Learning Management Systems

4 Features to Look for in a 21st Century LMS

Two districts share their experiences of choosing a learning management system that does a lot more than help teachers post assignments.

Choosing an LMSIf sheer choice is any indicator, there has never been a better time for school systems to adopt a learning management system. The traditional market leaders that have delivered LMSes into higher education for years — Blackboard, D2L, Moodle and Pearson — have expanded their reach to support K-12. They join plenty of products that have been there all along: Aspen, itslearning and Edmodo, among others. And there are plenty of relative newbies in the LMS ranks angling for their own slice of the education pie, such as Google Classroom and Instructure with Canvas.

Unlike their higher ed counterparts, many of the 13,600 public school districts in the United States have never adopted an LMS, so there's a ripe market opportunity for vendors. What's driving schools into this category of software is the uptick in student computing, the pursuit of technology that can simplify the personalization of instruction, a desire to broaden communication throughout the school community and a craving to use data to guide decision-making.

21st Century LMS Shopping List
It's a sure bet that every program calling itself an LMS these days offers the course-management basics: providing a way for students to submit assignments and for teachers to run online discussions and deliver announcements. But those were the same features LMS users wanted a decade ago, and they pale in comparison to what users are looking for now:

  • An intuitive interface that mimics consumer social networks;
  • Collaboration that goes far beyond standard teacher-student communication;
  • Assessments with analytics responsive enough to drive instruction for that day, week or month; and
  • The capacity to provide a structure for organizing digital learning resources and sharing them locally and broadly.

Like districts all over the country, Roaring Fork School District in Colorado is in the midst of an LMS evaluation right now. According to Technology Integration Facilitator Ben Bohmfalk, the teachers have never had an LMS, and they are trying two. About 20 percent of the teachers have picked up Google Classroom; and a handful of educators are piloting Schoology.

The district arrived at this point after adopting Google Apps for Education several years ago, then beginning the steady trek to 1-to-1. Because it seemed to be a simple fit with Google Apps, the district picked up Google Classroom when it was officially introduced in August 2014. While the free program has added to what teachers are "doing in the classroom," he noted, it lacks some of the curriculum features teachers most want, whereas Schoology appears to fill those gaps.

Evergreen School Division in Manitoba, Canada, sought an LMS as a way to consolidate the functionality being provided by a bunch of different software its schools had adopted through the years. According to Superintendent and CEO Paul Cuthbert, the district used one tool for attendance, another for a gradebook and various programs for classroom-based Web sites and blogs. A two-year assessment process whittled the choices down to one: Edsby. After a year of piloting and a year of rolling it out to teachers in its high schools, the early and middle school teachers have access to the new LMS.

A Social Interface
Of all the LMSes that Roaring Fork checked out, Schoology turned out to be the most intuitive, said Bohmfalk. "It's set up the closest to a social network style of interface. While some people might not love that if they're not social network users, it's an interface that's really familiar to all teachers and students immediately. You can just click around and figure things out."

It's not just the interface that gives that impression. Schoology also makes it easy for users "to find people and connect with people," he added, just like "Facebook."

Cuthbert used the Facebook comparison too, but in regards to Edsby. "I would equate it to a Facebook but in a protected area and that's focused exclusively around the teaching and learning process," he said.

An aspect of Edsby that is getting a lot of use at Evergreen is the ability for the educators to collaborate by forming "groups" across the school system. "Essentially, these have become like professional learning communities for us," explained Cuthbert. Not only have teachers begun using the LMS to share resources for instructional purposes, he added, but committees within the school system have adopted it as well. "It gives us that common repository where we can archive important files. It's really been a very powerful tool for us in that way."

Bohmfalk expressed similar sentiments regarding Schoology. "I like their groups feature. Instead of just creating a course, if we have social studies teachers across the district collaborating to develop curriculum, most LMSes would require them to set up a course and invite people to it." Schoology, on the other hand, allows the teacher to set up a group and choose whether it will be open member, membership by invitation only or membership by request. Bohmfalk envisions a day when those groups will percolate throughout the district, allowing people to "voluntarily join and then collaborate within that environment: have a discussion, share resources, create a rubric, create an assessment and then pull it from there into their course environment."

Assessments and Analytics
An absolutely "critical" function for Roaring Fork is the ability to pull data out of the LMS to help guide instruction. "The reality is that most teachers and administrators don't have the data at their fingertips to be able to make better instructional choices," Bohmfalk asserted.

The goal for analytics is twofold: first, to be able to create assessments that "show us whether students are on the right track or in need of intervention and then deliver that"; and second, to identify classes where results are "amazing," whose teachers could deliver professional development to share what's working and what's not.

While "all" LMSs tout their analytics nowadays, observed Bohmfalk, the default analytics, he said, "largely relate to how long students stayed on the page or how many students logged in and for how long."

While Schoology and the others are racing right now to develop strong assessment analytics tools, Roaring Fork has had a hard time finding that feature included with the other features it wants in an LMS. Bohmfalk acknowledges that the district could simply “get an assessment analytics platform," but then it would lose out on the other functionalities of an all-around useful application.

Room for Digital Learning
At the district level in Roaring Fork, teacher teams are developing curriculum and assessments, and there's no way for them to share those other than in a Google Drive folder, said Bohmfalk. There are two problems with that: First, it's not a "student-facing kind of thing." Teachers can't share the curriculum with students that way. Second, "if you put everything in a folder ... it's easy to forget it's over there."

The Colorado district isn't alone in pursuing a solution to this need. As IMS Global Learning Consortium CEO Rob Abel wrote recently, "Leading districts are adopting K-12-oriented learning platforms to organize their digital content — an absolute necessity going forward. School districts have [hundreds] of grade- and subject-specific learning resources moving to digital." Alas, he added, "There are no clear front-runners or market share leaders yet in this new category."

While Evergreen has settled into Edsby, Roaring Fork is still noodling over its choices. "We're trying to figure out which of those best meets our needs without teachers feeling like, 'Oh, gawd, it's one more thing to learn, one more place to go,'" said Bohmfalk. While Schoology is the frontrunner in the district, it may be that neither LMS currently in use makes the final cut.

That's a possible outcome he's resigned to. "We're kind of looking for this one-stop shop kind of thing that's also super intuitive. So it's asking a lot of a platform."

Extra Credit
4 Keys to Picking an LMS
Evergreen's Cuthbert pointed to Edsby's willingness to work with his smallish school system on customizations that really helped seal the deal. "We're not a large district, of course. We value the relationship we had with them," he said. It helped that the company wanted to make inroads with other districts in the same province and that Evergreen was willing to become a "reference" customer.

Student information system integration was another factor that worked in Edsby's favor. "Vendors will often say, 'Oh, yeah, we'll integrate with that product,' but when it comes down to the actual integration, it's a nightmare," noted Cuthbert. In this case, the company could back up the promise with a "track record" of integrating with the specific student information system that Evergreen was using.

At Roaring Fork, Bohmfalk took comfort in the fact that a lot of other districts in his state had already adopted Schoology after going through their own "rigorous selection process." Not only did these districts serve as a reference check, but he says he's hoping they'll also turn into "one big user group" for collaboration and sharing of resources such as assessments and curriculum.

Schoology came in with "some really competitive" pricing compared to other LMS contenders, said Bohmfalk. But even better, as a member of the state's eLearn Collaborative, which has negotiated consortium pricing, the district saw its quote cut nearly in half.