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LMS enhances K12 instruction

Systems increase engagement, provide quick access to digital resources and help teachers with administrative tasks
At Lawrence Public Schools in Kansas, teacher Paula Barr sits with second graders in her blended learning classroom at Quail Run Elementary School.
At Lawrence Public Schools in Kansas, teacher Paula Barr sits with second graders in her blended learning classroom at Quail Run Elementary School.

Widespread use of digital learning materials, an intensifying focus on achievement and the influx of digital devices into classrooms are increasing districts’ need to have some form of learning management systems (LMS), experts say.

Without an LMS, teachers and students trying to access online education tools must sign in and out of multiple applications, including open education resources, subscription-based learning programs, and websites that teachers created for their courses. Teachers also need to log in to the student information system and administrative applications, such as grade books.

“Learning management systems give teachers a centralized place to post learning resources and make the administration of class work simpler—and the new ones are more student oriented, bringing in more social and collaborative learning,” says Donald K. McIntosh, president of Trimeritus e-Learning Solutions Inc., which helps companies and school systems throughout North America select learning management systems.

The functionality available in today’s learning management systems can help teachers create lessons and resources that engage their students, and deliver personalized learning. Teachers can also automate routine administrative tasks and communicate with colleagues, district leaders, parents and other stakeholders.

The online tools housed in the LMS can be accessed on the many devices used by teachers and students.

And one of the fastest-moving areas of LMS is providing management of digital learning and administrative resources, says Mike Comer, chief strategy officer at Itslearning.

“Nothing is more frustrating to a teacher than to have digital resources from 60-plus sources with different sign-ins, limited search functionality, and the inability to tie content to a curriculum easily,” Comer says.

More than half of the classrooms nationwide have LMS functionality, Comer estimates.

McIntosh compiles a running list of LMS providers for education in the K12 and higher education sectors; at last count it was more than 200.

Advice for selecting an LMS

  • Clearly define your objectives and share them with vendors
  • Pick a solution that is flexible—teachers will become more sophisticated in their use of it
  • Evaluate whether vendors understand the learning process, scope and sequence
  • Ask vendors about adoption rate for their solution
  • LMS selection committee should include teachers, curriculum and instructional team, students, administrators, parents and tech staff
  • Review vendor’s experience in K12 market
  • Conduct a test in one or more schools before making final decision
  • Ask about product’s ability to integrate with other vendor solutions

Sources: Donald McIntosh of Trimeritus e-Learning Solutions Inc., Karen Billings of SIIA, Kate Lewis of Frog Education, Angelique Kobler of Lawrence County Public Schools and Jeremy Friedman of Schoology

Karen Billings, vice president and managing director of the Ed Tech Industry Network of the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), says the vendors include rookies and pioneers.

“Some of the content providers understand the learning process and scope and sequence well, and some other companies understand technology innovation and collaboration tools more,” says Billings. “I see those two parts merging and delivering really great useful systems.”

Take complexity out

An effective LMS is a very complex ecosystem designed to make it easy for teachers and students to access resources from multiple sources.

FrogLearn provides easy-to-build webpages where teachers can add files, create quizzes using familiar drag-and-drop widgets, and post links to resources such as videos and external websites. Teachers can embed free and commercial educational media into their sites with one click of a button. Teachers also can tag resources so students need only to do a quick search to find assignments.

Schoology’s LMS lets teachers create engaging lessons in considerably less time than without an LMS, says Matt Cisneros, a high school Spanish teacher at Arvada High School in Colorado.

In one class, his students log into the LMS to post in Spanish about their favorite character from a book. Students can read and comment on one another’s posts.

Then, students watch short videos of people speaking in Spanish and answer questions to test their listening comprehension. They also write complete sentences in Spanish on an assigned topic and follow a link to a site where they can practice verb conjugation. Cisneros monitors the students’ work from his laptop and provides feedback.

Learning management systems also offer tools to help teachers tailor instruction to individual students. This was one of the main reasons that Lawrence Public Schools in Kansas purchased its LMS from Blackboard, says Angelique Kobler, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning at the district.

With Blackboard, a teacher can include resources for different levels of understanding, which can then be assigned to specific pupils. For example, a student in kindergarten uses a math program available through Blackboard to learn one-digit addition and subtraction while a group of classmates learns the concept with a manipulative.

Meanwhile, another group in the same class visits a website to work on double digits, while another set of students watches a video explaining three-digit addition with base-10 blocks.

“Teachers say they feel like they’ve multiplied themselves by 10,” Kobler says. “It makes us all more efficient but really it’s about achieving the learning outcomes we want to see.”

Curriculum Foundry, a program from learning.com, offers a searchable repository of resources that have been vetted by a district. If a student needs additional help learning about triangles, for example, the teacher can search for and suggest worksheets, videos and other learning materials in the repository.

Most systems give teachers a holistic picture of a student’s progress through a display of homework, class participation and quiz grades that have been entered into the LMS. Itslearning has a “recommendation engine” built into each class that tracks standards and mastery.

If a student does not show mastery on an assessment, the recommendation engine suggests learning tools available in the LMS library.

Collaborate without boundaries

Learning management systems also promote collaboration inside and outside the classroom, engaging students more in their learning and giving a voice to less confident students, experts say.

Students are comfortable with social media tools like blogs, forums and wikis that can be accessed in Blackboard, says Kobler. For example, a teacher can embed Twitter into the Blackboard site to encourage interaction among students. A middle school teacher recently started such a virtual student discussion on the topic of grit.

An LMS also fosters communications on a broader scale. Evergreen School Division in Canada uses Edsby in K12 to share lesson plans, assignments, classroom announcements and other information with parents. Parents can access their child’s attendance, grades and report cards. Online groups can be created for parents and other members of a school committee or advisory council.

Jeremy Friedman, CEO and co-founder of Schoology, says it’s important to think about collaboration beyond the classroom when evaluating an LMS. Districts using Schoology can build upon learning resources created by other Schoology districts around the world. For example, math teachers in different grade levels in a district or throughout a state can collaborate on content and curriculum.

“You have lots of people in a school, district, state and around the world creating content for exactly the same purposes,” says Friedman. “We often find (our customer districts) building and iterating on content together, and then sharing. That way, they are constantly improving and not reinventing the wheel each year.”

Pull it together

One of the promises of an LMS is removing the time and headaches of logging into multiple resources. For this reason, districts need to ask suppliers of systems and instructional content if their applications will work well together.

Lawrence Public Schools has found that some software cannot be integrated into its Blackboard LMS. “We’ve hit some snags where content we were interested in had proprietary behaviors,” Kobler says. “Now before we enter a fee arrangement, we need a guarantee that the software will play nicely with our LMS. We want to reduce the amount of clicks it takes to access an application.”

When Baltimore County Public Schools could not find an LMS that met all its criteria, it took a different approach, says Ryan Imbriale, executive director of the district’s Department of Innovative Learning.

The district supplemented its Engrade LMS with ClassFlow, a teaching and learning platform from Promethean. The systems integrate with each other and with the district’s SIS, and are presented to users through a home page created by the district.

Teachers, students, parents and administrators need to log in only once to access all the resources within the portal.

The student information system provides class roster information, and Engrade provides grade book functionality and houses the district’s digital curriculum. ClassFlow lets teachers customize and personalize learning, then deliver it through most digital devices.

“There was no one silver bullet that did everything we wanted,” Imbriale says. “We purposefully work with different vendors to get the best overall solution.”

Katie Kilfoyle Remis is a freelance writer based in upstate New York.