My LMS debacle

I have to implement a learning management system. District-wide. Yesterday. But is it as easy as firing up Moodle or opening parent access to our SIS?
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

I have to implement a learning management system. District-wide. Yesterday.

Ok, it's not quite that bad, but one piece of our district strategic plan that we have yet to implement is web-based access for parents and students to assignments and grades. This also happens to be one of the most fervently requested items in our recent meetings with community members to review progress on our strategic plan. So it has come from upon high (i.e., the superintendent, aka, my boss) that this shall be done. Quite frankly, it's about time that it percolated to the top of my priority list anyway since so many school districts already offer everything from Moodle to parent access to their SIS.

There's the heart of the problem, though. Right now, many teachers use blogs, Google Sites, Quia, and wikis to publish course information, assignments, documents, etc. We've been fairly laissez-faire about the whole thing and teachers have adopted web-based tools as they felt the need. Plenty still haven't.

We also have an SIS (X2's Aspen SIS) with scheduling and grading features fully implemented at the secondary level that can support parent and student access to teacher gradebooks, assignments, etc. However, we haven't rolled out this so-called "parent/student portal" because it requires fairly spotless family management or, in a basic implementations, a login for every student in a family.

About half of our teachers use the full functionality of the gradebook (required to communicate useful information about assignments to parents) while the other half only submit their term and final grades through the system, preferring to maintain their individual assignment records elsewhere. More and more are adopting the SIS as their gradebooks, but it's a slow process.

Our SIS also doesn't address our school-home connection needs yet at the elementary level, where a move to standards-based report cards/grading (and all the training and development that entails) is a far higher priority in SIS-land than parent access to gradebooks (that are very much in the pilot phase at the elementary level anyway).

Even with the powerful gradebook functionality, though, our SIS really isn't a learning management system. It can't be used to create interactive activities, accept student assignments online, facilitate discussions, etc. For that, you need Moodle, or something like it, with the associated management and overhead. I'm setting up a test Moodle server now, but one of the biggest barriers may be user management. Currently, only our secondary students exist in some sort of LDAP structure that we could leverage; we could also tap our SIS, but that would involve regular exports and imports (seamless integration is a ways away).

In some ways, the simplest solution would be to just give teachers access to our Joomla server and allow them to post assignment updates everyday in a predefined structure and format that would be easy for parents to navigate. This wouldn't provide access to grades as easily, but we could enable some discussions and interactivity and give parents a level of visibility into the classroom that they certainly don't have with any consistency now. You also don't get much easier than posting a quick update every day via a web form. My 7-year old loves when he gets to be door-holder for the week; imagine if he got to be class webmaster for a week!

Other tools like Edmodo and ePals provide very user-friendly features to connect students, teachers, and parents, but entail their own management issues and may lack some of the consistency across schools that we're after.

So what's a tech director to do? It's pretty clear that a one-size-fits-all approach isn't going to work. I'm meeting with principals and teachers to present our options and get feedback on ways to connect with parents that will make sense, be genuinely useful, and not impose undue burdens on the teachers. If I had to take a guess, I'd expect that we'll be getting the elementary teachers running with a well-organized Joomla site for posting homework and classroom notices. The secondary teachers, with some serious training from yours truly, will probably get the most benefit from Moodle. It's a good thing we built in so much professional development time this year. Too bad we didn't built an extra few hours into each day so I can get this up and running.

What do you think? Where have true learning management systems been the most welcome in your districts? How about SIS-integrated tools? A simple web presence? Talk back below and let us know.

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