IT Infrastructure & Management

How Statewide LMS Options Could Help Schools Strengthen Remote Learning

By Mark Lieberman — May 21, 2020 7 min read
Photo of girl using desktop computer.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

One tech lesson learned during COVID-19 school building closures: putting a statewide learning management system in place could be a powerful first step toward solving massive tech equity challenges, especially in rural states.

Take Idaho, for example. The state education department there has started a search for a learning management system it can offer next school year as an option for all schools in the state, many of which currently lack the tools they need to offer robust remote instruction.

Several states, meanwhile, already offer a state-sanctioned LMS option to their schools, with some encouraging results in their efforts to cut costs and improve technical capabilities.

Extended school shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic have upended traditional instruction and forced many school districts to confront prior technological shortcomings. The economic downturn caused by nationwide stay-at-home orders could lead to devastating cuts for school budgets.

The pandemic has highlighted challenges schools must confront and overcome to successfully deliver instruction to students at a distance. In Idaho, some of the biggest challenges are keeping families informed and students on track.

“We came to recognize that we need a systematic way to communicate with our students and our parents,” said Sherri Ybarra, Idaho’s superintendent for public instruction. “We’ve also heard from many parents concerned that their children are not seeing the same access or the same opportunities enjoyed by their peers.”

Ybarra wants schools to prepare for offering a hybrid of in-person and remote instruction next school year. She expects parents will have higher expectations than they did this spring. “The main critical piece is knowing we can deploy content and curriculum and have a systematic way of interacting with our students should we have to be exposed to another set of closures,” Ybarra said.

Ybarra’s team is currently collecting information on districts’ needs and plans to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for a new LMS within a month and a half. The goal is to have an option ready for schools to adopt in time for next school year.

Learning management systems provide schools with a centralized platform for teachers to upload assignments, post grades, and communicate with students. Educators across the country differ widely in how much they use LMS platforms like Canvas, Moodle, Schoology, and Blackboard, if their school has one at all. Other schools prefer more bare-bones but user-friendly tools like Google Classroom.

How It’s Working Elsewhere

In 2016, a virtual learning task force at the Wyoming Department of Education found that some schools in the state were spending more than $25 per student for a learning management system, while other schools didn’t have one at all. The state’s higher education institutions happened to be on a similar LMS search at the time, paving the way for a statewide K-20 solution, said Laurel Ballard, supervisor of the department’s student and teacher resources team.

Four years later, five of the seven Wyoming higher education institutions and roughly 30 of 48 school districts in the state have adopted the state agency’s Canvas LMS option, Ballard said. School districts pay the user licensing fees and the state covers the cost of training and customer support. A Canvas employee serves as an adoption consultant, helping the state’s schools transition to the new platform.

The rollout didn’t happen overnight. At first, only six districts had signed on. Even now, some schools use the LMS they’ve adopted more consistently and robustly than others.

But the statewide contract, and the availability of a dedicated Canvas consultant, helped schools quickly launch new remote learning initiatives when COVID-19 shutdowns started, according to Ballard. “Because we already had a statewide piece in place, we were able to put that together for districts at the drop of a hat” with three or four training sessions a day as well as drop-in office hours with the Canvas consultant, Ballard said.

Some districts that previously had one learning management system for middle and high school students and another for elementary school students told Ballard they now prefer having one LMS for the entire district. Students know what to expect from year to year, schools can more easily share courses, and the cost per student for an LMS in the state is now less than $4. Ballard estimates the state would save $250,000 a year if all Wyoming districts took the statewide option.

Only 30 certified staff members out of 180 in Wyoming’s Carbon County School District One were using Canvas as of this February, said Joshua Jerome, the district’s technology director. One week into the planning for COVID-19 closures, that number shot up to nearly all staff members. The statewide option hadn’t lured most teachers prior to the pandemic, but the urgency of sudden building closures change that fast.

“If we didn’t have this one direction to go, it would have been very difficult to provide the level of support and services that we’ve been able to,” Jerome said.

Wyoming isn’t alone. As of 2018, Utah’s legislature has appropriated ongoing funds for K-12 schools to use Canvas, with schools required to pay a one-time $2,500 licensing fee.

Jerome offers a sports analogy to explain the value of a statewide LMS option: “If I was getting ready for a game, and the court size changed every other game, how would you deal with that?” he said. “If you don’t have some sort of space that is equal for all students, obviously kids can still learn, but you don’t have conformity.”

An Emergency Opportunity

In Vermont, a statewide LMS option came about as a direct result of the pandemic. The Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative, a state-funded agency, for years has offered online courses to schools in the state, filling in availability gaps and providing more flexibility for students.

Jeff Renard, the cooperative’s executive director, worked with state officials to offer the cooperative’s Canvas platform to all schools in the state, not just the ones taking advantage of specific courses developed for them. Teachers who were already certified to offer instruction virtually through the cooperative now lead training sessions for instructors with no online teaching experience.

“Yes it’s a statewide LMS, but the reality is it takes a lot of mentoring, professional learning, the content, the facilitation of those courses, and the ability to capture student data to effectively support students to be successful,” Renard said.

Some schools have asked whether they can migrate content from their existing platform to Canvas so they can take advantage of the professional development opportunities. The answer is usually yes, but each system has a different migration protocol, Renard said.

Other states have taken different approaches. When the pandemic hit, Pennsylvania offered schools two LMS platforms, Odysseyware and Edgenuity.

A Broader Picture

COVID-19 has accelerated a trend toward “centralization” of K-12 technical resources like the learning management system, said Phil Hill, an education technology consultant who tracks LMS adoptions in the K-12 and higher ed systems. “Districts and states are saying, we can’t afford to let everybody do stuff on their own,” Hill said.

A statewide option carries risks, though. An LMS company that woos top-level administrators with a robust sales pitch might not be as appealing to teachers who use the tools every day. Some teachers currently prefer Google Classroom, which is similar to LMS products but lacks data analytics capability and other more sophisticated features, Hill said.

New Mexico entered a contract with Desire2Learn (D2L) as a statewide LMS option for K-12 schools, but Hill’s data show that many schools adopted Canvas instead. “There wasn’t a strong correlation between the state contract and what districts were actually using,” he said.

States with majority rural populations, like Wyoming and Idaho, and/or small school districts might be more likely to find success with a statewide LMS option, Hill said. “There’s going to be much more political pressure to have the states solve the problem” of unequal access in areas where schools don’t have the resources for a full-fledged IT department that can launch an LMS adoption on its own, he said.

That’s certainly true in Idaho, where Ybarra wants to address technology access challenges for schools in rural areas. “We want to make sure that those kids have the same opportunities as the districts who have a robust LMS,” she said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.