By Daniel McGee, director of technology and library services, Laurel School.
Thus far, 2020 has been a year where the field of educational technology has been permanently altered. This year’s Covid-19 pandemic has brought challenges and confusion to daily life, with educational institutions pivoting to a distance learning model nearly overnight.
The impact of this shift has been far reaching, affecting the cadence and delivery of daily instruction, creating a new impetus for teachers to learn and upskill quickly.
The result is a watershed moment for educational technology that will cause ripple effects in education for this and future generations.
For private, independent schools, the conversations, processes, and procedures have been different from those affecting public schools, though the needs of students remain the same. In my role as an independent school technology director, the lessons of the past few months have been a series of dichotomous notions with a time for careful planning, while also being a time of flying by the seat of your pants; and notably, a time where rules are created, but also while basic tenets of educational technology are proving to be helpful guides. I have learned some essential lessons that are helpful now, and I see them as being helpful in perpetuity.
Lesson One: Select Familiar Tools and Technology
The first lesson is focused on the importance of educational technology leaders to select distance learning tools and topics that are familiar to teachers and students. Having a minimum of familiar, established systems for students, teachers, and families to access lowers the barriers to success and allows students to focus on learning what they need to know, not acclimating themselves to a host of new tools. During a pandemic is not an optimal time to introduce new tools if it can be avoided.
If a school has a learning management system (LMS) in place and is actively using it, it is a hard case to introduce a new system. The LMS is the stand-in for the physical classroom; just as physically moving a home or school is a disorienting process that requires acclimation, the virtual classroom environment fostered through the LMS should remain as consistent as possible.
Video meetings have become a staple of the distance learning experience. For schools using a suite of online productivity tools such as Google’s G Suite or Microsoft’s Office 365, using Meet or Teams lowers the barriers of entry for teachers and students to begin using such tools due to the integrated nature of these video services within the larger platform.
Consistency is key in using any online tool, first in the selection of a single, unified tool for the school to use, and second in its use and deployment. Experts in online learning advise the use of a common template for teachers to craft LMS course pages, and students should have a consistent means to access their virtual classrooms via the chosen video conferencing platform.
“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.” said Dr. Matthew Murphy, superintendent of Ramsey Public Schools.