An experiment with Pearson’s OpenClass ends badly

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.

Electronic submissions

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.

Wait, what?

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.

Final thoughts

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.

Canvas is a Delightful Departure

As I’ve shared previously, I’m restless with the technology I use for teaching, especially the LMS. Rather than only complain about it, I choose to experiment with other tools in the hope that I’ll find a better fit for my style. This term I’m experimenting with Canvas, the latest darling of the educational tech scene, and I’ve found its excellent reputation to be mostly well-deserved.

For starters, the fact that I can use it to host an actual class is the result of the fact that Canvas is a cloud-based LMS that is free for individual faculty members. The only practical limitations that I’ve found include a cap on the storage space per class and the need to upload my own roster and ask students to create accounts. Neither of these have been big points of pain for me, but if you need to host many large presentation files you may run out of storage space or have to rotate files off throughout the semester.

In the big picture, these are low costs to pay for the chance to use an LMS with an elegant user interface and straightforward usability features. If you are of the opinion that “design” is just how something looks, I challenge you to compare Canvas to the other big LMS out there. You will conclude that design is how something works, it’s made that well.

That said, there are still unintuitive aspects to its design. For example, my class just completed peer reviews of a writing assignment. These reviews were a cinch to assign, and I assumed the students would see their assignment in their ‘Recent Activity’ stream. But to get their assignment, they had to go to the assignment page and look for it, something that never occurred to any of them. Thirteen email replies later and lots of links to the help section, the problem was solved, but still, it might be nice if they could add this to the activity stream.

I still don’t want to rely on an LMS completely, at least in part for philosophical reasons, I’ll admit. But Canvas has been great for what I’ve used it to do, and it’s made it dead simple to do paperless grading (their Speedgrader iPad app is excellent). I don’t feel like I have to feed it my whole course, to fill in all the spaces with content. It works for what I want it to do, and stays out of my face for the rest. That’s pretty good, I’d say.