Hardly any K-12 school districts were using a learning management system 10 years ago. Now, they’re almost ubiquitous.
But the use of learning management systems—which are essentially software programs that helps educators create, manage, organize, and deliver online learning materials for students—increased dramatically in 2020 and 2021. That’s when many school districts had to scramble to find tools that would help their teachers deliver instruction online and give students easy access to instructional materials while they learned from their homes.
More than two years later, how are teachers feeling about the learning management systems most of them are required to use?
A small majority of educators (52 percent) said the learning management system their district uses makes instruction easier, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey of more than 1,000 district leaders, principals, and teachers conducted in late July through early August.
Many of the educators who spoke to Education Week said they like using their LMS now. But that wasn’t always the case. The hasty adoption of learning managing systems led to a lack of proper training and lack of time to learn how to effectively use the technology. That, in turn, made it harder to get teacher buy-in initially.
Nearly 40 percent of educators said their LMS made teaching neither easier nor harder, and 11 percent said it made it harder. Almost two dozen of the 300-plus comments in the open-ended response section of the EdWeek Research Center survey were critical of how their district handled the transition to a new LMS.
“Our district forced all K-12 teachers to use Canvas,” said an elementary school teacher in Michigan who participated in the survey. “No teachers think it is helpful. NONE. But we are still being told to use it.”
Many school districts weren’t using a learning management system until the pandemic hit
The majority of K-12 school districts use at least one learning management system—only 6 percent of educators said their district doesn’t use one, according to the EdWeek Research Center survey.
Many school districts already had a learning management system before the pandemic hit, and even if the pandemic didn’t happen, some experts say other districts would have implemented one eventually. The pandemic just sped up the timetable.
In fact, between 2013 and now, the year 2020 saw the highest number of new implementations of the technology in school districts or schools across the United States and Canada, according to data provided to Education Week by market research firm ListEdTech.
Some of the most popular ones among K-12 districts are Instructure’s Canvas, PowerSchool’s Schoology, and Google Classroom (even though experts say Google Classroom is not technically a learning management system, many districts still use it as such.)
Representatives from Instructure and PowerSchool told Education Week that they saw an uptick of K-12 districts buying and implementing their LMS when the pandemic forced instruction to happen virtually.
If it weren’t for the pandemic, the pace of implementation would have been a lot slower, according to Adam Garry, Dell Technologies’ senior director of education strategy for North America.
Usually, it would take a full school year to choose a LMS and another year to start implementing the use of it. Most school districts didn’t throw all the teachers in at once and took about three years to fully implement one districtwide.
But that was different in 2020 and 2021.
“During the pandemic, they made decisions and implemented with all teachers in about three months in most new implementations,” Garry said.
That was the case for many of the school districts that spoke with Education Week. Many teachers were testing out different learning management systems before the pandemic, but when the lockdown happened, district leaders had to immediately choose which one would be used districtwide.
In upstate New York’s Herkimer Central School District, a few teachers were already testing out Google Classroom before the pandemic. When the district switched to remote learning, they chose Google Classroom because it was the most accessible, according to Ryan Orilio, director of technology and innovation for the Herkimer district.
“We started going remote and we needed something that we already had access to and we are a Google school [district] anyway—we use Google for email and for Drive,” Orilio said. “Since then, we haven’t even really evaluated other solutions, because this is something that all of our students [and teachers] are familiar with, and it already works with the ecosystem that we have.”
There was high anxiety because we were panicked about learning how to use the program, getting everything in there quickly.
In other districts, such as Clark County School District, the largest district in Nevada, a learning management system was already available for several years but it wasn’t until the pandemic that all teachers were required to use it. One Clark County teacher said she hadn’t even heard of Canvas—the Clark County’s LMS—until her district shifted to remote learning.
And some districts that didn’t implement a new learning management system during the pandemic are doing so now. For example, Maryland’s Prince George’s County Public Schools are fully implementing Canvas during the 2022-23 school year, after a soft launch last year. Prior to Canvas, many district teachers were using Google Classroom.
“The pandemic revealed the need for us to coordinate a lot of our instructional materials and digital materials in one place to streamline how our teachers and our students can access resources,” said Sandra Rose, social studies supervisor for the district and the liaison from the academics division for the district’s implementation of Canvas.
For some teachers, using the technology for the first time was ‘extremely intimidating’
Now that teachers have had more time with their learning management system, a majority of educators (53 percent) surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center said they would describe themselves as “very” or “extremely” proficient, 34 percent said “somewhat proficient,” and 13 percent said they’re a “complete beginner” or “minimally proficient.”
But in the beginning, there was a big learning curve, according to educators who spoke with Education Week.
“I remember it was extremely intimidating,” said Vanessa Piper, a learning strategist and English teacher at Legacy High School in Las Vegas, which is in the Clark County district. “There was high anxiety because we were panicked about learning how to use the program, getting everything in there quickly. Once teachers were trained and we started getting our hands dirty in it, we were OK and the anxiety subsided and we felt a lot more comfortable.”
Jessica Maynard, a 1st grade teacher at South Knoxville Elementary School in Knoxville, Tenn., felt the same about her experience with Canvas, the LMS her district uses.
“I honestly love it now that I’m into it and really used it a bit,” she said. “When I first started learning it, it took a little while to get used to.”
Lack of quality professional development is a problem
Some educators said the transition to using a learning management system would’ve been easier if there was more effective professional development.
“The transition would have been more comfortable had we had the on-site training,” Piper said. “They used Canvas to teach us about Canvas, which was useful because we could see it as students [were using it] while we were learning how to use it as teachers. But that personal touch—you couldn’t ask the questions or you couldn’t make the comparisons or learn from other people—it wasn’t there, but they did the best they could with what we were given at the time. We were on lockdown.”
In the EdWeek Research Center survey, only 15 percent of educators said the professional development they received to use their learning management system was “very effective,” 48 percent said “somewhat effective,” 17 percent said “somewhat ineffective,” and 6 percent said “very ineffective.”
“We received next to NO training on Schoology and were mostly left to figure it out on our own,” a Massachusetts high school teacher wrote in the open-ended response section of the survey.
Teachers also said they just needed more time to play around with the tool so that they could use it more effectively in the classroom. Oftentimes, what worked best for them was learning from and collaborating with their colleagues.
A Maryland high school teacher who responded to the EdWeek Research Center’s survey said that because the LMS is new to him, he’s just going to do “bare bones stuff,” so that he could “check off the box and appease the powers that be.”
A middle school teacher in Virginia also mentioned doing the “bare minimum.”
“Most teachers simply did the bare minimum (myself included) because we had very little training, confusing materials for self-study, and as usual, very little time to spend creating content,” the teacher said.
There’s no going back
Looking ahead, educators who spoke with Education Week said that learning management systems are here to stay but the levels of use of the technology may vary considerably. While 38 percent of educators surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center said they plan to use more of their learning management system during the 2022-23 school year than they did during the last two school years, others said they’ll use it less or in a different way.
“I do not see teachers going back to not using it,” said Heather Lyke, who was the teaching and learning director for Dover-Eyota Public Schools in Minnesota for two years. She’s now the teaching and learning 6-12 content lead for Minneapolis Public Schools. “I really see that teachers—whether they like technology or not—have seen the benefits of those learning management systems.”
“There are certainly benefits to things that you can’t get on a computer: annotating a text online is very different from highlighting the text and circling the words and writing in the margins,” Lyke said. “So will teachers and have teachers already gone back to doing some of those good practices that don’t require technology? Absolutely. And I hope they continue to do that. But they also now have this technology tool and a comfort level with the technology tool that they have a wider expanse of best practices at their fingertips.”
Blake Julian, who taught high school science at Dover-Eyota for five years, said he feels “a little bit empowered now” after having to recreate his curriculum so that every lesson could be done using Google Classroom and other Google features.
The pandemic “forced me to look at the technology in a different way and learn how to utilize it in a more educational way,” Julian said. “Now, it’s just so easy to make in-person learning so much more engaging because you found the things that worked. I can make assignments asynchronous now, so if kids miss a day, they’re covered.”
“What would have felt like a mountain of work before is now just built into my normal prep, so it’s a piece of cake,” he added.
Other teachers agreed that they like that they have another tool in the instructional toolbox.
Educators also mentioned that they’ve seen how learning management systems can make learning more accessible. A student can always be on the same page as their classmates even if they had to miss a class because of an illness or other circumstances.
“With a learning management system that’s used appropriately, there will be a lot less of a disconnect,” said Orilio, tech director for the Herkimer Central School District. “The student who’s not there will still know everything that’s going on in class, have all the documents and things that are required, and sometimes even be able to follow along live.
“It’s important to have and use tools that remove roadblocks for teachers and make teachers’ lives easier, but I think that the first priority of a learning management system is to make our learning accessible to all students, regardless of where they are.”