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One-Stop Shopping With Learning Management Systems

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Virtual course delivery is only one of many options afforded by an LMS, whichallows educators to transfer online a host of educational and administrative tasks.

One-Stop Shopping With Learning Management SystemsASK BERT ROSS of the Baltimore City Public SchoolSystem (BCPSS) what the district's course learning managementsystem can do, and he'll ask you what can't it do-- forstudents, parents, and educators. Need to take a courseonline due to a scheduling conflict? No problem. Want to seewhat courses your children are enrolled in? Check. Createonline professional development videos for teachers? Done.

The efficiency and versatility of the LMS, which Ross is the manager of, is the result of an effort he began a decade ago, when he received a federal Technology Innovation Challenge Grant to support his efforts to, he says, "create an electronic learning community [so teachers could] break out of their walled classrooms and share resources across the district."

His work led him to Blackboard, whose product offered the ease and functionality that Ross wanted. He christened the new tool the "Teacher Support System," or TSS, and piloted it with a group of six of the district's middle schools teachers. The initiative's success led to its growth districtwide and into every grade level. Today, Ross says TSS is integral to the functioning of the district, enabling BCPSS to now post 27,000 classes online for its 83,000 students and 6,200 teachers.

Ross' vision, provocative a decado ago, is now a standard way of doing school business. Learning management systems helped spawn the boom in online learning programs in school districts nationwide, as well as provide educators with faster, better ways of reaching their students.

Ross says that currently more than 2,500 Baltimore teachers are using TSS at least twice a week, for such tasks as posting lecture notes and conducting assessments. Those assessments are automatically scored by TSS so teachers can get the instant feedback they need on each student. The system also offers teachers the opportunity to receive professional development online using a range of resources, such as a video demonstrating how to create an Excel spreadsheet to mark attendance.

Ross and his colleagues are extending the limits of TSS all the time. He recently signed a requisition to purchase software that will easily integrate with Blackboard so students can collaborate using blogs, podcasting, and wikis.

Ross' enthusiasm for the system has spread to his colleagues. Mike Smith, a functional analyst with BCPSS, calls himself a Ross "disciple," and says TSS is "mission-critical" to the district's operation. "It's a one-stop shop," Smith says. "Teachers can plan a lesson, see the curriculum, store and obtain resources, engage their students, be notified of upcoming professional development, get informed on happenings in the district-- they can do it all packaged at this one location."

Smith, a former math teacher, says he saw firsthand the system's benefits. "It was a way for me to share information without having to run to 20 different machines." It was also a way for him to motivate his students.

"In a typical algebra classroom," he explains, "if you ask a question you may get one or two hands. By using a discussion board or chat feature associated with this application, you may get 100 hits within 15 minutes. It's student-to-student learning. You become the facilitator and not the person who has all the knowledge. If you use this technology in the way students are accustomed to, you get the desired outcome."

The Virtual Classroom

The Gwinnett County Online Campus-- part of Gwinnett County Public Schools in Suwanee, GA-- offers roughly 100 courses. According to the virtual school's director, Matthew Waymack, some 4,500 mostly high school students in the district took at least one class online in 2007.

Making the online education program possible is the LMS from eCollege. The system enables teachers to post course content and lecture notes, exchange e-mail with students, and administer tests and quizzes, among its many options. Waymack goes on about the features: "There's a place where documents can be uploaded and shared. There are discussion boards. There's an area called a 'drop box' where students can submit work in an organized fashion rather than e-mail it to the teacher and plug up the teacher's inbox."

In addition to the asynchronous functions the system can perform, housed among its suite of tools is ClassLive Pro, a real-time virtual classroom environment that is equipped with voice and video capabilities so students can see and hear their instructor-- and even respond if they wish. Waymack says using a webcam keeps his students engaged. "Kids think it's kind of cool, and it makes them pay attention a little better," he says. "If they get sick of looking at me, they can close it."

Every online session is archived as a downloadable podcast in the event students are unable to "attend" class. Beginning this summer, Waymack says that the system will have the added functionality of converting class sessions into video files for students to view at their convenience.

Taking learning management systems well beyond the online classroom, the community at Red Bank Catholic High School in New Jersey employs Naviance's Course Manager in several ways. Parents use the system to do college searches, and students can take career and personality assessments. "It's not too early for anyone to look at anything," says Fran Swift, the school's guidance director, "so freshmen have the same level of ability to look at things as seniors."

All course scheduling is done through Course Manager, so students select their classes online. Once they have received approval, the information is uploaded to a separate scheduling system that works in tandem with the LMS. Next year, Swift says students will be able to use Course Manager to send electronic transcripts to colleges.

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"There's a place where documents can be uploaded andshared. There are discussion boards. There's an area calleda 'drop box' where students can submit work inan organized fashion rather than e-mail it tothe teacher and plug up the teacher's inbox."

One of the system's most useful features is its ability to perform online surveys. Swift recently e-mailed a survey to recent Red Bank graduates asking them what was the best advice they were given, or wish they had been given, about choosing a college to attend. Swift gathered the responses and forwarded them to students she is currently working with.

"It's a learning tool, but not in the typical sense of e-learning,'' she says. "But I'm certainly teaching them something."

Positive Results

The worth of a learning management system ultimately is measured by the same yardstick as every other educational tool: student performance. Both Waymack and Ross say they don't have sufficient data to quantify the impact of their respective systems, but Ross says anecdotal accounts from educators in his district indicate that the environment in the classrooms of teachers who use the LMS is superior to what is reported in nonparticipating classrooms. "The climate of the classrooms is better," he says, "the attendance of the students and teachers is better, and the overall feeling of being engaged is better."

Waymack says the Gwinnett County online program is too small to get an accurate gauge on its impact on test scores, but he notes that the school's students meet or exceed county scores in state end-of-course and advanced placement exams. The school also has a roughly 85 percent course completion rate among enrolled students.

Waymack, too, is gratified by what he has been able to give a large number of students through online learning, and how the trend is growing at a rapid pace nationwide. "I'm thankful I work in a school system which 10 years ago recognized that rather than burying its head in the sand, it needed to embrace online learning," he says. "We have been able to provide the opportunity to graduate to about 125 seniors who may have otherwise gone by the wayside."

Esther Shein is a freelance writer based in Boston.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.

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