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Palo Alto USD Brings Social Networking Feel to Students Through Cloud-Based E-Learning System

Palo Alto Unified School District has shifted four of its schools to a cloud-based, social networking-inspired e-learning system, with plans for an eventual system-wide rollout.

After testing out Schoology's free service, administrators at the 12,000-student Silicon Valley school district opted into the company's enterprise-level platform, citing the platform's openness and ease of use, according to Technology Director Ann Dunkin. The district wanted a system that could expand to all grade levels and offer tools like an assignment dropbox, which allows students to submit electronic files to their teachers, she said in a prepared statement.

Teachers, parents and students had already been using the Manhattan-based Schoology's free service--which gives teachers access to classroom management tools, including online tests and quizzes--before beginning the switch to the enterprise-level program in August 2011.

Four of the district's 17 schools use Schoology, Dunkin said. Palo Alto plans to add another high school and middle school to the system in the fall.

"Our plan is to over time roll it out through all the schools," Dunkin said.

Schoology's price is less than half the cost of Palo Alto's previous learning management system, Dunkin said. She declined to share specific figures.

The enterprise-level program integrates its features and functionality into lesson plans and administrative communications. Schools can also customize the system to reflect their brand, generate district-wide report cards, and track statistics on grades and user activity. Scholl includes an LMS, a wide range of instructional tools, microblogging features, and integration with Google Apps.

"It's tightly integrated with the district and is more unified on the district level," said Schoology founder Jeremy Friedman. "It allows them to integrate in the back end."

One of Schoology's selling points is its integration with third-party software. Schools can pull media into the platform from existing systems, like Blackboard, and also have their own log-in portals, Friedman said. Palo Alto is working with Schoology to integrate Turnitin anti-plagiarism software, Dunkin said. When the two systems are combined, students won't have to file their homework through two different sites.

"One of my goals was for students, parents, and teachers to not have to go to too many places for things," Dunkin said.

The system's interface, inspired by Facebook, Google Plus, and Twitter, also drew Dunkin's interest.

"If you've been on Facebook, you can use Schoology," she said. "You don't have to tell students how to use Schoology. It acts to an extent like a social networking tool in a safe environment that we can control."

Palo Alto is one of Schoology's largest clients. A virtual charter school district comprising 11,000 students in Pennsylvania also uses Schoology's enterprise-level platform, as so several private schools, including the Hun School in Princeton, NJ and the Brentwood School in Los Angeles.

About the Author

Jessica DiNapoli is a finance and technology reporter based in Westhampton Beach, NY. She can be reached at [email protected].