18 March 2020
“If nothing else, the rapid migration to remote teaching and the challenges therein, is proving that teachers enhance technology, not the other way around.” Erica Hartman, Director of Technology.
At the time of this article’s release there are 36 states that have closed their schools, impacting approximately 32 million K-12 students. The majority of these schools are shifting to online teaching using Learning Management Systems.
What is a Learning Management System (LMS)?
A learning management system is an online platform that enables blended (face-to-face and online) or fully virtual learning. A LMS is designed to streamline course management, such as distribution of content, assessment, grading and feedback loops, so teachers can spend more time enhancing learning experiences and differentiating to their students’ needs. LMSs can play a critical role in teacher-to-parent and teacher-to-teacher communication. They can also be used to deliver professional development to teachers, connect faculty into collaborative groups, and to offer ongoing instructional support for students.
Studies show that approximately 75% of K-12 schools subscribe to a LMS on some level, with costs ranging from $5 to $10 per student. Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams provide LMS-like platforms at no cost, but with less imbedded features. LMSs were originally designed for the higher education market and are the backbone of colleges and universities, especially institutions such as the University of Phoenix with an enrollment exceeding 95,000 students. The majority of the dozens of LMS companies began solely as higher education service providers and started offering their platforms to K-12 only around 10-12 years ago. The challenge has been that despite the emerging features in LMSs today, most educators have used them as glorified bulletin boards; posting paper-based assignments in PDFs, applying simple assessments such as multiple-choice and true/false quizzes, and to upload YouTube videos for students to view. This is primarily due to a lack of effective and ongoing professional development that supports the shift to, at a minimum, a blended learning model.
Last week, a District Superintendent reached out to me seeking advice on how to quickly migrate his students to a remote learning model since he expected the imminent closure of the schools for weeks. Despite having subscribed to a LMS 3.5 years ago at a cost of over $100,000 to date, he was shocked to discover that over 370 of his 1,200+ teachers had never even used their initial login codes and temporary passwords. Hence, migrating to a remote learning model became a more daunting task, especially with an urgent turnaround time.
Don’t Compromise Quality
Successful use cases of LMS integration in schools exist and they show that when implemented properly, student engagement increases, access to ancillary learning is facilitated and communication between teacher and student is greatly enhanced. One of the most important benefits for a teacher is that differentiated learning practices can be readily applied by assigning remedial resources to struggling students, while providing more challenging assignments for higher performing ones. The key is not to compromise fundamental teaching strategies because we are shifting to an online delivery model. “Just because of we’re going virtual, we can’t throw away what we know of sound instructional design. We must keep the good things in mind; receive feedback, apply formative assessment strategies and establish feedback loops. I advised my teachers to stick with what they know and we’ll help you with the delivery methods.” stated Dr. Matthew Murphy, Superintendent of Ramsey Public Schools.
Over the past couple of weeks since the first school district closures began, educators’ email inboxes have been deluged with offers of free content, temporary waiving of LMS subscription fees and online webinars sharing best online learning practices. The danger is that the rush to fill the voids cannot result in selecting learning resources for students that have not been properly evaluated, aligned to standards, and supported by proper assessments. “There’s an initial panic around finding Apps, extensions and “stuff” to fill the virtual learning space. Everyone should take a deep breath and go back to what we’re about, which is designing learning experiences that teach for understanding.” stated Dr. Murphy.
Plan Don’t React
The lack of planning and professional development during the original adoption of a LMS should not prevent proper planning even now, when there is a clear sense of urgency to deploy a remote teaching strategy. “The biggest challenge is that many schools originally tried to deploy LMSs almost overnight, without planning or a recurring professional development strategy. Even under current circumstances, school leaders must pause and build exemplars for teachers to apply and do the training for them first and then implement for students. This can be done using the very LMS they want the kids to use.” stated Erica Hartman, Director of Technology Integration at Morris School District in Morristown. Morris is a member of the League of Innovative Schools and one of the most diverse school districts in New Jersey.
We have exceptional leaders throughout our school districts; times like this elucidate the diverse set of challenges they confront on a regular, so-called day let alone during a crisis. Every day they must support not only the instructional needs of a diverse population of students, but also their social emotional and their physical well-being, as well as those of faculty. “I really believe that we have had a hint or inkling that something like this would be coming at some point; as far back as the Swine Flu or H1N1, we’ve had to develop continuing operations plans. We are now learning that we should be practicing implementation of such plans so we can flip a switch.” stated Patrick Fletcher, Superintendent of the River Dell Regional School District.
“As recently as Hurricane Sandy we had an interruption of instruction, which required proactive measures taken by School Administrators and our professional associations. We’ve learned that during these crises, we need a clear set of directives, clear expectations and the messaging has to be consistent.” said Fletcher.
We are at a critical inflection point in our nation’s history; it’s as much about how we react to COVID-19 as the virus itself. It’s also about discovering where we are suffering from disruptions that should not be so disruptive. The ability for schools to seamlessly transition to a remote teaching model is not easy under any circumstances, let alone the urgent timeline. The challenges we face today should not exist because of poor implementations of a LMS, under-utilization by teachers and/or a lack of accountability measures put in place to support original adoption. We should be able to focus on the inequity that exists among students who lack Internet connectivity, the limited number of devices they can take home, and the resulting social-emotional stress.
Once we get past the crisis and we have an opportunity to assess how many students nationally suffered significant degradation of learning due to a shift to remote learning, let’s recognize that much of the gap could have been avoided. We must revisit our investment in LMS platforms and ask ourselves and providers some very reflective questions; did we fall short as leaders to leverage our investment with a plan and commitment to teacher preparedness, or did providers focus more on subscription revenue than ensuring efficacy of implementations?
“About two years ago, there was an emerging concern among teachers that technology, including robots would replace teachers. If nothing else, the rapid migration to remote teaching and challenges therein, is proving that teachers enhance technology, not the other way around. The world is about to find out what those who work in education already know, face to face human interaction can never be replaced, but our teachers are going to step up to the challenge and leverage technology to provide a continuity of instruction and connect with their students. We need our teachers (and a well-established LMS) now, more than ever.” said Hartman.
Alex Urrea is the Managing Partner of Eduscape, the leading professional development organization in the K-12 market. The company has trained over 750,000 educators and is partnered with many of the leading educational technology companies in the market, including Apple, Google, Microsoft and others. Alex is also the Founder of the Rethink Learning Foundation, which is working with nonprofits and universities to bring innovative teaching and learning practices to schools. The commentary and opinions expressed in this article are strictly his and those quoted in this article.