Should you build your own LMS?

By Bridget McCrea
September 30th, 2015

Pros and cons of building a district-specific online platform

build-lmsThe online education movement has pushed K-12 schools and districts to rethink the way they develop and deliver content. No longer relegated to using textbooks as their core instructional materials, teachers look to their institutions for help selecting, aggregating, and then delivering relevant content to their pupils. Districts, in turn, must decide whether to build out their own online content platforms, farm it out to a learning platform provider like FuelEd (formerly Aventa Learning) or K12, or take a hybrid approach.

And while core course content is often housed on the district’s internal learning management system (LMS), the extracurricular content—advanced placement (AP), English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), honors, homeschool, and blended learning content—must also be factored into the equation.

Hiring help

In most cases, schools are turning to third parties for help building out their core and non-core content right now, said Allison Powell, VP for new learning models at iNACOL, the nonprofit blended learning advocacy group. “We’re starting to see some K-12 schools wanting to build their own online platforms to house content, but a lot of times they just don’t realize how difficult that is,” she said. “To overcome this issue, schools will contract with the LMS providers and then customize the content itself to meet their individual needs.”

The only problem with that approach is that districts tend to turn to individual teachers for help with the content build out. Already strapped for time and tied up with their day-to-day responsibilities, teachers can get overwhelmed by the additional burden. “To avoid creating burnout, schools need to form teams that include teachers, content experts/instructional designers, and even graphic artists and web developers,” said Powell. “This is better than saying, ‘You’re an algebra teacher, so go build us an [online] algebra class.’”

Of course, if the district has the right level of financing and support, the do-it-yourself LMS route is actually within reach. Powell points to Facebook’s recent move into the K-12 space as an example. The company has assigned a small team of its engineers to work with California-based Summit Public Schools to develop a “Personalized Learning Plan” designed to deliver content and assignments online.

“This is now an open source option that was developed because the district couldn’t find an LMS to support its needs,” says Powell. “These initiatives are expensive, but if you’re lucky enough to have Facebook in your backyard and ready to donate programmers to the [cause], then it’s obviously doable.”

Should those resources be lacking, Powell said schools might consider partnering with an “up and coming” LMS provider and serve as a pilot project for that company. This move can help the LMS hone its offering while allowing the district to have input into the development of the LMS itself. “Years ago Florida Virtual Schools did this with one of its first LMS companies,” Powell recalled, “and then helped the latter expand and customize its offering.”

Taking the DIY route

Even thought most K-12 districts have opted out of building their own content platforms, Powell sees benefits in taking the DIY route. “It would be awesome if every school could develop a platform that meets their specific needs,” said Powell, “but in most cases, a lack of money, IT support, and/or other necessary resources prevent them from doing this.”

At Saint Stephen’s College, a private K-12 school in Australia, director of eLearning Peter West, says trying to build out a content platform is a process that’s “fraught with danger” and that most schools should avoid. “At this point, you just can’t compete with the big guys who have all of the resources and all of the experts onboard,” said West. “Ten years ago you may have been able to handle this in-house, but these days the complexity of a good LMS or online learning environment is huge; it does much more than simply deliver content.”

Besides, educators don’t necessary understand the intricacies and depths of technology (much like technical types don’t understand education in the classroom). For example, West said technology professionals often make platform-related decisions from a technical standpoint—without factoring the classroom into the equation. Educators, on the other hand, view the platform from their own perspectives and without considering its technical capabilities.

In place for four years, Saint Stephen’s College’s LMS—which it acquired from a third party and then populates with its own content (both original and acquired from other sources)—includes not only core content, but also grade books, rubrics, blended learning modules, sports programs, and even professional development materials. “We’ve taken a very structured approach to slowly moving all of our content online,” said West, “even student-centered courses that support our ‘Bring Your Own Laptop’ program.”

To K-12 districts looking to build or buy a new online platform to house core content, both Powell and West advocate a thorough “gut check” before taking on the project internally. West, for example, recently heard from a school that two years prior was determined to build out its own LMS, only to spent 24 months on a project that will likely never come to fruition. “It didn’t take the big picture view of the undertaking,” said West, “and now the school is looking around for a new solution.”

Bridget McCrea is a contributing writer for eSchool News.