Tag Archives: Learning management system

Spreadsheets vs. online gradebooks

One of the things my students like the most about learning managment systems (LMS’s) such as Blackboard, Angel, or Moodle (I’ve used all of these at some point in my career) is the online gradebook feature. I enter their grades online, and students can check in on the web at any time and see their grades and get the info. These things are useful to be sure. But I’ve been wondering if they are the best implement for managing grades. I’ve been wondering if it wouldn’t be better to simply hand back graded work and then have students keep their grades on their own using a simple spreadsheet. Some reasons why I think this way:

  1. Spreadsheets have functionality. I can enter, view, and edit grades in an online gradebook; students can view them; but nobody can perform any meaningful analysis on the data that have been entered. The gradebook is just a two-dimensional list. But of course in a spreadsheet I can not only store and view data but also manipulate it any way I want and play the many what-if scenarios that profs and students alike play. Of course this is not a big deal because most LMS’s allow you to download gradebook data in some kind of spreadsheet-compatible form, but why not just start with a spreadsheet to begin with?
  2. Spreadsheets allow greater choice of implementation of other LMS features. Online gradebooks are often the only redeeming feature of LMS’s, and profs tend to stick with LMS’s they don’t like just to have the gradebook. This often hurts the students, who have to put up with substandard email clients (see this post for more) and file-sharing systems that LMS’s provide rather than use something easier and better-implemented. Or else, profs end up using only the gradebook feature of an LMS and use other software (class blogs, wikis, Netvibes, etc.) for the remainder of what an LMS does (such as posting files and announcements), which can get confusing for students, who then expect the prof to use the features of the LMS.
  3. Having students keep track of their grades with a spreadsheet encourages them to learn about spreadsheets. If you take the approach of expecting students to manage their own grades, and teach them how to use spreadsheets to do this, my experience is that students will be motivated to learn the basics of spreadsheets simply because they care about their grades and because they can now answer on their own all those questions such as “What do I need on the final to get a B- in the class?” One can learn a lot about spreadsheets just by using it as a personal gradebook for one class in one semester. And since spreadsheets are an increasingly important tool for data management in general both in and after school, the more students can learn about them, and the earlier they can do so, the better for them.
  4. Using spreadsheets encourages students to take responsibility for their learning. One of the detriments of online gradebooks is that it removes an important responsibility of learning — managing the outcomes of your assessments — from the student and makes it the instructor’s job. I don’t mind the work of entering grades into a gradebook, but I do think it would be better for students to learn that responsible record-keeping is important and that they should practice it, and I like the idea of students  being closer to their grade data than they are with instructor-managed online gradebooks.

I don’t know if I’m quite ready to completely give up using an online gradebook for these reasons, but I find them to be pretty compelling. What do you think?

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Shall we call it Blackangel? Or Angelboard?

The two biggest players in the learning management system world, Blackboard and Angel, will soon be one company, since Blackboard has purchased Angel Learning, Inc. for $95 million.  From a superficial reading of the press release, it appears that Blackboard thinks of itself as having a more technologically innovative product, whereas Angel has a better track record with customers — and Blackboard has the money to pull off the purchase.

I can’t verify any of those claims, but I can say that we switched from Blackboard to Angel at my college a few years ago due to a general dissatisfaction with the quality of the product compared to the price we were paying. I don’t recall Blackboard as being particularly innovative, although admittedly that was 4-5 years ago. Angel has not been much of an improvement, and I’ve blogged before about the maddening UI design decisions that Angel has made. In going from Blackboard to Angel, we basically traded one set of deeply flawed LMS technology for another.

And now we have the situation where the current sub-par LMS technology maker is being bought out by the previous equally-but-differently-subpar LMS technology maker. So who knows what exactly we, the users at my college, are going to end up with. The best-case scenario is that we would get the best of both technologies. There are some things that Angel does  pretty well, well enough at least that I am no longer finding myself forced to roll my own LMS at Wikispaces just to retain my sanity. We shall see.

In the meanwhile, Jon Mott has some excellent thoughts about life post-LMS. I think he’s right that the basic problem isn’t the implementation of the technology (although, as I’ve noted, there are some big problems there with Angel and probably with Blackboard as well) but rather the paradigm on which the technology is based. It makes me wonder if the real LMS that best suits the modern college or university is already out there, in the form of previously-released tools that just need to be cobbled together rather than an expensive proprietary software package that tries to emulate those tools.

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