I’ve written several times before about my LMS anxiety disorder, and this summer it lead me to experiment with yet another LMS, OpenClass. This one is built by the textbook publishing house Pearson, and has some integration with Google Apps. OWU is a Google Apps for Education campus, so I thought this would make certain aspects more familiar to the students.
I really only rely on the LMS for two things: a private gradebook and the ability to accept electronic assignments. I created a new course shell in OpenClass and used their form-based tool to create a syllabus. One nice thing about OpenClass is the (relative) simplicity of organizational tools. I didn’t struggle with the nagging sense of “Where should I put this thing” in it like I do with Blackboard. There doesn’t appear to be a way to create pages of content in OpenClass like there is in other LMS tools, there is just an ‘Announcement’ feature that posts short messages to the main page. Unfortunately, the character limit for these posts is too small to make it useful for anything other than to point someplace else. This is where the integration with Google Apps comes in – when you do need to share more than a few words, you just create a Google Doc and it can be shared automatically with the appropriate users by virtue of their enrollment in the course.
The issue of enrollment brings me to my first complaint about OpenClass, at least for my situation: I couldn’t add students to my course directly, but had to rely on our Technology folks to do it. I’m sure this issue would go away if OWU adopts OpenClass and we build the integrations necessary with our enrollment system, but it was still a pain to make sure my roster matched the OpenClass roster. Once students were enrolled in the class though, they could access everything already shared with the class.
One of the two key functions I need in an LMS is the ability to accept student work, grade it, and return comments. This is one area where Canvas really shines, and I was eager to see how OpenClass handled it. The short answer is, not well. Students experienced all kinds of problems submitting their work, mostly related to the lack of any feedback on their end about whether the submission worked. As a result, they emailed their files to me, too. I hate this so hard. But they were justified in doing it, because I didn’t end up with many duplicate submissions, which means OpenClass just failed silently for them.
For those students whose work was uploaded successfully to OpenClass, there were two more problems. There does not appear to be any way to view a Word doc in place, which means I had to download each file and open it in Word to read it. Canvas really spoiled me on this count – I could fly through student writing assignments right from my iPad because their built-in viewer was so good. The second huge problem is that the student submission is not connected to a grade entry form, only a form to comment and ‘return’ the work to the student. So I had to keep one tab open to download the assignment and another with the gradebook loaded to enter scores. This is a far cry from the ease of grading in Canvas, and not even up to par with Blackboard.
The other key function I need in an LMS is the gradebook, and OpenClass disappointed me here, too. One minor complaint is that assignments don’t seem to have a way to show an average score. Another more significant weakness is that grade entry does not have a spreadsheet-like mode where I can arrow through the column to a student’s entry for an assignment. When you click on an entry for a student, a modal dialog window opens and floats over the page. After entering a score, you have to use the mouse to click OK, as pressing Return won’t do it. This gets old for data entry really fast. But not nearly as fast as losing all the quiz scores from your gradebook.
That’s right, lost scores. I entered scores for quizzes one day, came back the next day to score some writing submissions, and the quiz scores were missing for all but 3 students. Obviously this is a whole different category of bad. I would’ve thought that some software engineer somewhere had the job of ensuring that, even if everything else fails, save the gradebook data. Guess not. So it was at this point that I jumped ship and moved everything into Blackboard for the rest of the term. And sheepishly requested that my students return their most recent quiz to me for grade re-entry.
OpenClass is certainly garnering lots of attention in ed tech circles (it says ‘open’ right in the name, so it must be good, right?), so I was excited to try it. For obvious reasons, I found it less than acceptable. Even without the loss of data though, I wasn’t all that impressed and probably wouldn’t recommend it to a colleague unless they already made heavy use of Google Docs, with which it stands out. I’m still optimistic about progress in LMS development thanks to the growing competition, and that’s a great thing for everyone.