District technology and instructional leaders face a daunting task when trying to figure out which learning management system to choose. But school districts have been using these systems for years, and along the way have gained important insights about avoiding potential problems, partnering with vendors, and evaluating what is and is not working. To identify lessons learned about selecting and deploying learning management systems, Education Week recently interviewed school leaders from four districts:
Marty Bray, the chief technology and information officer for the 42,000-student Forsyth County district in Georgia
Marisa Burkhart, a curriculum and instruction director for the 9,300-student Consolidated School District 158 in Algonquin, Ill.
Michael A. Jamerson, the director of technology for the 12,500-student Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. in Columbus, Ind.
Jason L. Naile, the coordinator of digital learning for the 42,000-student Forsyth County district in Georgia
Kristin M. Whiteaker, the director of virtual and blended learning for the 29,300-student Spokane public schools in Washington state
What problems have you encountered with your learning management systems?
Naile: We like to say we had two divorces along the way. One partner did not match up with our vision, so we had to part ways with them. The next partner was not able to do what we wanted to do.
Jamerson: In some cases, they weren’t customizable to suit our younger students, so [the LMS] didn’t have the look and feel that would work for a first or second grader. Or they weren’t customizable to each grade level, so [students] wouldn’t have the support they need across grades as they grow older.
How many systems did you examine in your research for a new one, and what helped you eliminate many of them?
Jamerson: Eleven different solutions. We look at everything in our district through the Universal Design for Learning lens, so we wanted systems that supported those principles and guidelines. They were eliminated if they didn’t fit those criteria. Several of them were very sterile-looking, very word-oriented, very linear. [Universal Design for Learning provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that are intended to work for everyone.]
Naile: We vetted all the major LMSs out there, talked with district leaders about what they were using, and looked at some emerging vendors. We chose about 10, then after individual demo calls, narrowed it down to three and had a half-day meeting with each of them.
Burkhart: Five or six of the big ones. [One] was complicated to support. It’s free, but not really free because you have to pay somebody to host it. Or you have to do that yourself, which we didn’t have time to do. A lot of LMSs felt like they were higher-ed solutions that were rebranded for K-12 and were difficult for teachers to use to create content, but [the one we chose] was built for K-12, and it felt that way.
What’s a lesson learned from your implementation?
Burkhart: Sometimes teachers think of an LMS as the same as a static website, so they would put all their resources on a couple of pages. But for students working in an LMS, the idea is more about building an online class and walking students through the experiences you want them to have. From a design perspective, it’s having more pages with less on each page.
Whiteaker: Work with a company that can support you as you’re growing, assist with strategic planning, and when there’s a problem, you know that company will be by your side to fix it.
What would you like to see in an LMS?
Whiteaker: I’d like to see single sign-on and to have one electronic text-management tool for students. I’d like to see a standards-based grading and reporting option in the gradebook and a way to have more dashboards/analytics available for students, teachers, and parents, so it’s easier to see student data.
Jamerson: We created a list of non-negotiables—elements that any successful candidate had to have. That list included support for Universal Design for Learning principles, for all grades, a variety of instructional settings and assessment tools, integration with collaboration tools and the student-information system, support for rubric-based outcome measurements, and for a variety of technology platforms.
Naile: We supplied a wish list of 270 items of the functionality we wanted. On that list, we wanted to know what they already had and what they needed to have developed.
What would you like to see in an LMS partner?
Naile: We wanted the ability to send in enhancement requests and to be sure they would follow through. By the end of [an introductory] meeting, we were able to determine whether this was going to happen, by their responses and body language.
Bray: It’s a partner relationship in that, even though not all of our requests get folded into our product, they’re aware of our trends, and we’re aware of the directions they’re going in. Those lines of communication really do help.
What do you think about the cost of learning management systems?
Naile: It had to be “cost neutral"—the same price we were paying for our former LMS. We were looking at this in 2012, and the economy really hadn’t picked up at that time, so we wouldn’t be able to pay more per student than we were paying at that time.
Bray: That comes to about $15 per seat [which includes both the cost of the LMS, at $8.50 per seat, and $6.50 per student for Learning Station, the assessment engine.]
Burkhart: There are lots of free things available, but free will only get you so far. We really need something that will give us districtwide control. So we pay about $7 per student now.
Jamerson: Price is one of the things that knocked out some of the solutions. We would like to see it in the range of $4 to $8. That’s a pretty broad range.
How frequently do you conduct a performance review of your LMS partner?
Whiteaker: Annually. We do a review of all the other learning management systems to see what the new functionality is.
Burkhart: After three years, I think if I said, “Maybe we should start looking,” I’d have to get a bulletproof vest. The teachers have spent so much time working with their courses and creating them.
What advice do you have for districts looking for learning management systems?
Bray: It’s harder for smaller districts. They don’t have the financial weight. In those cases, it helps if districts can partner with each other. If the leadership’s in place, it will give them more leverage as a consortium.
Burkhart: For districts just starting out, the shopping part is difficult. Include the teachers. Some of the teachers and administrators maybe have not had the experience of using one, so identify clear goals for what usage expectations are. A teacher may think, “I want to use an LMS in this way in my classroom,” but that may not be what the district goal is.
Also, watch out for your bandwidth. People wanted [the LMS], and that was great. But to have the bandwidth behind it, to support everybody logging in and using it everyday, it’s something to plan for in terms of your long-term strategy and support.
Jamerson: Be very clear on your goals from the start. What do you want to accomplish with it? What do you need for your vision of instruction? From that, build a list of non-negotiables. Use that as a filter.
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2014 edition of Education Week as Q&A: Ed-Tech Leaders’ LMS Needs