Top Hat is different from a learning management system, it’s proven to help college and university teachers engage their students. Integrates with existing LMS platforms like Canvas, Blackboard & D2L
What if you could assign homework, auto-graded quizzes, ask questions, spark discussions, find and use interactive content and take attendance reliably, all with one app? The rise of online learning, online training, gamification, blended learning, online courses and e-learning means higher education instructors are searching for learning technologies with robust functionality. Top Hat transforms smartphones, laptops and tablets into digital learning and teaching tools. In doing so, our web-based learning system enables educators to create and manage their courses digitally.
Our course management software syncs directly with the devices students already own and use, so there’s no need to purchase additional hardware. Plus, we offer integration with popular learning management systems, including Moodle, Blackboard and Desire2Learn, so there’s no need to stop using the learning tools you already know and love.
A learning management system, or LMS, is a cloud-based software system designed in-part to house course content, grades and allow students to deliver assignments. The depth and breadth of features of a learning management system can vary by vendor.
LMS software solutions all generally contain the following:
A content management system for lessons: This allows instructors and teaching assistants to upload course materials, lecture transcripts, additional materials and links to external sites such as Wikipedia and YouTube videos for flipped classrooms, and assignment instructions. It’s not meant to be a substitute for lectures—but it’s immensely useful for students to keep track of what they’ve learned, especially coming up to exam time.
Dashboards for communication with students, and forums: On forums, students can interact with each other, ask questions, share revision tips and career advice. Instructors could also assign group activities to take place on the forums as well. As for communication, a professor might choose to use their learning management system, rather than school email, to talk to students.
Notifications: The learning management system will usually have internal notifications for important messages, like assignment changes or professor requests, and this will be externally linked to e-mail or possibly to an app so students who might not routinely login to the system can still hear important news.
Progress tracking: A learning management system is nothing if it isn’t actively managing learning. A good LMS will usually allow students (and their instructors) an overview of how they’re performing throughout their courses, both individually and collectively.
Different levels of security and access. Individual students should only be able to access their own courses. TAs can access all students’ assignments, and set marks, but they might not be allowed to change anything in the course itself. Professors have full access to their own courses and student lists. And departments and administration have the appropriate and necessary access to student data they need.
Learning management systems in higher education have to respect FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Single sign on, which is when a user (professor or student) uses a single ID to login to all of their secure systems, is being increasingly found within LMSs and reflects the overall importance that learning management systems have in the educational world.
Some types of learning management system include gamification, which enhances learning by turning assignments or other projects into competitive games. There are many different ways to do this: for instance, group tournaments, leaderboards or high score tables, and even virtual stickers.
Finally, learning management systems will often allow you branding, putting your institution or company’s name on each page within the LMS, and on each email that the LMS sends out. This feature is usually found as a paid add-on.
It’s not normally the decision of the professor to select a learning management system, as it’s a choice that affects everybody in an organization. Your institution will usually have a preferred learning management system, often through a contract with an LMS platform provider. Sometimes this contract will be exclusive.
Institutions make decisions about which learning management system to use based on features and functions, informational security, plans and pricing models and robustness of the system overall—are they able to scale up quickly? In some cases, a free trial might be available.
Availability of customer service and support is important, too—some higher educational institutions have large IT departments that can handle queries and issues, some are considerably smaller. For open source LMS systems, the level of support might be lower, support forum-based, or be a purchasable add-on.
Yet learning management systems are not just confined to the higher education world. Corporate use of learning management systems is well-established: Litmos, Talentlms, Skillsoft and Docebo are just four of many examples of LMSs designed for employee training. These kinds of systems are used for training courses for new employees, compliance training, talent management and training management.
Why use a learning management system?
It’s close to impossible to run a modern course, a higher educational institution, or a training program without some kind of learning management system. Quite simply, they are major labor-saving devices that allow teachers to focus on teaching and students to focus on learning, without having to spend time or money on administration.
The origin of learning management systems can be traced back to before personal computers were in common usage, to distance education. The first institution that taught through mailed correspondence was back in 1728 in Boston—a shorthand course. In the early twentieth century, some surprisingly prescient technological leaps were made: Thomas Edison published instructional films in 1910 (among the first “multimedia”) and a ‘teaching machine,’ which generated exercises and question formats, was invented in 1920 and perfected in 1929. (You can see the same thing now, a century later, in tests that are automatically and randomly generated for assessing students.)
The first learning management system software was around the time that personal computers started getting popular in the 1980s. These were not networked until the following decade, when bulletin boards and modems were used to connect computers. The Open University in the UK, a long-standing distance education institutions, built one of the first learning management systems that could be operated over a network in the 1990s, called “FirstClass”.
Now, in the present day, another useful side-effect of learning management systems is standardization. In a higher education setting, it’s important to know that all students are being taught the same courses and being given the same assignments with the same rules, so as to make sure the playing field stays level. This is particularly important if the professor wants to grade the class on a curve.
In a corporate setting, standardization makes sure that everybody is being trained and tested on the same material. Often, this is business-critical—particularly for safety training. Videos and webinars are common online training and online course features. Learning management systems are also used as in employee orientation and corporate training; to make sure that everybody who takes a role at a company is familiar with the company’s history, mission and vision, values, and best practices.
LMS’s are at the core of many elearning courses; as the student is entirely experiencing the course online, if the learning management software is not user-friendly or continually crashes or loses work, the course’s overall evaluation will suffer. An individual or an organization setting up an elearning course will need to decide carefully on which learning management system to use, and what meets the needs of students.
Most LMSs are browser-based, and therefore count as “software as a service” or SaaS. They’re accessible with an Internet connection—because they almost behave like social networks in that they host content and you’re able to interact with fellow classmates and you’re teacher, they don’t work offline. Students usually should be able to download some kinds of lecture content such as slides or PDFs and read them offline, however.
There are a few choices available, depending on the LMS, on how to install. LMSs often run in the cloud, on a central server—much like Google Suite or other externally hosted services. The advantage of this is that you don’t have to invest in IT infrastructure or security, and that server updates and firewalls are all taken care of by your LMS provider.
Other options you might find available include installing and hosting a learning management system locally. This would be an effective idea if your LMS is only to be hosted on a private intranet, for instance—and it offers maximum flexibility on how you use your resources. In some cases, for sensitive or military applications, you may be required to install and host locally.
A happy medium might be a private cloud, where you rent an external server to host the LMS, without necessarily giving up too much control over access, installation and security.
Learning management systems follow the standards set in SCORM, or Sharable Content Object Reference Model. This is a set of technical directions that are an industry standard for interoperability—allowing different LMSs) to communicate with each other.
As well as SCORM being a standard for LMS content storage and retrieval, authors also write according to the standards of SCORM—because that way, their content is portable and can be uploaded to multiple systems.
Content for LMSs can be created in word processors such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs, in video using Adobe Premiere or Final Cut, and presentations by Google Slides or Microsoft PowerPoints—as well as their open source equivalents. There are several third-party free and paid-for software packages that can convert each of these content types to SCORM format so they can be freely uploaded across different LMSs.
Top Hat integrates with several learning management systems that are popular in higher education, including Desire2Learn (D2L), Canvas, Blackboard and Moodle. A straightforward authentication process allows student and course data to be securely imported from most popular LMSs.
Here’s how the process works between Canvas and Top Hat, by way of an example.
1. First, make sure you have created a Top Hat account and course, that your courses on Canvas are published, and that you are an instructor in Canvas (as opposed to a TA, or an administrator). You should designate only one person to manage the syncing of grades.
2. From your course page, click on your name in the upper right hand corner and select “Course Settings.” Select the course you want to sync with Canvas, and then select the option to set up your LMS and sync. Click on the blue “Enable LMS sync” button.
3. Clicking the blue “Authorize Top Hat with your LMS” button will give Top Hat permission to authenticate with your learning Management System.
4. Log in to your Canvas Learning Management System on the screen provided (note: if you are already logged into Canvas in the same browser you may not be provided with this screen and will be logged in automatically).
If you are teaching multiple courses using Top Hat you will want to follow the above steps to authenticate each of your Top Hat courses with its corresponding Canvas course.
When your Canvas course roster has been imported into Top Hat, clicking the blue “Go to Student Manager” button will take you to the student manager screen on Top Hat. Here, you can invite students to the platform, and see a list of all of the students who have been added from Canvas. Students with an existing Top Hat account will be automatically enrolled in your Top Hat course and can be identified by “Enrolled” in the Enrollment column.
If a student does not yet have a Top Hat account associated with their email address, you will want to invite them to create an account and join your Top Hat course. You can select all the students on your pending list, and click on “Invite Selected.”
You can easily transfer student grade data from the Top Hat gradebook to your Canvas grade center. The syncing of the two platforms is a deliberate action and does not occur automatically. Most professors choose to sync regularly to ensure the students’ grade in Canvas is up to date with the inclusion of their Top Hat components. To do this, either click on the “LMS Sync” button in the upper right hand corner of your course gradebook, or sync from your course settings.
There are several flexible options to export grades and attendance rates to Canvas. But whichever LMS you are using, throughout the process our experienced onboarding team will be available to guide you through any integrations you need to make.
Request a demo to find out more about LMS integration.
Top Hat is free to use for educators and instructors. Students pay a fee if you decide to adopt Top Hat in your course.