How to survive (and thrive) when your institution picks a new LMS

Posted May 30, 2017

By Melissa Beers @mjbeers1 Jenel Cavazos @jenelcavazos

It’s hard to imagine teaching today without using an online learning management system (LMS). Almost all universities use an LMS to keep track of student grades, provide a place for faculty to post documents and resources for students, for students to submit assignments and quizzes, and for students and faculty to communicate with each other. These resources have become almost indispensable.

Fast facts about Learning Management Systems in higher education:

● 99% of institutions have an LMS in place

● 85% of faculty use the LMS, and 56% of faculty use it daily

● 83%, of students use the LMS, and 56% say they use it in most or all courses

● 74% of faculty say the LMS is a very useful tool to enhance teaching

Source: EDUCAUSE [

As technology becomes more and more advanced, companies that provide LMS platforms stay competitive by adding new features designed to boost productivity and enhance user experience. As the market evolves, many institutions across the country are evaluating and switching to new systems. Although it is exciting to have new opportunities and features, this can also mean that long-time users find themselves needing to redesign their courses, and new instructors may struggle to find the answers and support they need.

We both work at large institutions that recently switched to a new LMS (in our case, Canvas). We both rely heavily on many different features in the LMS for class management in our courses, which range from 30 to 2,000 students in both classroom-based and online formats. Now as seasoned switchers, here is our best “survival advice” if you find yourself wandering the wilderness of a new LMS at your institution.

"Have no fear if you find yourself wandering the wilderness of a new LMS. We've got you covered." Melissa and Jenel

Survival skill 1: Adjust your attitude

Most instructors find out about the decision to switch to a new LMS once the contracts have already been signed. Often, we have little to no choice but to go along and make the most of the change. Adopting a positive, curious attitude can have an enormous influence on your overall success in making an LMS change. Don’t be afraid to foray out ahead of the pack, too. If you are lucky enough to be able to be involved in the evaluation and selection process, do it! Although it may mean a few more committee meetings and a little more work, you can be in the best position possible to learn about the options and ask questions about the features that matter to you. If your institution is still in the process of deciding on the switch, volunteer for the committee or pilot as early as possible. You will get the most support, an early start, and you can try out all the features while it is still relatively safe to explore.

Survival skill 2: Navigate to higher ground

A hiker stands high on a ridge and looks at cloud covered mountains in the distance.
Remember that your institution’s LMS is the best way to keep students informed about their progress, and it keeps you organized too! It can streamline assignment submission, grading and feedback, and automate aspects of course and program assessment. Think about the aspects of managing your class that are the most challenging and look at your LMS as a way to overcome those challenges. Do you want to improve your ability to give students feedback? Track student progress and performance? Access better analytics? Think about your “pain points” in your old system and think about how you can better leverage your new LMS to improve the class for your students’ benefit and yours. Even though change may be daunting, the results will be worth it in the end. 

Survival Skill 3: Conserve your resources

The reality of such a huge institutional change is that faculty are going to experience an increased workload (Jones, 2015). Of course, some additional effort is to be expected. As you are planning your transition from one LMS to another, you will inevitably run into some snags and points of confusion. Even with the very best support at your institution, learning to speak the language of your new LMS is going to take you extra time, and you may have to rethink aspects of your course you probably haven’t thought about in a long time. For example, Jenel’s university has sent out multiple transition update emails this past year, each containing various tips and tricks to help faculty learn to use the new LMS. She almost ignored one email that focused on grades, figuring that most gradebooks are the same, but eventually read through it anyway. Luckily, she discovered that 0’s are treated differently in the Canvas gradebook than they are in her previous system, Desire2Learn (D2L), and that discovery changed the way she had to calculate midterm and final grades. Not realizing the difference in advance would have resulted in incorrect grades for several hundred students, which definitely would not have been fun to fix! Even though you think you already know how something works, tiny quirks of each system make attention to detail vitally important. Of course, reviewing all this new information takes time. Consider your time commitments especially during your first semester using the new system - learn how to turn the visibility of different elements of the class on and off so that you don’t feel pressured to do it all at once! You can “publish as you go” (but remember to publish!) Assess all your commitments and if you have any flexibility in when to start using the new system, plan to do so at a time when you have relatively fewer commitments so you can budget the extra time into your schedule.

Survival Skill 4: Orient to your new surroundings

A hiker holds out a compass to get a bearing.
Allowing yourself as much extra time as possible during the transition is not only important for your sanity, but also because changing your LMS can sometimes cause (or inspire) you to redesign or restructure your course. Take advantage of the change as an opportunity to improve your course design. Work with your institution’s instructional designers and teaching & learning centers as you migrate your courses and see where you can improve clarity and assessment.

Remember that students as novice learners in your subject will likely perceive the information you present online differently than you do. Novice learners are less likely to see patterns and connections between different elements in your course, even if these are patterns you as the expert think are obvious (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, 2010). For example, in making the switch to Canvas, Melissa stopped organizing readings for her Teaching of Psychology course as a series of separate articles, and instead created a content page which not only provided overall context for the day’s topic, but annotated each reading and explained why it was assigned that day. This organization can allow an instructor to integrate readings, videos, guiding questions, and links to assignments all in one place. Very quickly it became clear that students enjoyed the readings more, engaged in more productive discussion, and at the end of the semester perceived the readings as a more valuable part of the class than they had in previous semesters - the readings hadn’t changed at all, but restructuring the way they were presented made all the difference. 

Survival Skill 5: Build sound (and accessible) structures

Face it: when you switch systems you are going to have to rebuild some aspects of even the best-designed course. The good news is that switching systems is going to mean your new system will have features and resources you probably haven’t tried before, and maybe some you weren’t even aware existed. As you are exploring and building your new course, make sure the course you are building is accessible for all. When adding images, make sure you add text descriptions so students using screen readers will understand what an image or figure represents. Similarly, taking advantage of the built-in styles to format titles and headings means students using screen readers will be able to understand how you have organized pages and files. Take a few minutes to caption videos before you post them. Doing these things as you go ensures your course will be fully compliant and accessible to all students - and it’s easier on you to take these steps while you are building rather than going back through an entire course later to correct mistakes! Sometimes referred to as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), accessibility means that your course is designed to be inclusive and will accommodate the widest possible audience of students. Wondering how accessible your course is? Canvas users can run an accessibility check in their course websites. For more information, Ohio State’s Office of Distance Education and E-Learning compiled this handy set of resources for instructors to use from planning a course to assessing student learning, including questions to ask yourself at each stage and resources for support.

Survival Skill 6: Signaling and communication in the wild

Remember, you are teaching in a community at your institution. Better yet, whatever LMS your institution selects, there is a community of other users at other institutions, too. Connect with other users in your campus community, or on other campuses using the same LMS. You’ll enrich your network of support and get some great ideas. Talk with other instructors who have already made the jump, either at their institution or elsewhere, who might be able to give some tips and tricks. Seek out colleagues at professional conferences and on social media - we did!

Survival Skill 7: Lead the way for students

A group of hikers walk in a line on a trail through a meadow with forest and mountains in the distance.
Once you feel comfortable and confident and have your own course successfully transplanted, take time to introduce your students to the new system. Remember, they are switching too! Do not take for granted that all instructors at your institution will be using the LMS the same way as you. Make sure the students in your class understand your intention in the way you have set up the course. Take time in class on “syllabus day” (or post a video message if teaching online) to explain the course set-up, structure, and flow to your students. Consider using screenshots or screen capture software to walk them through where to find what (We both like Explain Everything - Make sure to iron out the most important potential issues right from the beginning - students care most about two things: How to contact you, and where to find their grades. If they can get to you and ask questions, and if they know their grades will work, the rest is generally do-able at your own pace. 

If your university is changing to a new LMS, at first you may feel lost in new, unfamiliar territory - we did! By getting a head start, thinking carefully about course design (not just content), collaborating with colleagues and instructional designers, and staying open to change we are now thriving in our new LMS. You will soon be too!


Melissa directs Introduction to Psychology and coordinates Introduction to Social Psychology at The Ohio State University, courses with a combined enrollment of over 3,000 students each year. She focuses on effective teaching practices, assessment of student learning, and how best to prepare graduate instructors for college teaching. Melissa leads a graduate course in the Teaching of Psychology which, in the last 11 years, has been taken by over 200 graduate instructors preparing for their first teaching assignments.

Jenel is the Introductory Psychology Coordinator at the University of Oklahoma. She teaches two large sections per semester (475 students each) and supervises several graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants. Her research focuses on factors that increase retention in first-generation college students.


Ambrose, S.A. Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., Norman, M.K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dahlstrom, E., Brooks,D. C., and Bichsel, J. (2014) The Current Ecosystem of Learning Management Systems in Higher Education: Student, Faculty, and IT Perspectives. Research report.EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research, Louisville, CO.. Available from

Jones, K. P. (2015). Impacts on Faculty Workload During a Learning Management System Transition. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Walden University. Available from