Should you build your own LMS?

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.


MIND Research hosts math fair in Chicago

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and Secretary of Education Beth Purvis cut ribbon on free educational event

math-mindThousands of Chicagoans experienced math through games, puzzles, theater performances, music, technology and even a bounce house on September 26 at Navy Pier.

MIND Research Institute’s 2015 Math Fair: At the Square Root of Fun, was brought to Chicago in partnership with LEAP Innovations to engage children with fun yet challenging math experiences outside of the classroom.

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and Secretary of Education Beth Purvis welcomed guests to the Math Fair. “Math skills are really, really important and their value is only growing,” said Governor Rauner. “Every child deserves the American Dream, and that’s where education comes in, and math is the key.”

Research shows that early math skills are the number one predictor of later academic achievement. That, and the fact that 20 percent of all US jobs require skills in at least one of the science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) fields, has helped to make it a national education priority to inspire a new generation to embrace math skills and problem solving.
Joining Rauner and Purvis to cut the ribbon on the fair were Annette Gurley, Chief of Teaching and Learning at Chicago Public Schools; Phyllis Lockett, CEO of LEAP Innovations; and Matthew Peterson, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of MIND Research Institute.

The 56,000-square-foot Math Fair included 20 exhibits for visitors of all ages. Activities included a Math Mystery Theater where kids used iPads to interact with performers and help solve math puzzles, 3D-printed mathematical curiosities for kids to touch and explore concepts like conic sections and parabolas, a laser game that let players use mirrors to discover symmetry and angles, a station for children to build their own games, the Lil’ Mathematician Zone designed to engage children 5 years old and under with stories and tactile games that parents can replicate at home, and more. Visitors also played ancient African games at South of the Sahara, an exhibit unveiled for the first time in Chicago.

“At LEAP Innovations we are creating the future of education right here, right now – and we’re thrilled to have partners like MIND Research Institute who are dedicated to the same work,” said Phyllis Lockett, CEO of LEAP Innovations. “When learning outside the classroom is fun, engaging and connects to what’s happening inside of school, it helps bring the whole learning experience to life.”

Throughout the day, family math workshops helped parents learn to conquer “Homework Without Tears,” demonstrate to their children how “Math is Everywhere” and more. At the conclusion of the fair, top-ranking teams of the 2015 national K-12 Game-a-thon were also recognized. Take-home activities booklets provided in both English and Spanish should help families continue conversations about math and problem solving with their children.

“At MIND we have a two-pronged approach. We have our ST Math program in schools and our MathMINDs programs outside of school where we engage with families and the community,” said Matthew Peterson, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of the MIND Research Institute. “If we want to change how people feel about math, we have to change how they experience math and see its beauty in the world around them, and that’s what the Math Fairs and other MathMINDs events are all about.”

The Math Fair is the brainchild of Peterson, who also created the ST Math® game-based learning program used by more than 22,000 children in Chicago-area schools.

The national Math Fair is the cornerstone of the MathMINDs movement, which aims to shift the cultural perception of math from being scary and frustrating to exciting and essential. To do this, MathMINDs engages the community and students in hands-on mathematical experiences outside the classroom. These include math camps, family math nights, the national K-12 Game-a-thon, and other activities where students and families discover they are capable problem-solvers in a mathematical world.

The Math Fair sponsors included CME Group Foundation, IMC Financial Markets and the Chicago Sun-Times. At each exhibit space, corporate and individual volunteers brought the fair to life by facilitating learning experiences and explaining the related mathematical concepts.

Check out the Math Fair Storify for photos and visitor experiences.

Material from a press release was used in this report.


10 schools to pilot new digital courseware

One-year project is funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

digital-coursewareCitizen Schools, a national educational nonprofit focused on extending the learning day for high-need students by providing direct instruction and project-based apprenticeships taught by volunteers, has received a $350,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to evaluate digital courseware designed to provide appropriately challenging content for middle school students.

Citizen Schools will develop the program at schools across four states that are currently using digital courseware during the expanded day.

The schools are:
1. Greenleaf Elementary School (Oakland, Calif.)
2. Joseph George Middle School (San Jose, Calif.)
3. William L. Sheppard Middle School (San Jose, Calif.)
4. Chase Elementary School (Chicago, Ill.)
5. Carter G. Woodson South Elementary School (Chicago, Ill.)
6. Theophilus Schmid Elementary School (Chicago, Ill.)
7. Carter School of Excellence (Chicago, Ill.)
8. Joseph A. Browne Middle School (Chelsea, Mass.)
9. Eugene Wright Science and Technology Academy (Chelsea, Mass.)
10. Renaissance School of the Arts (East Harlem, N.Y.)

Data gathered at the sites will examine barriers to experimentation with digital courseware while exploring ways to improve product efficacy, and develop the market for additional digital course offerings.

“Citizen Schools’ existing network of expanded day sites offers a unique setting to achieve this project’s goals by combining openness to innovation, access to a high-need student population, and channels for diffusion of learning back to the mainstream public school system,” said Steven Rothstein, CEO of Citizen Schools. “We are thrilled that the Gates Foundation has chosen to support this important initiative, as part of its interest in developing healthy and transparent market for highly effective learning technologies.”

The grant also will support training for Citizen Schools’ staff to ensure effective use of the digital tools. According to Rothstein, forty percent of all Citizen Schools sites are incorporating digital courseware or blended learning strategies into the learning day this school year.

Material from a press release was used in this report.


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