Waseda University Migrates to Open LMS to Offer eLearning to 60,000 Users at Scale

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Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan, is known as one of the leading private universities in the country, with approximately 50,000 students studying in 13 faculties and 22 graduate schools, including specialist graduate schools. 

The university is currently pursuing a rebrand, with the aim of becoming a university that is “a beacon of light in the world.” As part of the ‘Waseda Vision 150’ strategic plan, the institution aims to position itself as a leading global university by its 150th anniversary in 2032.

Part of the plan involves promoting its offering of blended learning opportunities that combine face-to-face and online lessons. To that end, Open LMS was adopted in 2020 as the foundation, with the goal of enhancing student-faculty interaction, while supporting online classes throughout the university during the coronavirus pandemic.

Here, Waseda University’s Chief Information Officer, Professor Hayato Yamana from the Faculty of Science and Engineering, and Hiroto Shibayama, IT Strategies Division manager, share the adoption of Open LMS at the institution, its use during the pandemic, and future plans.

Hosting 60,000 Users, A Decisive Factor for New LMS Adoption

Back in the 2000s, Waseda University set out a policy of promoting digitization to improve the learning environment for its students, following the efforts of progressive universities in the United States. As a result, the university introduced its first LMS in 2007, well ahead of other universities in the country. Called Course N@vi, the independently developed LMS was adopted as a one-stop learning support environment that allowed students to view the list of courses they had taken, contact instructors, and distribute teaching materials. However, by 2017, 10 years after the initial adoption of the LMS, the university began considering the introduction of a new LMS.

“Since its introduction, there have been various improvements made to Course N@vi with almost all functionality required by faculty now in place. However, in recent years, the evolution of the internet has led to rapid and major external changes, such as browser version upgrades. In the midst of all of this, with our independently developed LMS, Course N@vi, the cost burden of maintenance was increasing. In addition, it wasn’t sufficiently compatible with multiple devices, such as smartphones, hence consideration was given to the introduction of a commercial LMS,” shares Yamana.

The enriched functionalities of commercial LMSs was one of the reasons considerations to adopt a new LMS were carried out. In fact, many of the various functionalities installed on Course N@vi have become supported by commercial LMSs.

After considering several commercial LMSs, the university decided to adopt Open LMS, a Moodle-based open-source platform. There were two decisive factors for its adoption, says Yamana. 

“First is the functionality aspect—how well could it support the functionalities we had been providing via Course N@vi, and, what other new functionalities were available. Another consideration was the cost aspect. Having considered advantages related to both aspects, it was decided that Open LMS would be adopted. Open LMS is based on Moodle, hence it is used by universities all over the world and there are already many user manuals in existence. Also, if there’s something that you don’t understand, you can usually find out about it by searching online,” affirms Yamana.

Another major point to its advantage was that it could be operated from the cloud, as Course N@vi had been operating on-premise and the university had to maintain the servers. “We would not have been able to cope with a sudden increase in server load. The university is taking the approach of moving many different intra-university systems onto the cloud, and as a part of that, the LMS had also been considered. The university has a population of 60,000 users, including faculty members, so having an operational experience of that scale was one of the deciding factors for adopting Open LMS,” affirms Yamana.

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Open LMS Operated at Full Scale During the Pandemic

Waseda University adopted Moodle as its LMS in 2017, and later introduced Open LMS (called “Waseda Moodle”) in 2018. It built a system and user training was conducted in parallel with the trial period in 2019, after which it was decided it would be used fully in 2020.

For the university’s teaching staff who were already LMS users, the transition from Course N@vi to Open LMS was still a considerable hurdle. Before the trial period, the university created a user group consisting of faculty who were actively using the LMS in each of the 13 faculties and set a trial period.

“In order to realize the transition smoothly, it was important to increase the number of allies in advance. There are various settings within Open LMS, so its use was determined based on the knowledge accumulated throughout the testing period,” shares Yamana.

The original plan was to set 2020 as the transition period and to run Open LMS alongside Course N@vi. However, as the coronavirus pandemic spread, Waseda’s president postponed class start dates and with the spring semester set to be conducted online, the use of Open LMS progressed.

For the transition, a one-stop site, ‘LearnAnywhere/TeachAnywhere’, was created for both students and faculty members to learn how to use Open LMS.

“During the 2019 trial, it became apparent that most of the students would be able to use it without any tutoring being provided since they’re already using similar web tools in various ways. For the teaching staff, on the other hand, a ‘reverse lookup’ manual was created, in addition to a standard manual that shows which function they’re familiar with in Course N@vi corresponding to an Open LMS function. Initially, an FAQ was prepared in text, but after a certain number of questions had been accumulated, a chatbot was available to enable smooth access to information related to inquiries,“ says Yamana. 

During the month before the start of classes, the IT Strategies Division—the university’s research center responsible for research, development, and promotion of class methods—and each faculty held seminars to discuss new ways to use the LMS and at various levels. Inquiries relating to how to use the system peaked a week before classes started.

“The plan was for initial support to be provided by a helpdesk that would respond to emails and another team that provided support face to face. The Information Planning Department and an Open LMS system engineer were on standby to respond to any queries that the helpdesk couldn’t handle. If it looked like it was going to take time to respond or if it seemed better to respond on-site, the plan was to handle the questions through the face-to-face team. However, because the coronavirus made it impossible to respond in person, the helpdesk initially responded by email, but 1,000 queries a week were received at peak times and it became impossible to do so. As a result, telephone contact with the face-to-face support team was initiated, in case it was difficult to respond by email or if a call would be faster,“ shares Shibayama. The start of online classes for all subjects was supported through this multifaceted support system.

eLearning That’s Essential to Conducting Lessons

During the pandemic, the university employed three online class formats:

1.) Classes that presented lecture materials and assignments

2.) Classes with on-demand distribution of lecture videos

3.) Classes taught through real-time streaming

All lessons during the 2020 spring term were delivered online, meaning that all subjects used Open LMS. During the fall semester, online lessons decreased to about 70%, but Open LMS was still used to distribute materials and confirm attendance, including for face-to-face classes.

“Most teaching staff used Open LMS to distribute materials and quizzes, for assignment submission, and sending videos with plug-ins, for example. It has become an indispensable tool for teaching. The functionality that’s become particularly well-used since transitioning to Open LMS is the mini-test. In order for the University Research Center to have students learn effectively in advance, teaching staff were advised that it’s better to not just play a video but also to perform a confirmation test every 10 minutes so that the students will watch it more carefully and increase its impact,“ says Yamana.

The mini-test, which is an indicator of whether students are actively paying attention to the video content, can be automatically marked by pre-setting the correct answers. If the correct answers need to be revised, these can be reset and the test can be graded again.

“There isn’t only one right answer. There are sometimes correct responses that the teaching staff hadn’t thought of. In such situations, if a student can point those out via ‘Message My Teacher,’ the number of correct answers can be increased, thereby allowing everyone’s work to be considered. All-in-all this is useful,” affirms Yamana.

Message My Teacher is a message functionality for students and faculty. Even the students who find it hard to ask questions during face-to-face lessons can ask questions using this function.

“This type of interaction with the students motivates the teaching staff, so I think this function is a plus for both parties. Personally, I believe that the students who ask questions have greater engagement.”

Some academic departments have also switched to using Open LMS for the submission of graduation dissertations, among other activities. Because the submission can be confirmed online, the risk of problems associated with physical submissions is no longer an issue. It has also become easier to mark submitted assignments and return them to the students.

“In the past, there was the difficulty that even if each assignment submitted had been graded, you had to gather students again to return the assignments. Open LMS is very convenient because it allows you to grade on a PDF and return it to the students online,” shares Yamana.

The ‘workshop’ function, which allows students to evaluate each other, is also attracting attention as it was not previously available in Course N@vi. “In a class with many students, it takes time to score and return tests and assignments. In addition to automatically scoring quizzes, it also allows students to evaluate each other’s submissions. Mutual evaluation has the advantage of broadening students’ horizons by allowing them to understand how other students think,” says Yamana.

Additionally, Open LMS can be accessed through mobile devices via a web browser, and plans are also underway to enable its use via an app. Push notifications will be possible once an app becomes available, and it’s expected that it will be easier to communicate outside the university, such as while commuting to school.

Increasing Learning Efficacy With Open LMS

Waseda has seen an improvement in learning efficacy since adopting Open LMS. Having lessons on-demand, adding mini-tests to videos, and combining these into group learning have all had a positive impact on teaching and learning. 

“I saw that test results improved notably throughout the year with the improvements I made to my subject. First, by making lessons available through on-demand video, then adding mini-tests to the videos, and combining them with group learning. Face-to-face lessons are limited at the present moment, but if the lessons are accessible on-demand, students can watch them repeatedly and studying can be done at their own pace. In addition, if you prepare a video containing extra content that cannot be covered in class, students are able to study at their own level,” says Yamana. 

While many teaching staff liked Course N@vi and had an attachment to it since it was developed based on their feedback, Shibayama notes that the transition to Open LMS was smooth, despite initial concerns. “The switch happened quickly due to the effect of the coronavirus pandemic, and some teachers said that if you get used to Waseda Moodle (Open LMS), you can’t go back to Course N@vi.”

As to the future use of Open LMS at Waseda, Yamana believes that the future of education consists of improving students’ abilities through interaction, rather than one-way lectures. To this end, the LMS will facilitate this objective, with the university currently focusing on improving faculty-student dialogue and will seek to improve student peer-to-peer interaction within courses.

Additionally, a student survey revealed that students want to take 30% of their lessons online, even after the end of the pandemic. “I think that learning on the LMS will continue to increase. Right now, with all the subjects being delivered via Open LMS at the university, data is being collected and we would like to use it to develop new education methods,” says Yamana.

Acquiring an LMS is essential today, believes the professor. For education institutions considering the introduction of Open LMS, Yamana adds: “If all that is required is to replace the face-to-face lessons online, it may be enough to use web conferencing tools. However, considering the purpose of having students acquire a certain level of knowledge and problem-solving abilities, it can be said that the use of the LMS is essential. Open LMS, which provides interactions and learning opportunities that were difficult to carry out through conventional face-to-face lessons, is a tool that can contribute to improving the abilities of not only a select few students but of students at all levels.“
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