience added another chapter to my love/hate relationship (mostly love) with LMS software.

I have been using Learning Management Systems (LMS) since 2005 to help me teach my courses, most of which have been face-to-face. Over the years I have had mostly good experiences, some bad experiences and many teachable moments. I have use Moodle, WebCT, Blackboard, Toolkit (homegrown at UVa), Collab (built at UVa on the Sakai platform) and eCollege. Each of these packages has its own affordances and constraints, and I haven't found any of them to be completely idiot proof. What I have learned is that LMS, no matter which one you are using, make a great hub but a lousy silo.

Silo: a self-contained, secure, private space in which only those with credentials may enter. As in, missle silo.

Hub: a central place that brings together many different pieces from several different places.

People who use LMS as a silo upload everything and post all of their content to the LMS. If they teach more than once section of the same course, they do all of this twice. If a document needs to be updated, they take it down from both sections and upload the updated document. Twice. You get the picture.

People who use LMS as a hub, as I do, keep the content from their course in a place other than the LMS. Rather than uploading files and adding content directly to the LMS, the content is all linked to third-party tools. Here is what this looks like for me: 1) all course documents are in Google Docs and linked to the LMS, 2) all course materials (PDFs, videos, etc.) are hosted on Google Docs or YouTube and linked, and 3) my lesson plans for each class meeting are in Google Sites and linked.

This may not seem like a big deal until your servers go down and you have 48 students trying to access Moodle at once. For me, it meant the difference between postponing class and having each student finish the activities in the allotted time. I was able to send the students the links to the docs and lesson plan, and not one student missed a beat.

This does not mean LMS don't have their place. They are essential for posting grades and giving feedback to students. They are excellent for facilitating discussions within the class. They are also a great hub for content so that students only have to look in one place for course materials. In my experience, they don't even know I am linking to everything from a third-party host.

Other advantages to using third-party tools are:

  1. When I want to update a document for multiple sections, I only have to make the changes in Google Docs and they automatically show up wherever the document is linked.
  2. If I want to reuse materials for another class, I know where to find them. No searching archived courses to find rubrics, lesson plans or assignments. I just update the materials and link them to the current course.
  3. I have access to my course materials if the servers go down, and I can easily send them to my students if necessary.

This has been quite the learning experience, and I am glad I came out of it on the positive side. What tricks and tips do you have for using LMS in your teaching?