Special Report
IT Management

Making the Big LMS Buying Decision

By Michele Molnar — September 29, 2014 7 min read
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Four learning management systems—Echo, Edmodo, Moodle, and MyBigCampus—are used in various classrooms in the 12,500-student Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. But now, leaders there have decided it’s time to choose just one that can meet their future needs.

“One of our goals is to have a seamless solution for K-12,” said Michael A. Jamerson, the director of technology for the Columbus, Ind.-based district, who has led an exhaustive search for that replacement.

Two finalists are now under consideration—Canvas and itslearning—with plans to select one this fall for a 1,000-student pilot that will start in January, with a full-scale rollout planned for the 2015-16 school year.

Districts like Bartholomew are evaluating various learning management systems more than ever before, but many underestimate the time and resources it will take to choose the right one. Mr. Jamerson, for instance, said the five-month process relied on a 17-member search team, including principals and teachers from every level, and other district officials who narrowed their possible choices to the two current finalists. And they still have more work to do.

Yet the biggest mistake many school systems make is rushing to find a “silver bullet,” said David A. Irwin, who consults with districts in his capacity as a managing partner of the K-12 education practice at Gartner Inc., an information-technology research and advisory company based in Stamford, Conn. “Everyone likes to think that technology is going to solve their problems and that one solution will handle all their needs.”

But that belief can lead to missteps, said Richard Culatta, the director of education technology for the U.S. Department of Education, who expresses frustration with how traditional learning management systems use that approach for K-12 schools.

Mr. Culatta maintains that those systems are often trying to convey an “all-in-one printer” model in meeting educational needs, by presenting a closed system where all educational interactions take place, from grading and document uploads to classroom interactions.

In addition, some of those systems have simply “digitized the traditional education paradigm—basically replicating the classroom in a digital space,” he said. That approach doesn’t allow for the transformation of teaching and learning that he believes is the true promise of digital education.

In the best LMS deployments, districts are “driving the tools’ use, not letting the tools drive whatever the educational experience turns out to be,” he said. Such effective deployments start with important questions such as: What does this district need to support learning? What tools do the best job of meeting those needs? And, are the tools aligned with the district’s educational vision or philosophy?

To that end, Mr. Culatta advises that district leaders look for the “best in breed” online tools wherever they are—whether available in an LMS or not—and ensure that all forms of the selected technology will work together, which is a function of interoperability, or what he calls “the ability to play nicely in the same sandbox.”

"A major issue I see with schools is that their [decision] process isn’t rigorous enough." Christopher Harrington President, eLearn Institute

Costly Mistakes

Selecting the wrong LMS for a district’s needs can come at a high price.

“It’s very costly financially—and from a morale and a time standpoint—if this process isn’t done right,” said Christopher Harrington, the president of the eLearn Institute, a Wyomissing, Pa.-based nonprofit that guides schools in choosing technology for blended and online learning. The costs range from set-up fees in the thousands of dollars, to the salaried time wasted on training for key staff members, and providing substitute teachers during professional development for educators. Taken together, these can add up to $10,000 to $20,000 or more, depending upon the size of the district, to launch an LMS implementation, he said.

The decision process can be time-consuming, confusing, and frustrating, but experts agree that it pays to be deliberate and plan for a pilot project before launching at full scale.

Any LMS decision should be made as much by the instructional team as the technology team, Mr. Culatta recommends. “There needs to be an equally rigorous review from the academic side: ‘Does this support our learning model, or does it force a learning model on our school that we don’t adhere to?’ ”

Considering the “total cost of ownership"—including the cost of acquiring the software and hardware, managing and supporting it, communications, end-user expenses, and the opportunity cost of downtime, training and other productivity losses—can also diminish the likelihood of making a big financial misstep. Even if the implementation costs are low, the three- to five-year cost can be substantial, said Mr. Irwin.

To fully understand the longer-term costs, he recommends that the following questions be addressed before purchasing an LMS: What are the support costs? How much will it cost to integrate with legacy systems like an existing student-information system? What are the projections for ongoing maintenance and licensing costs? What kinds of initial and ongoing professional development will be needed for teachers?

The procurement process itself is an obstacle when a district is constrained by regulations that prevent it from “kicking the tires” on an LMS, according to Mr. Culatta, who likens it to buying a car without being able to test drive it.

Complicating matters is the fact that learning management systems are difficult to assess.

“They need to support natural teacher and student workflow, and many of these systems were developed for higher education, so they follow more of a higher-education-faculty workflow,” said Karen Cator, the president and CEO of Digital Promise, a Washington-based nonprofit working to accelerate innovation in education, and a former director of the office of educational technology at the federal Education Department. K-12 education customers need “much more information, much more vetting [of LMS choices], many more reviews, and much more understanding about where the developer is going with their decisions,” Ms. Cator said. She advises that it should accommodate a teacher’s workflow, take into account what the teacher provides for instruction and what Web resources are brought in, see how new ideas can be incorporated, and determine whether teachers can work together to add materials and resources.

“The user interface needs to be so simple and intuitive that you don’t need a lot of training to use it,” Ms. Cator added.

Rigorous Process

The complexity and expense of choosing an LMS for the first time, or replacing an existing one, can be daunting for districts.

“A major issue I see with schools is that their process isn’t rigorous enough,” said Mr. Harrington, and they feel an urgency to take action.

To help districts and LMS providers judge whether they are good partners for each other, he recommends requiring a “scripted demonstration” from a vendor. In this scenario, the district provides the list of what it would like to see in an LMS and requires companies to respond specifically and sequentially to how they will meet each of those needs.

“It takes time, but you can make much better use of that time,” Mr. Harrington said, and it’s a way of ensuring that a district is comparing “apples to apples.”

During the selection process, experts say it’s critical for districts to identify a company that will be flexible.

Mr. Culatta said he recently spoke with a district official who doesn’t use vendors anymore. When he asked how that was even possible, the response was: “We only choose commercial partners who come in and work with us on tools to support our schools, as opposed to someone selling something off the shelf.” The district’s word choice, rejecting “vendor” for “commercial partner,” shows its expectation of an ongoing relationship with whatever ed-tech provider it chooses.

It might take four to six months for a district to evaluate and select an LMS, but districts typically have to live with the consequences of that decision for at least five years, Mr. Harrington added.

As they are designed now, Ms. Cator said, learning management systems can give their K-12 customers a “very intelligent and intuitive way” to organize all their material—a digital replacement for the filing cabinets of materials and resources that preceded them. But the next big step the systems need to take, she said, is to help students track their own academic progress.

On that note, Mr. Culatta said he notices some movement from LMS providers to address districts’ growing demands for tools that help customize or personalize teaching and learning. “I’m starting to see a maturation of the types of tools being provided,” he said, “but I wish it were happening faster.”

Future functionality aside, districts are making decisions today about LMSs. At press time, Bartholomew was nearing the final stage of its LMS selection process, taking a straw vote to see which of two providers each committee member preferred. The goal will be to build consensus so the final choice is unanimous, and the January pilot will begin as planned.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2014 edition of Education Week as Making the Big Buying Decision


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