Special Report
IT Management

Pressure on LMS Companies to Provide Quality PD

By Sean Cavanagh — September 29, 2014 7 min read
Brooke T. Webb, a teacher at Lanier High School in Gwinett County, Ga., trains a group of fellow Lanier educators who are interested in implementing eClass, an online educational platform used for teachers and students to share work, engage in class discussions, take tests, receive grades, and accomplish other tasks.

When language arts teacher Susie Weetman was taught how to use her district’s new learning management system, her biggest hurdle wasn’t figuring out how to master all the platform’s features. It was picking and choosing the ones she needed most.

The new LMS offered “so much functionality,” recalled Ms. Weetman, who works in the Gwinnett County, Ga., school system. “In the beginning, it was kind of like jumping into the deep end and not knowing how to swim. But in a way, that’s kind of like teaching.”

The third-year educator’s experience last school year paralleled those of teachers and administrators across the country who’ve gone through professional development meant to introduce them to learning management systems, which have become commonplace in schools. For many teachers and administrators, the trick is to grasp which LMS tools have the greatest potential to meet the needs of their individual students and classrooms, while also acquiring the skills to juggle myriad academic and managerial duties.

LMS companies try to meet those needs by training K-12 officials directly, or by training educators to advise their peers.

Getting to know an LMS is different from becoming adept at using a single computing device or other technology tool, partly because management systems are meant to do so many different tasks, as Ms. Weetman and her colleagues in the 170,000-student suburban Atlanta district have come to understand.

For instance, the LMS used in the Gwinnett school system, created by the Canadian company D2L, formerly Desire2Learn, allows teachers to juggle a wide array of tasks. They can build course content for students within the platform, give quizzes and tests, establish and manage grading systems, track individual students’ attendance and progress (even using detailed online seating charts), establish by-the-minute classroom calendars, and guide focused discussions within the LMS among students.

Ms. Weetman’s introduction to the D2L LMS was relatively brief, through a session lasting only about an hour around the beginning of last school year. It was led by a fellow language arts teacher at Lanier High School, Brooke T. Webb. Since then, Ms. Webb, who received training directly from D2L and was one of several district teachers then assigned to do peer-to-peer tutoring on the LMS, has spent many hours visiting schools and meeting with teachers individually and in groups. (The company also has an extensive library of online lessons and videos explaining LMS features to educators.)

Teacher Bryan Smith follows along Ms. Webb's training session on his laptop.

That in-person tutoring has been helpful to Ms. Weetman. She’s learned how to cater assignments to individual students. She assigns lessons via Dropbox, a function that allows her to make notes for students on lessons, give them personalized feedback, and grade their work. Dropbox also time-stamps when materials are turned in so that Ms. Weetman knows if students have met deadlines.

The procrastinators among them “don’t like it much,” she joked.

LMS companies’ practices in providing professional development vary according to the goals of their platforms and the types of clients they serve.

D2L, based in Kitchener, Ontario, does not mandate the amount of professional development that districts that buy its product must use, though it strongly recommends that they pursue some sort of training, said Pam Martin, the manager of the company’s training and communities programs.

Training Needs Vary

Some schools and districts may need minimal training, while others may need extensive preparation to use the product. Still others may be switching from using another LMS, which usually means acquainting them with new processes, even if they understand the basic functions, Ms. Martin said.

D2L has eight full-time trainers devoted to working with new clients. The company also has a separate team of staff members, formed last year, who focus on a “wholistic approach” to training, working with individual districts to tailor the LMS to their specific needs and correcting problems as they arise.

Lanier teacher Kimberly O’Connell listens during Ms. Webb’s training session.

Alma, a relatively new developer of learning management and student-information systems, leaves it to its school clients to decide how much training they want, and in what form. It offers live webinars to explain its LMS to clients, as well as in-person training, said Andrew Herman, the Portland, Ore.-based company’s CEO. The company has worked exclusively with private and charter schools to date, he said, though it is now marketing itself to entire districts.

But Alma officials are also convinced that the power of their LMS, or any LMS, ultimately rests on its ease of use—meaning that not much training should be needed on how to use it, added Jack Macleod, Alma’s president.

“Simply using the system is professional development,” Mr. Macleod said. An LMS should help teachers “in a very intuitive way.”

Julia F. Freeland, a research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a San Mateo, Calif.-based nonprofit, agrees with the idea that an LMS, ideally, shouldn’t require an overwhelming amount of training. Making LMS products and other education technologies intuitive helps districts partly because they have a finite amount of time available for professional development, she added.

Teacher Jane Langan follows along Ms. Webb's training session on her laptop.

But when they do provide professional development, companies need to think beyond just explaining the nuts and bolts of how their tools work, Ms. Freeland said. Many ed-tech businesses are inclined to focus on basic “product training,” rather than what’s more important: helping K-12 officials customize products to meet their needs, said Ms. Freeland, whose organization seeks to promote innovation in education and other areas.

“If you want your tool to be used strategically, there’s training involved in that,” she said. That sort of strategic training should not be “single event,” she added, but continuous.

‘Closing the Loop’

When Alma officials design professional development, they structure it in a methodical way. The company purposely trains administrators in schools on using its LMS before it begins with teachers, recognizing that if school leaders aren’t on board with the technology, teachers aren’t likely to use it effectively.

Then, after meeting with teachers, Alma goes back and debriefs the administrators, effectively “closing the loop,” Mr. Herman said: “We want administrators to hear what we hear from the teachers.”

Another company that develops learning management systems, Follett, offers two paths for training—for curriculum directors and for teachers—which it delivers through videos, reference guides, and lesson plans. That training is delivered either primarily through Follett staff members, or through training district educators to train their colleagues—a more popular option partly because it is less costly, said Caroline K. See, the director of professional learning for Follett, which is based in Westchester, Ill. Either way, that training is essential, she said.

“You have to do the PD to be successful, honestly,” Ms. See said. The LMS “has so much power, and there are so many components, it would be hard to get up and running” otherwise.

The type of professional development districts use with their respective learning management systems also depends on the type of technology infrastructure they have in place.

The Gwinnett County district, for instance, has a bring-your-own-device plan in which students are able to use their own digital devices for learning purposes in school. But at Lanier High School, Ms. Weetman said her students’ access to technology is uneven. Some students have their own devices in school and at home, while others have to use school-issued devices during school hours. But Ms. Weetman said she’s gradually learning how to give out assignments that students can handle, allowing them to work at their own pace, even if they’re only online, using computers at school or elsewhere, for relatively short amounts of time.

At the same time, she’s also experimenting within the LMS for lessons that will inspire students through technology. Next spring, for instance, when her students are reading “Julius Caesar” and other Shakespeare plays, Ms. Weetman plans to upload video clips from dramatic performances and embed them within reading assignments, in an effort to bring the plays to life.

The goal, she said, is to use technology to give students a different perspective on the words on the page—or rather, on the screen. “I can start a discussion thread,” she said, and ask, “How did it change your perspective on the play to see it performed?”

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2014 edition of Education Week as PD Evolving to Address Growing Complexities

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