Every once in a while, an educator will stumble across a new product and have an "aha!" moment, when it's immediately clear that the product will help the district meet a longstanding challenge. For Julie Carter, technology director at Minnetonka Public Schools in Minnesota, that moment came during a technology conference in February with Schoology, a combination of a learning management system and a social media platform.
At Minnetonka, an 8,000-student district with an advanced technology profile, information about school and classroom activities is conveyed via the district website and other software, but the system has been underused for communication and collaboration among teachers and students. "We'd been looking for a way to bridge the gap between our more traditional approach to online communication and the way that students interact with each other every day at home with sites like Facebook," Carter said.
In Schoology, Carter found a Web-based program for schools that would immediately be familiar and comfortable to anyone with a Facebook account, but with the added security, filters and support that districts require. Like Facebook, Schoology is free, with revenue coming not from advertising but from fees for premium options that some districts would find attractive.
"We wanted an online community, a comprehensive set of Web 2.0 tools so students can blog with one another and teachers can communicate with students easily," Carter said. "With Schoology, we get that, plus students can have an identity of sorts in the system and post information about their interests and activities."
In addition to providing dedicated pages for schools, classes and groups, Schoology includes modules for gradebooks, attendance, test and quiz creation and parent access. In the Minnetonka pilot program, most of those advanced features haven't been explored, but Carter said the core features are very popular among the teachers who used the program.
"Everything is intuitive, whether it's uploading an assignment or posting information online," she said. "It really takes a whole layer of work out of the picture for teachers."
Teachers who have piloted the program also report a high degree of student interest. "What's so exciting for teachers is that they see the students' engagement with the product because it's so familiar to them," Carter said. "There's finally something for students at school that looks and feels like what they use at home, and they want to be online interacting with each other."
Carter added that concerns about inappropriate use of Schoology's social media functions were quickly erased. The program can filter for inappropriate language, and every user's interaction with Schoology is recorded and archived. "Even if a student posts something that is inappropriate and then erases it, we can see all the changes and modifications," Carter explained.
Of course, the biggest advantage is that Schoology is free. "With Schoology, free actually means free," she said. "Other products claim to be free but there are hidden costs with support and infrastructure. But we haven't spent a penny on our implementation." She added that the company provided ample assurance about its financial backing and revenue model to dispel any concerns about doing business with a startup or that the free service would someday be replaced by a fee-based system.
Immediate plans in Minnetonka are to expand the pilot from about a dozen secondary teachers to a much larger set of teachers in all grades, including elementary schools. "We definitely see this as becoming an integral part of the classroom and the student and teacher experience in our district," Carter said.
For more information visit www.schoology.com/DA