Foundations for a Next Generation Digital Learning Environment: Faculty, Students, and the LMS

Jeffrey Pomerantz, EDUCAUSE
Malcolm Brown, EDUCAUSE
D. Christopher Brooks, EDUCAUSE

Friday, January 12, 2018


Students and faculty may not agree about much, but they do agree about online learning. Students prefer to learn, and faculty prefer to teach, in blended environments; both agree on the types of activities they prefer to conduct online; and both are highly satisfied with the LMS's delivery of functionality to support their preferred online activities.

The LMS has become critical to teaching and learning. Almost every higher education institution deploys at least one if not multiple LMS platforms.1 Indeed, the rate of LMS adoption by institutions (99%) and by faculty (88%) puts it in the category with cars and cellphones as among the most widely adopted technologies in the United States.2 The fact that LMSs are both widely available and widely used positions the LMS as a convenient platform into which other teaching and learning tools are frequently integrated. Yet the LMS is not the final chapter in the evolution of the postsecondary digital learning environment; it is merely a prologue to what is to come. This report takes a closer look at some of the findings from the 2017 Student and Faculty Technology Research Studies about the LMS, as well as the preferences of students and faculty for teaching and learning environments, to set the stage for a discussion of what might come next for the LMS.

Throughout this report we use the term "blended learning." We recognize that this term is as complex as it is ambiguous: If an instructor uses an LMS to post the course syllabus, does that make an otherwise fully face-to-face course blended? If students hold an in-person study group for a fully online course, does that make the course blended? What percentage of students' interaction with the course material must be online for a course to be considered blended? Interaction with the instructor? With the other students? Which online tools qualify for a course to be considered blended? While some excellent work has been conducted on evaluating the functionality of courseware products that may be online, and serious scholarly effort has been expended to define "blended learning,"3 there nevertheless is no agreed-upon measure of the "blendedness" of a course. The way this term is used by instructors and at institutions—and, unfortunately, sometimes in the published literature—is therefore often largely subjective.

In this report, we therefore adopt the broadest possible definition of "blended learning." We take our definition from the work of Barbara Means and colleagues at SRI International’s Center for Technology in Learning, who conducted an extensive meta-analysis of research on online learning: "There are many forms of blended learning (also known as 'hybrid' learning), which encompass all of the middle ground in the spectrum between fully face-to-face and fully online instruction."4 We recognize that this definition is going to encompass most courses. We also suggest that it may be time to stop considering trivial uses of online tools (such as using an LMS to post a course syllabus5) as worthy of qualifying a course as "blended." That, however, is a topic for another essay. Lacking a principled narrower definition, "blended learning" will be taken to mean everything between the poles of fully face-to-face and fully online learning.

©2018 EDUCAUSE. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.
Pomerantz, Jeffrey, Malcolm Brown, and D. Christopher Brooks. Foundations for a Next Generation Digital Learning Environment: Faculty, Students, and the LMS. Research report. Louisville, CO: ECAR, January 2018.


  1. Leah Lang and Judith A. Pirani, The 2015 Enterprise Application Market in Higher Education: Learning Management Systems, research report (Louisville, CO: ECAR, December 19, 2016).

  2. Among US households, 91% own a car and 95% of Americans own a cellphone.

  3. Anthony G. Picciano, Charles D. Dziuban, and Charles R. Graham, eds., Blended Learning: Research Perspectives, Vol. 2 (New York: Routledge, 2014).

  4. Barbara Means, Marianne Bakia, and Robert Murphy, Learning Online: What Research Tells Us About Whether, When and How (New York: Routledge, 2014): 7.

  5. According to the ECAR Study of Faculty and Information Technology, 2017, use of the LMS is nearly ubiquitous: 88% of faculty use it, at a minimum, to post a syllabus.