Determining the best delivery model for a district’s learning management system is tricky. It involves carefully weighing the pros and cons of several different models of delivery, figuring out which one fits a district’s needs best, and evaluating the cost implications of each option.
A poor choice could put a district in a difficult position, stuck with a system that doesn’t meet the needs of schools and consequently frustrates teachers and administrators.
To make a better decision about delivery, consider the pros and cons of these models:
In a survey of teachers, technology coordinators, and administrators from 300 schools around the country, Washington-based Blackboard Inc., an education software company, asked about preferences for LMS delivery systems.
47% said they were probably or definitely willing to use a public cloud for LMS hosting
39% preferred a private cloud option
31% preferred a public cloud option
12% preferred self-hosting
21% might or might not be willing to use the public cloud
17% were not willing to use a public cloud
Of respondents who said they preferred self-hosting for their LMS:
77% cited an increased level of control
71% said they had the in-house expertise to do so
61% said it gave them an increased level of privacy
58% said it resulted in lower costs
SOURCE: Blackboard Inc.
School districts host the LMS on their own servers, behind their own firewalls.
Pros: This model can provide some districts with more control over data and information for security purposes. Under this approach, districts can also significantly customize a system to fit their needs, said Mark Strassman, a senior vice president of industry and product management for Washington-based Blackboard Inc., which offers a variety of delivery models for its LMS products.
Cons: The learning management system will likely not be updated automatically, and users can experience down time when those updates take place. Districts are often dependent on one person for much of the maintenance of the LMS, and if that person leaves the district for another job, there’s a scramble to find a qualified person to take over. Plus, a feeling of greater security with this approach can be misleading, said Don McIntosh, the president of Trimeritus eLearning Solutions Inc., a Vancouver, British Columbia-based company that helps K-12 districts select the best LMS for their needs.“If you’re contracting with a company, their security protocols are probably more robust than many districts’,” he said.
The LMS is hosted on company servers or in a private or public cloud scenario. These models can also be included under the term software as a service or SAAS, in which districts pay a subscription fee for the LMS service they’re receiving.
Pros: A district does not need its own information technology staff to maintain the system, and the LMS is typically updated automatically with the newest versions of the system. There is also no need to rely on a single in-house expert to work with the system.
Cons: This option means a district must pay a company to manage the LMS, which can be expensive. But it can be unclear whether it really is more expensive than doing it in-house, said Luyen Chou, a senior vice president of product strategy at London- and New York City-based Pearson, which has several LMS-style products. “Since [the district] staff is part of your fixed costs, those costs can fly under the radar,” Mr. Chou said. “Every dollar you pay to Amazon or Pearson to host your LMS is an operating expense.”
In this model, which is a type of remote hosting, the LMS provider maintains the system in a private, isolated environment with dedicated servers just for that institution.
Pros: Some experts believe this is more secure than a public cloud option. Updates can be made by the LMS provider, but the district may have more control over when those updates take place.
Cons: A private cloud approach may not be able to adjust as easily to significant fluctuations in usage. Plus, the district doesn’t always have the latest version of the LMS because, in some cases, the systems are not automatically updated.
Learning management system companies may contract out with a public cloud provider such as Amazon or Rackspace for this type of remote hosting.
Pros: Automatic updates mean the system is always the latest version and will have little or no down time during updates. Public cloud systems also allow for easily scaling up and down for heavy and light usage, said Craig Wahl, a senior director of customer support for D2L, a Kitchener, Ontario-based company which offers learning management systems in all three delivery models. “Everyone wants to get into the system the first day of school,” he said. “When we do this in the cloud, it’s a flexible infrastructure that can handle that use.”
Cons: The system can be hard to customize. In addition, automatic updates may not allow enough time for widespread training before new features come online. And districts may not know, unless they specifically ask, that their system is being hosted by a third-party cloud-hosting company.
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2014 edition of Education Week as The Delivery Question