These districts and schools are drawing more benefits out of their learning management systems
Learning management systems originally got their start in higher education, serving as central hub for college students to drop in assignments, check grades, and contact their professors. Needless to say it caught on with universities—and eventually school districts.
Today’s LMS is a bit of an upgrade, with new features and design elements frequently drawn from the social networking sites students love so much. Developed by Blackboard, Desire2Learn, itslearning, Takai, Canvas, and a host of others, these solutions focus on helping educators organize and orchestrate learning tools, educational approaches, and whole courses.
Any time schools get a new software program, they tend to pick off the low hanging fruit—i.e. the simplest functions or features—and never make full use of the programs’ capabilities, and/or interoperability with other systems. For most, the LMS is rarely so different.
Not so at Houston Independent School District, Ontario’s Greater Essex County, and Brooklyn LAB Charter School—three places where the LMS is being used in pretty innovative ways. Here’s what these institutions are doing and how it’s working for them.
Pie in the sky
About two years ago Houston Independent School District, with its 283 schools and 215,000 students, went in search of an LMS that would help teachers create and use coursework that was both digital and aligned to Texas state standards (Texas pointedly does not use the Common Core). The district put out an RFP and worked with a research firm to get an idea of how far these systems had come in the K-12 space. “We wanted a solution that included curriculum and content management on a single platform,” said L. Beatriz Arnillas, director-IT, education technology at the district.
Ideally, Houston ISD wanted to be able to link learning objectives to specific standards, thus creating a system that teachers could use to determine subject mastery and proficiency of individual students. “It sounded like a ‘pie in the sky’ goal, but we actually had at least three good contenders to select from,” said Arnillas. The district chose itslearning because it enables the meta-tagging of learning objectives within the district’s libraries and the creation of assessment data that tells teachers whether a student has gained proficiency (or not).
Arnillas said this advanced LMS functionality allows teachers to link individual questions—or groups of questions—to a specific learning objective. If an instructor is covering three different learning standards within a specific module, for example, he or she can create a 5-question assessment and quickly learn whether individual students “got” the material or not.
“Our teachers can review the assessment results and figure out who is and isn’t mastering the standards,” said Arnillas, “and then get a list of LMS-generated recommended objectives that can be used to re-teach the standards that weren’t mastered.” This, in turn, helps teachers provide a very personalized learning experience, she added.
Teachers then select the resources that they want to use/include and give students access to that information. Getting instructors to use the system has been easy in some instances and more difficult in others, said Arnillas, who sees this as one of the bigger challenges of integrating an LMS. “There’s a bit of a learning curve for some teachers, so the professional development piece has been very important during this process,” said Arnillas. “Those who have jumped in and learned how to use it are pleased with the results.”
Build it and they will come
When Erin Mote started looking around at the software market for an LMS to use at Brooklyn LAB Charter School in New York, nothing really stood out for this technology and mobile applications expert. So she decided to build her own system. As co-founder of the school and executive director of InnovateEDU, Mote developed Cortex. Supported by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Cortex was designed to leverage the Ed-Fi Data Standard to “generate actionable evidence that helps to improve and inform teaching and learning,” said Mote.
Using visual cues that include green for “mastery,” yellow for “near mastery,” and red for “no mastery,” Cortex allows students and parents to view progress against grade level standards as well as traditional metrics such as grades, attendance, and completed assignments. “It also allows teachers to see key indicators beyond mastery, such as progress vs. pace, for each student against the entire class,” Mote explains, “and how the student scores against prerequisite standards.”
Mote’s goal was to create a platform that teachers, parents, administrators, and students could use to “digest a wide range of data in a way that doesn’t include 16 different spreadsheets or 10 different technology systems,” she explained. “Teachers already do so much. They’re leading and teaching classrooms, serving as part-time guidance counselors and social workers, and aligning their courses to standards and other protocols,” she continued. “We shouldn’t be asking them to talk like PhD-level data scientists.”
According to Mote, Cortex’s biggest strength is its ability to digest incoming data and make it understandable and accessible for users. For example, Mote said the solution incorporates “playlists,” which can be created by either teachers or students. The playlist functionality allows students to progress through a series of lessons (e.g., Khan Academy modules or math manipulative units from Motion Math) and then take a unit assessment to “prove what they know.”
Teachers use the playlists to see how pupils progress through material. Schools have the option of locking and unlocking those playlists (on certain dates, for example, or by student mastery of the playlist content). “This allows teachers to not just deliver classroom content,” said Mote, “but also to support independent, self-directed learning either outside of class or in the computer lab.”
Currently being piloted by several other K-12 institutions in New York, Cortex fills in some of the gaps Mote noticed in other LMS platforms. “We felt that there really wasn’t an LMS that worked with our academic model,” said Mote. “And while I don’t advocate going out and building an LMS from scratch, we had the expertise and the right setting to built it in, so we went for it.”
Out of many, one
At Greater Essex County District School Board (GECSDB) in Windsor, Ontario, teachers have always been able to select their own LMSs. Platforms from Desire2Learn, Edmoto, Moodle, Blackboard, are used throughout the district, which encompasses 35,000 students, 57 elementary schools, and 15 secondary schools. This non-centralized approach has been in place for years, and often finds students and parents using multiple usernames, logins, and platforms to retrieve information.
“My daughter had five logins during her final year of high school,” said John Howitt, superintendent. On a mission to “reduce the number of places people have to go for information,” he said the board has been working to consolidate its learning management systems. As part of that mission, GECDSB also wanted to integrate its student information system in a new, centralized LMS.
After researching its options, the board selected Edsby’s cloud based system. Teachers aren’t required to use the new system, but Howitt’s hope is that they will see the value in consolidating information on a single platform that integrates the board’s SIS and LMS. “Ontario has stringent reporting guidelines, so we don’t have much choice when it comes to student information systems,” Howitt explains, noting that the existing SIS lacked functionalities like parent portals, electronic attendance capabilities, and certain reporting tasks.
“The fact that Edsby could wrap around our existing SIS was a big draw; it allowed us to implement change management without any risk to our funding,” said Howitt, who also liked the fact that the platform’s developers previously worked for FirstClass, an email client. “We used FirstClass for 15 years very effectively,” he adds, “and we really missed its conferencing capabilities.”
As it happens, the platform offers a similar “group” conference capability, mixed in with a “bit of a Facebook-wall kind of feel,” said Howitt. Using the timetable that’s built into the SIS, for example, ninth-grade science teachers are automatically placed in collaborative “groups” that allow them to pose questions about the curriculum, share resources, and interact without have to send out email messages to the entire group.
With LMS pilot programs currently underway at four of its schools—and the rest of its secondary schools coming onboard this month—GECSDB’s IT department should benefit from the centralized information-sharing system. “We continually struggle with maintaining sufficient IT support, so any processes that we can automate are a big deal,” said Howitt.
The SIS houses all student and parent contact information, timetables, and attendance data, for example, and populates the LMS with that information automatically. That means IT no longer has to set up accounts, manage accounts, and/or create groups, Howitt said. “As students change classes or schools, the associated data is all controlled in an automated way.”
Acknowledging the stumbling blocks that can come up when 4,500 teachers are asked to voluntarily switch to a consolidated technology system of any kind, Howitt remains confident in the board’s decision. “We’re never going to be able to satisfy everyone,” he admits. “No matter how great the tool is, there’s always someone who will want to use a different one, but at some point you have to make a decision and go with it. That’s what we did.”