Learning Management Systems

A Tool for Its Time

As they continue to empower teachers with upgraded instructional options, learning management systems have evolved into something whose old name just doesn’t cut it anymore.

When math teacher Steve Ross saw that one of his students was struggling with algebra and was too embarrassed to speak up in class, he gave the young girl a suggestion.

He asked her to make use of the discussion forum when studying at home through the school's learning management system (LMS). She did as Ross said, using the discussion tool to seek out other students who could help her understand the areas in the math curriculum that were giving her trouble.

The girl, a freshman at Forest Charter School in Nevada City, CA, about 90 minutes from Sacramento, began coming to class with new confidence and taking part in class discussions.

"It really showed me the value of having a new mode for students to communicate," Ross says. "More students can be reached and more can be supported."

Ross, like many educators, is taking full advantage of the new features that LMS vendors are regularly adding to their platforms. Although the formative years of learning management systems trace back further than the 1990s, the development of the web was a crossing point, as was the growth of the participatory environment of web 2.0. The web's second generation expanded the way teachers could operate their classrooms, giving them access to all the emerging browser-based tools, such as blogs and wikis; slide shows, videos, and photos; and programs that plan lessons, link to curriculum standards, deliver content, and monitor student performance. The new functionality has so transformed learning management systems that their manufacturers prefer the term digital learning platform, to better reflect their products' capacity to do a great deal more than manage a classroom.

"At one time it was an ancillary thing," Ross says. "Now it's affecting the process."

On Better Terms
Jon Bower, former president of It's Learning, a Bergen, Norway-based provider whose product is in use at Forest Charter School, explains that the terminology has advanced in step with the push toward a more student-centered education.

"Course management means the system is being used to manage a course," says Bower, who just left It's Learning in July. "Learning management means the system is being used to manage learning, which implies the school or the institution is in control. A digital learning platform is, in effect, neutral. It says the school can control the learning through a centralized curriculum, or the student can control the learning by using the tools in the platform to guide themselves. The old terms didn't really account for that option."

He breaks down the distinction further. "The core content of an LMS is content delivery and assignment interaction. The teacher gives an assignment, the student submits an assignment, the teacher corrects it. The core processes supported by a digital learning platform are far more oriented toward communications. The way I see it, a digital learning platform is the meeting of a series of tools and the demand from educators to move beyond simply delivering a syllabus of content to a student to the point where students gain some control over their own learning pathways."

Those tools Bower speaks of include collaborative elements such as multimedia-enabled discussion threads and online videoconferences. "All built into the system," Bower says. "No extra component needed."

A new feature released by It's Learning this spring is the parent dashboard. It allows parents to log in to the system and see an overview of their child's academic life--behavior, grades, upcoming assignments, etc. Bower calls it "an important innovation." It has also scored big points with Ross. "I don't like surprises at the end of the semester," he says.

A careful attention to terms is also observed by Agilix Labs, the Orem, UT-based maker of the BrainHoney solution. The company has settled on individualized learning system.

"There's been a distinct push to not call it a learning management system, because that's the old style of doing things," says Mark Luetzelschwab, Agilix Labs' senior vice president of product and marketing. "Some people just call it the next generation of LMS."

As Luetzelschwab describes, BrainHoney's developers wanted a tool that would support a range of learning processes--from a single student working remotely at his own pace, to a teacher instructing a group of students with just one laptop and no other technology in the classroom--in its ultimate aim to produce better learning outcomes. The focus on pedagogy was a decisive step. "When we did that," Luetzelschwab says, "we were no longer a traditional learning system,"

BrainHoney's curriculum mapping function follows what Luetzelschwab says any instructional design manual advises: It provides space for users to set objectives first before bringing in assessments and activities that align with those targets. "We provide access to all the state standards; that piece is 100 percent baked in," he says. "Teachers can then build their content."

Once the lessons are done and grades are entered, the system reports on students' progress in relation to the objectives. "The data that an administrator would get on a yearly basis--we bring that data forward to the teacher on a daily basis."

Luetzelschwab says interoperability is another of BrainHoney's important features. "We've really stressed that. We try to make it as easy as possible for our users to integrate with all the other systems so they're not left in a silo. We understand we're part of a larger cloud of curriculum and technology that really needs to work together to align to the ultimate goal, which is the student outcomes."

Jeremy Walker, a Latin teacher at Crown Point High School in northwest Indiana, about 45 minutes from Chicago, relies heavily on BrainHoney's assessment piece, which he says has made the administration of bubble tests vastly easier.

Walker wants to know more than test scores. He wants to know how many students missed each question and which answers students chose most often. The old method required him to fend with multiple data sheets that he had to run through a Scantron machine to get the complementary sets of information.

"You'd have to run two different data sheets to get the same information that you can get in one nice, nifty place in BrainHoney," Walker says. "Instead of doing all that and spending extra money on these sheets to get the data, as soon as the students are done taking the test the data is available at my desk." The BrainHoney platform breaks down the data and shows the test questions and answers. "It's all integrated into one screen, one piece--there it is."

Deeper Integration
One leading player in the learning platform arena that still identifies its product as a learning management system is Washington, DC-based Blackboard.

"They're synonymous with LMS, and they dominate the market," Luetzelschwab says, "so why would they be into a new term?"

But that doesn't mean the company isn't continually augmenting its suite of tools to meet 21st century education demands. Its latest version, Blackboard Learn 9.1, rolled out this past spring, offers new support for social learning. "Wikis and blogs are the headline features," says Ray Henderson, president of Blackboard's teaching and learning division.

The company made an even bigger push in that direction with its purchase of Elluminate and Wimba, two online platforms that enable users to interact live online from separate locations. Henderson says the integration has special appeal to students, who, having grown accustomed to social media, have expectations for 24/7 availability.

"That collaboration is what increases their enagement, which leads to better learning outcomes," he explains. "We're trying to add fuel to that in our system."

The upgrades have been well received by Rob Leo, whose task it is to train teachers in the use of Blackboard in the 23 districts served by the Onondaga-Cortland-Madison Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) in Syracuse, NY.

One important advance Leo describes is a "mashup" function that lets teachers insert content from web-based applications directly into Blackboard, which integrates with YouTube, Flickr, and SlideShare. Leo says that in previous versions if users wanted to embed online content they had to copy and paste the HTML code. That process has been simplified considerably.

"With the click of a button you can search YouTube, find a video you're looking for, click another button, and it's embedded in your Blackboard site," he says.

Teachers can direct their students to view any video or images they have dropped into their page and have them discuss the content in a separate area dedicated to a discussion board or wiki. Blogging, in particular, Leo says, has real pedagogical value. He explains that when students are assigned to follow up their reading by writing a blog about it, their work improves. "The important thing about blogs is that students aren't publishing just for the teacher," he says. "They're writing for a wider audience, so the writing becomes interactive in a sense."

Leo is most fond of the access to live virtual classroom tools. A former social studies teacher, he used to meet with students after hours on Blackboard to answer questions and help them prepare for the following day's exam. But the the exchange was all done through text, which Leo thinks is a general flaw of online communication.

"There is no sense of tone or inflection," he says. Elluminate and Wimba include voice capabilities (and video as well) that create a more personal level of contact. "You can push a button to talk and reach all the students who are enrolled in that session, and they push a button and talk back as long as they have a microphone."

Having taught for 14 years before entering his administrative post last summer, Leo understands the impact that having access to this technology has had on the way teachers do their jobs.

"I taught an AP class--my class sessions were only 42 minutes. There really wasn't enough time, especially with a college-level course. I would rely on Blackboard. I would put up stuff up on a discussion board, or I'd ask the students to do stuff on a wiki, and they would do it outside class because they liked doing it. It made things engaging for them, and it made things efficient for me."

Next Steps
Believing it has taken the digital learning platform yet another stride forward, Time to Know is calling its product a digital teaching platform. The company, headquartered in Jaffa, Israel, has integrated into that platform an interactive core curriculum whose purpose is to serve the classroom teacher in the classroom, as opposed to providing tools for learning that can take place remotely.

"As you start working with digital curriculum, you have to think about what the role of the teacher is, and how the teacher literally choreographs what's happening in the classroom," says John Richards, a Time to Know advisory board member and president of Consulting Services for Education in Newton, MA. Richards says that the system's curriculum "provides a scaffolding or support for teachers in what they're doing."

By her own account, that's precisely what it's done for Kathryn Wiggs, a teacher at Whitt Elementary School in Grand Prairie, TX, nestled between Dallas and Fort Worth, where Time to Know is currently the centerpiece of a two-year pilot program. The program allows Wiggs to pick and choose from a suggested sequence of lesson plans that the company has translated from Hebrew and aligned to both the Grand Prairie Independent School District curriculum and Texas' state academic standards. Each lesson is introduced with a short, animated film that poses a dilemma. As an example, when Wiggs' students learned about Celsius and Fahrenheit temperatures, they first watched a film that followed an imaginary trip of two travelers who brought winter and summer clothes on vacation. Their dilemma was to decide which one packed correctly.

Next, students open their laptops to work on the first of several lessons that pick up where the clip left off. (The program requires a 1-to-1 distribution of classroom computers; Wiggs' students' laptops are on loan from one of Time to Know's partners.) Wiggs is able to track in real time their performance. Last February, Time to Know introduced a monitoring tool that provides her with two progress bars on her computer screen, one that indicates how well the class is performing on the lesson and another that shows how well each student is doing. She can intervene if she sees someone struggling.

"I can go over to that child and do a quick reteach or whatever needs to be done to make sure they're understanding what they're doing," she says. "It allows me to individualize my teaching more while students are discovering and learning."

To move on to the next phase of the lesson, Wiggs clicks a button marked "Eyes on the Screen," which turns students' laptops black and lets her introduce the discussion piece, reviewing with the class what it had been working on, introducing something new, and then returning students to their laptops for the next lesson.

"I absolutely love it," Wiggs says. "There's not really any planning for me to do. Everything is in the lesson, and I know it meets the standards." She notes that Time to Know has curriculum writers based in Austin, TX, busy writing up fresh lesson plans in order to hit any standards in the state's fourth-grade curriculum that may have been missed initially.

Grand Prairie implemented the program in two of Whitt Elementary's fourth-grade classrooms last fall--Wiggs' math class and a language arts class. The outcomes on the spring Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) were sparkling. Wiggs says that 100 percent of the students in the language arts classroom passed the reading portion of the state exam, while her students' pass rate on the math section was 92 percent, which she says was a much better showing than the results from her three classes that were not involved in the pilot. These successes have led the district to expand the program into each of the school's fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms.

So what is likely to be the next progression in learning systems? Richards believes Time to Know has already landed on it.'

"This really is the next evolution," he says. "The part that's really unique about the digital teaching platform allows you on the one hand to have individualization, personalization, on the part of the program. But the teacher can also modify all of this for the class. I see this combination of personalization and classroom teaching as being a very, very big step forward."

Bower and Luetzelschwab both foresee improvements being made to allow for more and more collaboration, particularly among teachers. Bower says It's Learning recently upgraded a mechanism within its interface--a "library" tab--where teachers can share content they've developed, seek out content they need for their courses, and provide help to each other. Luetzelschwab says the hope is to create opportunities for "meaningful collaboration" among educators. "Not posting something on a blog and hoping that somebody else finds it," he says.

Luetzelschwab, however, again emphasizes interoperability as the most significant next step. "We're all part of a larger ecosystem and we have to start making our technology work together to ensure that our students get what they're looking for."


Blackboard: blackboard.com

BrainHoney: blog.brainhoney.com

Elluminate: elluminate.com

It's Learning: itslearning.net

Time to Know: timetoknow.com

Wimba: wimba.com

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of THE Journal.