This article initially appeared on thejournal.com on August 28th, 2017. By Tim Wilhelmus.
Here at Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation in Indiana, we’re no strangers to learning management systems. In fact, it took three times for us to get it right, but the experience was both enriching and enlightening.
Up until recently, we were using My Big Campus to manage learning across 37 schools, 1,600 educators, and 23,000 students. That was our second attempt at finding an LMS to meet our teachers’ and students’ needs, but it ended abruptly when its maker shut the platform down in 2015.
At that point, we had to find another LMS. We did a pretty robust RFP and looked at a lot of different systems. During the selection process, some of our most important “must haves” were an LMS that offered good support for our district-wide 1-to-1 program, and one that easily integrated with Google Apps for Education (GAFE). And since changing systems is hard on students and teachers, we wanted an LMS that our entire school corporation could commit to.
Digging down deeper during the RFP process, we looked for a tech-enhanced tool centered on teaching, collaboration and assessment — areas where the itslearning LMS rose to the top fairly quickly. It also offered primary grade level capabilities — something not all platforms could handle. After narrowing our choices down to three options, we invited a group of teachers to test the solutions out and provide feedback on their experiences.
From past experience, however, we knew that some LMSs were nothing more than “resource dumps,” and that’s not what we wanted. So, we liked itslearning’s planner and pages features. Teachers would have a structured space in which to work and imagine the learning, and then be able to push that learning to the calendar (or to the front-end of the course for immediate student access).
Using the pages feature, teachers can create a page and gather all relevant notes, files, links, tests and other content in that single repository. This functionality provides a clear overview and easy access for learners to access content (rather than requiring them to access everything from the “tree” menu). There’s something about being able to create a sort of “digital playground” of experiences that’s also visually appealing. This and other tech-enhanced items within the LMS not only encourage students to ask better questions, but they also help the students engage more fully with the learning material.
Our Spanish teachers, for example, use the LMS to record their words as objects and then ask students to interact with that content, encouraging pupils to record themselves reading a short passage in Spanish. They’re also building out interactive, digital learning spaces where students, teachers and parents can seamlessly interact. Key benefits we’ve seen from these capabilities include better teacher efficiency, better student engagement, and better learning outcomes.
Our LMS also offered Google integration — an important “must have” for a district where most of our teachers were already using GAFE. This integration meant that our teachers could continue to utilize Google Slides, Docs, Spreadsheets and other programs without the need for customizations. They wanted to know that they could have the same experience as simply using Google Docs, and pull it into the LMS so students could easily access the content.
Right now, we’re in the early stages of integrating GAFE into our LMS, and this integration allows teachers and students to fully leverage Google’s collaborative atmosphere. For example, instructors can create an activity-based on a Google slide deck, and then ask students to contribute to that slide show. That can all happen right inside of our LMS, which means teachers don’t have to send their pupils out to a different digital space to complete their work. In the end, students are more likely to be successful if they’re working intuitively in a space that they’re comfortable in — and not having to figure it all out.
Of course, no district-wide technology rollout comes easy, and in our case the new LMS was accepted quickly by some teachers and approached cautiously by others. Over the last year, we’ve been working to “ramp up” its usage via direct conversations with the district’s schools and explaining its value to both instructors and administrators. We’ve also been working with the schools’ directors of school support, data coaches, and literacy coaches. We want to deploy the resources that schools need to achieve their individual goals, while also helping people understand what an LMS can do to simplify their lives and amplify learning.
We’ve hit a point where our teachers are comfortable with technology. They know what tools they like and they’re out finding tools on their own that they want to use. To help, we turn to our early adopters who are doing amazing things and we shine a light on them. We have one instructor, for instance, whose students are using technology to create full-length documentary films in class. Another has developed an award-winning literary magazine.
Through it all, we’ve come to realize that it’s not about the technology. It’s about how technology flexes and adapts to different teaching and learning environments, and then supports those environments. What’s great about our LMS is that it makes a lot of things possible in a single, centralized space. In fact, it has become a platform that not only enhances what teachers do (i.e., delivering resources, organizing class time), but it’s also helping teachers focus on students as creators and collaborators. We’re able to give pupils a platform that they can use to communicate across networks and lead and own their own learning. At the end of the (school) day, that’s pretty powerful stuff.
Tim Wilhelmus is Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation’s innovation, curriculum and technology specialist.