Student Use of a Learning Management System for Group Projects: A Case Study Investigating Interaction, Collaboration, and Knowledge Construction

Table of Contents


Web-based Learning Management System (LMS) allow instructors and students to share instructional materials, make class announcements, submit and return course assignments, and communicate with each other online. Previous LMS-related research has focused on how these systems deliver and manage instructional content with little concern for how students’ constructivist learning can be encouraged and facilitated. This study investigated how students use LMS to interact, collaborate, and construct knowledge within the context of a group project but without mediation by the instructor.

The setting for this case study was students’ use in one upper-level biology course of the local Learning Management System (LMS) within the context of a course-related group project, a mock National Institutes of Health grant proposal. Twenty-one groups (82 students) voluntarily elected to use the Learning Management System (LMS), representing two-thirds of all students in the course. Students’ peer-topeer messages within the LMS, event logs, online surveys, focus group interviews, and instructor interviews were used in order to answer the study’s overarching research question.

The results indicate that students successfully used the Learning Management System (LMS) to interact and, to a significant extent, collaborate, but there was very little evidence of knowledge construction using the Learning Management System (LMS) technology. It is possible that the ease and availability of face-to-face meetings as well as problems and limitations with the technology were factors that influenced whether students’ online basic interaction could be further distinguished as collaboration or knowledge construction. Despite these limitations, students found several tools and functions of the LMS useful for their online peer interaction and completion of their course project. Additionally, LMS designers and implementers are urged to consider previous literature on computer-supported collaborative learning environments in order to better facilitate independent group projects within these systems. Further research is needed to identify the best types of scaffolds and overall technological improvements in order to provide support for online collaboration and knowledge construction.


Learning Management System, Course Management System, Online, Sakai, Biology, Learning Technology


Technology-enabled peer interaction is increasingly important and pervasive in higher education. Web-based systems such as Learning Management Systems (LMS) allow instructors and students to share instructional materials, make class announcements, submit and return course assignments, and communicate with each other online using “an integrated set of web-based tools for learning and course management” (Malikowski, Thompson, & Theis, 2007, p. 150). A 2007 report showed that over 90% of all responding American universities and colleges have established one or more LMStype products for student and faculty use (Hawkins & Rudy, 2008).

LMS are a type of software designed to deliver, track, and manage training and education. Through their development, these systems have been called Course Management Systems (CMS), Virtual Learning Environments, Collaborative Learning Environments, and a host of other monikers. The software is similar in functionality, despite its name, and typically includes methods to manage users, role, and course information, online communication, grading, and web-based or blended delivery of content. Within the spectrum of these systems, there are popular commercial products such as Blackboard (, institutionally developed products such as Angel (Penn State,, and open source products such as Moodle ( and Sakai ( Since their inception, other software, such as electronic portfolios, have built upon LMS-related innovations and applied them to more specific contexts (e.g., medical school students). Although LMS are increasingly seen as mission-critical applications for teaching and learning (Salaway Caruso, & Nelson, 2008), very little is known about when, how, or even if these systems promote or are able to “manage” student learning (Koszalka & Ganesan, 2004).

Although most LMS are used for the distribution, management, and retrieval of course materials (Hanson & Robson, 2004), these systems can also incorporate functionality that supports interaction between students and instructors and among students (West, Waddoups, & Graham, 2007) to provide opportunities for enabling institutional innovations in learning and education (Dutton, Cheong, & Park, 2003). Increasingly LMS are providing tools for the kinds of active online engagement embraced by today’s generation of students (e.g., discussion tools, chat rooms, wikis, and blogs). Rather than direct transmission of knowledge models of learning that often fail to engage and motivate learners, the tools within LMS provide opportunities for using these systems according to constructivist approaches that encourage students to build their own understandings of the world (Papastergiou, 2006). Specifically, LMS may help ignite a shift from “the transmission of information towards the management and facilitation of student learning” (Coaldrake & Stedman, 1999, p. 7). The focus of this dissertation study is therefore focused on how students used the LMS technology to accomplish their collective goals and objectives as well as if, and how, the LMS technology afforded students the ability to socially construct new knowledge.


Previous chapters of this thesis present the details of the study conducted to investigate the success factors of engaging students and lecturers with LMS tools. This last chapter summarises the contributions and limitations of this study and suggests an overview of potential future research in this area. Firstly, the aims of this thesis are restated and the way these have been addressed are discussed briefly (Section 6.1). Then the key findings of this research project are summarised (Section 6.2), followed by an explanation of how this study contributes to the body of knowledge (Section 6.3). Theoretical and practical implications (Section 6.4), conclusion and future work suggestions (Section 6.5) are then presented.


As explained in Section 1.2, this research lies in the domain of collaborative learning in e-learning environments and its purpose is: To identify the factors affecting the engagement of lecturers and students with the e-learning tools provided by learning management systems, in a higher education institution. To address the purpose of this research, considering that there are many collaboration tools within  Learning Management System (LMSs) with the potential to foster higher order learning through providing an environment for students to interact and collaborate with each other, this study narrowed the focus to investigating factors affecting user engagement with the collaboration tools of LMS. Therefore, the following three research questions were investigated:

1. How are collaboration tools within an LMS being used?

2. What problems influence the effectiveness of collaboration tools within LMSs?

3. What factors influence the successful engagement of students and lecturers with LMS collaboration tools?

Since the participants talked more broadly of their experiences with the LMS and not specifically about its collaboration tools, the findings can be applied to factors affecting user engagement with LMS tools and not only the collaboration ones. A qualitative study composed of 74 open-ended semi-structured interviews was conducted with students and lecturers in a major Australian university (see Chapter 3). Then the study used thematic applied analysis approach to analyse the collected data transcripts, which uncovered six main themes around the factors affecting Learning Management System (LMS) engagement (see Chapter 4). The identified themes were discussed in relation to the existing literature, and finally a holistic framework that details the requirements for effective user engagement with LMS tools was presented (see Chapter 5).


As detailed in Chapter 4, this study found that in the university groups of students and lecturers interviewed, the LMS was mostly used as a repository of learning materials, and collaboration tools within the LMS were rarely used in an effective way to engage students in a blended learning environment. This finding answers the first research question about the state of use of LMS collaboration tools within higher education sector.

To explore the reasons behind the ineffective use of LMS tools, the data was further examined. Using applied thematic analysis approach, six dominant themes as well as over twenty sub-categories were found relating the factors influencing the students’ and lecturers’ engagement with e-learning tools within LMS. The themes include:

 The LMS design

 Preferences for other tools

 Availability of time

 Lack of adequate knowledge about tools

 Pedagogical practices

 Social influence

Considering these six themes, as well as the existing literature and specifically the Expectation Confirmation Model (ECM) concepts (see Section 2.4.1), a framework explaining the critical factors for enhancing user engagement with LMS tools was suggested (see Section 5.8). A unique finding of the study is that dominant parameters when studying the PEU (see Section 2.4.1) of an LMS are: easy editing procedure, notification and auto-correction functionalities, customisability, avoiding technology overload, and consistent configuration of learning materials within LMS. Moreover, explaining the clear purpose of doing a task online enhances the PU (see Section 2.4.1) of an LMS. This research also indentifies that a vital requirement of effective user engagement with e-learning tools within LMS is an interrelation between the identified parameters. This means that none of these factors can individually enhance user engagement, and they must be addressed together as much as possible.


Many researchers have studied the requisites of LMS adoption and acceptance (Al-busaidi, 2012b; Alfadly, 2013; Carvalho et al., 2011; Dias & Diniz, 2014; Landry et al., 2006; Liaw, 2008; Sánchez & Hueros, 2010; Vassell et al., 2008). However, they have been limited to a single discipline, or a single group of users (lecturers or students), or they lack empirical data (see Section 2.5). As a result the literature lacks a comprehensive framework that describes the requisites for engaging students and lecturers with LMS tools. Consistent with the studies that reported the lack of effective engagement with LMS collaboration tools (Becker & Jokivirta, 2007; Green et al., 2006; Heaton Shrestha et al., 2007; Kirkup & Kirkwood, 2007; Landry et al., 2006), this study also reveals that the LMS under study (Blackboard) was mostly used to the minimum level. Whereas, the existing literature does not comprehensively address reasons for failure to use an LMS to its full capacity, this research thoroughly investigated possible reasons behind the lack of effective engagement with LMS tools. The methodological approach of using in-depth interviews to understand both students’ and lecturers’ perspectives from multiple disciplines helped to probe the area under study more deeply. In addition, the applied thematic analysis approach was adopted for the first time in this thesis to analyse the collected data. The contribution of this research is the presentation of a holistic framework that introduces the success factors of user engagement with LMS tools including: LMS design, support, pedagogical practices and social influence (see Section 5.8).

This framework, adopting ECM concepts, is presented in a model that recognises the timing of the process of LMS adoption, so that it treats adoption requirements before using the system and while using the tool as separate. The new sub-categories in this framework which are uniquely addressed in this research reveal more details in regard to the PEU and PU parameters of an LMS. These parameters are not well studied in other research and mostly are examined in general (see Section 2.5). The current study, in contrast, found factors to enhancing the PEU of an LMS to include the need for: customisability, consistent configuration of the content through LMS, supporting easy editing environments in addition to providing notification and auto-correction functionalities, while avoiding technology overload. Moreover, defining the clear purpose of doing a task online found to improve the PU of the LMS. The enhancement of user PEU and PU of an LMS reinforce the engagement with LMS tools.


E-learning is now a significant part of many HEIs (Allen & Seaman, 2007; Mason, 2006). E-learning tools can provide effective and flexible environments for teaching and learning to enhance students’ cognitive abilities (Kirkwood, 2009; Loveless, 2003). Multimedia and communication tools within LMSs help educators to provide more interactive learning environments which can foster higher order learning and critical thinking skills through conversation and collaboration. The rapid growth of e-learning among HEIs (Kidson, 2014) highlights the need to explore how to use the wide-spread e-learning platform of LMS tools effectively in order to engage both the lecturers and students. Different LMS adoption studies (Carvalho et al., 2011; Pishva et al., 2010) have limited findings regarding the ability of LMS tools to create communities of learners, and facilitate engagement beyond the didactic approach of using an LMS only as a repository of learning materials. This limitation in the research literature highlights the need for further investigation of factors affecting user engagement with LMSs. The current study reveals the challenges students and lecturers face while using LMS tools. Furthermore, it provides strategies from different perspectives including LMS structure, institutional supports, and pedagogical requisites to enhance user engagement with e-learning tools within LMS. The findings of this study provide a better understanding of the challenges of LMS employment for teaching and learning practices in HEIs. These insights could help the higher education IT managers to select more appropriate LMSs for their institutions and to provide information about the requisites for effective LMS use. This is important, as LMSs are still the central educational platform in many universities around the world, and a lot is spent on LMS installation and maintenance each year (Al-busaidi & Al-shihi, 2012).

The study will also help educators to expand their knowledge about effective strategies to meet the challenges presented by the use of LMS tools. The findings will make lecturers aware of students’ feedback about the current approaches educators use in LMS environments, and provide an opportunity for them to understand learners’ expectations. The elements discussed under the pedagogical practices heading (see Section 5.6) could be applied to determine how to effectively adopt LMSs, and specifically, collaboration tools within LMSs, to provide blended learning environments where students are more fully engaged. The research findings may also assist LMS designers to know about both students’ and lecturers’ perspectives and expectations regarding the existing LMS tools. The details provided under the LMS design heading (see Section 5.2) can extend LMS designers’ knowledge of current challenges in the LMS structure and provide suggestions to enhance the user-friendliness of e-learning tools within LMS.

Briefly, understanding how LMS tools can engage users more effectively helps lecturers, LMS designers, as well as higher education administrators and IT managers to investigate new opportunities to facilitate blended learning approaches within the higher education sector. In addition, the findings of this thesis improve the perception of how lecturers and students use LMS tools, and establish the foundation for an LMS evaluation toolkit in the higher education sector. This toolkit can provide recommendations for efficient design and use of e-learning tools within LMSs that will take into account students’ and lecturers’ exact requirements. All this would result in assisting HEIs to provide better quality of educational practices. The theoretical implication of this research is the details it provides to the TAM determinants (PEU and PU, see Section 2.4.1) when applied in the e-learning realm. As detailed in Section 5.9, easy editing procedure, notification and autocorrection functionalities, customisability and avoiding technology overload as well as consistent configuration of learning materials within LMS enhances the PEU of the e-learning system. Moreover, explaining the clear purpose of doing a task online improves students’ perception of the usefulness (PU) of the system.


The purpose of this study is to investigate factors affecting users’ engagement with LMS e-learning tools. The study findings suggest that the existing LMS tools are not user-friendly and users generally lack adequate knowledge and skills to employ them effectively. The study found six main themes and over twenty subcategories that could explain the existing problems and possible solutions.

Briefly, the results from this limited study of students’ and lecturers’ experiences of using an LMS suggest that the usage of collaboration tools within LMSs in higher education sector is limited. Factors underpinning this problem are: the LMS’s design limitations, preference for other tools, availability of time, lack of adequate knowledge about tools, pedagogical practices, and social influence. The study revealed further detailed determinants in regard to each of the identified themes. In addition the study proposes a framework (see Figure 5.6), derived from the thematic analysis of the data and supporting literature, that demonstrates the potential requisites and sub-categories to enhance user engagement with LMS tools. The framework presents four major categories as influential parameters of user engagement with LMS, including: LMS design, support, pedagogy and social influence. The framework is distinct in terms of the details it provides to explain each of the major categories, specifically regarding LMS design and pedagogy determinants. The study also discovered further details regarding the PEU and PU parameters of an LMS. An LMS with a higher level of PEU and PU supports a more engaging learning environment. New parameters, uniquely identified by this research, regarding the PEU of an LMS include: easy editing procedure, notification and autocorrection functionalities, customisability, avoiding technology overload, and consistent configuration of learning materials within LMSs. Additionally, explaining the clear purpose of doing a task online was shown to enhance the user PU of an Learning Management System (LMS). This research also addresses the requirements for further study in several areas.

For example, as detailed in Section 4.3.3, students and lecturers preferred to use tools that they were accustomed to. This opens another area for research to explore current online environments that can be customised for educational purposes, and the specific pedagogical requirements to employ those applications effectively to support blended learning realms. Another area that requires further investigation is identifying and designing detailed strategies and methods to apply online tools in each individual higher education unit. Designing collaborative activities for any specific unit is less emphasised in the literature, although this strategy can help educators to implement e-learning approaches more effectively. The findings of this study are qualitative and mostly tentative, and may require further testing and validation. Therefore, the most important area for further investigation could be to conduct a quantitative study to validate and generalise the presented framework, as well as the identified PEU and PU parameters of an LMS. Finally, the study emphasises that user engagement with Learning Management System (LMS) tools is a multifaceted problem. The identified pedagogical and technological elements (support, pedagogy, LMS design, and social influence) of active engagement with LMS tools are coupled together and must be employed concurrently to result in successful LMS adoption and acceptance.


About KSRA

The Kavian Scientific Research Association (KSRA) is a non-profit research organization to provide research / educational services in December 2013. The members of the community had formed a virtual group on the Viber social network. The core of the Kavian Scientific Association was formed with these members as founders. These individuals, led by Professor Siavosh Kaviani, decided to launch a scientific / research association with an emphasis on education.

KSRA research association, as a non-profit research firm, is committed to providing research services in the field of knowledge. The main beneficiaries of this association are public or private knowledge-based companies, students, researchers, researchers, professors, universities, and industrial and semi-industrial centers around the world.

Our main services Based on Education for all Spectrum people in the world. We want to make an integration between researches and educations. We believe education is the main right of Human beings. So our services should be concentrated on inclusive education.

The KSRA team partners with local under-served communities around the world to improve the access to and quality of knowledge based on education, amplify and augment learning programs where they exist, and create new opportunities for e-learning where traditional education systems are lacking or non-existent.

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Steven D. Lonn
A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Education) in The University of Michigan 2009





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Nasim Gazerani was born in 1983 in Arak. She holds a Master's degree in Software Engineering from UM University of Malaysia.

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Professor Siavosh Kaviani was born in 1961 in Tehran. He had a professorship. He holds a Ph.D. in Software Engineering from the QL University of Software Development Methodology and an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Chelsea.

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Somayeh Nosrati was born in 1982 in Tehran. She holds a Master's degree in artificial intelligence from Khatam University of Tehran.