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The IT Crowd

How to Manage Your District's Learning Opportunities


"Your support in technology," shared the human resources associate superintendent in an email, "is the reason that we are able to realize these initiatives. Thanks so much for your help." Of course, she was referring to the Clerical Assessment Battery (CAB), a screening program for new job applicants to the district. Its implementation would save the human resources department time in assessing clerical job applicants.

Development of the CAB module -- using Adobes Captivate program -- took 3 weeks and a half-dozen meetings with the human resources department. The program was developed and deployed within our school district's learning management system. Since deployment of the CAB, my district has partnered with PBS TeacherLine to license and re-deliver an electronic graphic organizer course. Teachers log in into the learning management system -- which we call ePath -- and participate in a facilitated 100 percent online course. The course is taught through the use of a course management system; the system we use is the free, open source CMS known as Moodle.

When we announced the course, two days later, 59 teachers had registered and registration requests continued to pour in. The enthusiasm for online courses that don't require a physical, face-to-face meeting is palpable in districts where time is lacking.

Using NCLB Title 2, Part D funds, my district will be investing in InfoSource and PBS TeacherLine courses. The InfoSource provider offers teachers and administrators access to ISTE National Education Technology Standards (NETS) aligned content. The benefit is that teachers can work their way through the content online, checking in with a district facilitator only when they encounter problems. After completing an assessment -- a feedback form on the workshop -- they are granted a certificate for successful completion and earn professional learning hours. All that is handled 100 percent online via the district's learning management system.

School districts need to be able to provide and manage consistent professional learning opportunities that are scalable, platform-independent (web-based), and that allow for interface with their district's data warehouse and other systems. When considering how to manage your district's precious learning opportunities, you need to give thought to several questions:

  • Knowing that everyone needs to participate in professional learning, how do you currently manage that?
  • How are you going to help people understand the benefits of managing your district's learning opportunities?
  • How will the learning management system you select help your end-users manage their own learning?
  • What online content can you find, or develop, that will meet the needs of your learning community?
  • How do you get started?

We will begin with the last question.

HOW DO YOU GET STARTED?

In my school district, it took three tries to "sell" the idea of a learning management system. The superintendent at the time could not understand how a learning management system could transform the way professional learning opportunities were handled in the district. Imagine every department in your district, each with multiple secretaries managing paper sign-in sheets, faxed registration forms, payroll for workshops...a nightmare of wasted time and paper. Yet, that was the reality in my district before I proposed -- with other directors -- acquisition of a learning management system (LMS).

An LMS can manage professional development at the regional, district, and campus level. While a web-based, database-backed system might work well within an area that has the "techies" to support it, what about sharing it with other departments? Departments such as human resources, transportation, and, especially, curriculum & instruction, also have a need for managing professional learning. In fact, the food services department with 500 cafeteria workers, nurses, counselors, district police, and bus drivers were traditionally left out of our districts professional learning opportunities. Or worse, they were included but left to fend for themselves when it came to tracking and providing reports.

With federal program evaluation reports expecting hard numbers as to how many staff members participate in professional learning, would it not be nice to have that data at hand rather than make rough estimates?

SELLING THE IDEA

How are you going to help people understand the benefits of managing your district's learning opportunities? It is critical that you bring as many stakeholders as possible to the table to discuss how they manage professional learning. In my district, when I brought the secretaries together, it was obvious to them that the district was completely disorganized and that errors were being made, and that they were desperate for a solution. However, bring these problems up to the directors of each department, and you would see shocked faces. Since they were dis-engaged from the daily, grueling work of tracking hundreds of pieces of paper per secretary, they had no idea what was happening. In addition to "putting the skunk on the table," it's also critical to calculate how much time and money is spent by staff on the current system -- and how many staff members that actually affects. If your district is spending thousands of person-hours managing paper, with each staff member creating his or her own tracking and certificate issuing system, couldn't that money be better spent on a system that uniformly addresses all the issues?

MANAGING YOUR OWN LEARNING

"How can I better manage staff who need professional learning to improve?" asked one principal. "I wish I could highlight an area of need in a staff member's armor and then assign professional learning to help them."

To facilitate that and manage your own learning approach, consider the following essential elements of a learning management system:

  • Support for the creation of multiple professional learning paths (also known as a learning paths) that different positions can follow. Depending on the complexity of your organization and how wide an implementation you choose to make, it should be straightforward to create learning paths for your staff. For new teachers, a learning path might include sexual harassment training, discipline training, lesson planning, information problem-solving strategies, and then a wide range of additional choices. For principals, the learning path might include the teacher options, as well as sessions on assessment of technology implementation (LOTI), STaR Chart, and getting along with your superintendent.

    It also is important that the system allows staff members to pursue different learning paths based on their specific job requirements. A veteran principal might be assigned the generic principal's learning path, whereas a new principal would be a member of that learning path as well as a new employee learning path established by human resources.

  • Online registration and certificate tracking: At its heart, an LMS is a database that should allow online workshop registration, setting up classes, tracking student participation, as well as administration of classes and workshop content. It should be expected that workshop participants and facilitators are automatically contacted regarding the status of a particular workshop. Also, participants should be able to un-enroll from a workshop, but be prevented from un-enrolling to foil attendance tracking.
  • Report Generation: As a principal or department head, or even superintendent, getting an email outlining how many staff members have completed a particular strand of training is critical to implementation of a new district initiative.

FINDING ONLINE CONTENT

What online content can you find, or develop, that will meet the needs of your learning community? In the first two years of implementation, my district was grateful for a comprehensive professional learning solution that could be shared with other district departments. However, eventually, I started to wonder, How can we provide 100 percent, anytime/anywhere learning opportunities to staff? Of course, the way to accomplish that is to purchase content. And purchasing content often can be less expensive than developing your own.

Some essential elements of online content to consider:

  • Content-Design: It also is important that a district's workshop session facilitators be able to add content to the LMS. The more flexible an LMS is in allowing the addition of external content, the better. The LMS also should be forgiving if the content added isn't necessarily SCORM compliant. Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) makes it possible for online content providers to create and share their content modules with learning management systems. SCORM is the standard, although there are others. Find out more about SCORM at ICS Learning Group Whitepapers. Source: Got SCORM?

    Some learning management systems provide access to custom curriculum development tools, while others require that you build your own and make those items SCORM compliant. A hidden cost of a learning management system implementation is the development of content.

    If one considers the cost of developing content, you easily could see a $50,000 cost for development in a variety of areas, for example, human resources. Each department might want to invest in a staff member who would serve as an LMS content developer. This content developer would have to be familiar with high-end tools, be able to script video clips, and work with a variety of formats.

    While some districts might want to move this into the domain of instructional technology, should the cost, time, and effort involved be the responsibility of one department or multiple departments? Whatever approach your district might choose to take, it is clear that having a content development team is important as we look to web-delivered options to meet the increased demand of training every staff member. After visiting one school district, one IT director decided it would be worthwhile to develop her staff's skills in creating online professional development modules.

    One district in a large Texas city paid $50,000 to develop a module. The vendor worked with the district on a module for new staff entering the district. Since the bandwidth of the district isn't robust enough, the content is saved to CD-ROM. The district pays $2 per user for content it helped develop but a vendor content development team put together.

    The question that comes to mind is, Do you really want to spend $50,000 per module when you could invest the funding in your own staff? The home-grown solution is always best, at least until staff members are offered higher-paying jobs in the district next door.

  • Support for Multiple Course Formats and Assessments: A learning management system should provide support for multiple course formats including instructor-led, web-based, and other external approaches to course implementation. A key feature of a learning management system is its ability to track how staff development occurs, as well as assess growth. Assessment can take place in a variety of ways, either through the documentation of the addition of evidence to a session participant's portfolio, a multiple-choice or true-false quiz, or completion of an electronic tutorial.

TO HOST YOUR OWN SOLUTION OR NOT

Let me be brief: I do not recommend hosting your own solution. And, while this is not a comprehensive list of features you should look for in a Learning Management System (refer to KEY COMPONENTS*), one last element you should look for is whether the solution can be purchased and hosted on your own servers, or whether it will need to be hosted on the LMS parent company's servers.

Choose to host -- or not -- and you affect the long-term price of your solution. (It might cost more to start up, but cost less over the long-run as you pay maintenance rather than hosting fees.) With a learning management system, it is easier to let the vendor host its own product, while the school district hosts its own content (e.g. video, audio, documents).

In an increasingly inter-connected environment, if you are going to use content from online content providers (e.g. InfoSource, Element K, PBS TeacherLine), make sure that your contract has provisions for working with your learning management system (and make sure your LMS vendor is on board from the start). Also, be careful to avoid content providers who lack an interface to your learning management system. While those providers might have great content, you are taking a step backward if you purchase their services without being able to track your staff's learning efforts.

Some learning management systems have relationships with content-providers -- such as Element K and Books 24/7 -- that grant users access to an almost limitless supply of online courses, tutorials, and books. Want to learn how to use Adobe's Creative Suite? Not a problem. The courses and textbooks you would use are online. Yet, the increased benefits of having those resources might impede successful hosting of the solution on district servers.

Another consideration is that you might not have the MySQL, MS SQL -- or other database administrator -- you need to successfully manage the solution. The cost of hosting your own solution is prohibitive, and even if you were to choose a lower-end LMS, you might sacrifice access to content.

SELECTING THE LMS

Making the right decision depends on several factors. The first is the technology infrastructure your district has. The second is the content the LMS has pre-packaged for you, as well as the ease with which you can add your own content to the LMS. The third is the LMS's flexibility in delivering the content, and administration of the program. The more third-party content an LMS has, the more likely you'll pursue a vendor-hosted solution with re-occurring costs depending on the number of users. Cost estimates for LMS with more than 1800+ hours of online courses supporting up to 5000 users are in the $30K-$40K range. You probably could get a barebones LMS for $25,000. While that seems expensive, those solutions allow you to manage your district's professional development -- not just IT or HR, but all staff development that takes place in the district.

Similar costs for solutions that you host yourself might be in the $250K start-up range with re-occurring costs of $40,000 per year, all depending on the hardware and software you have available to host the solution.

Making the right decision about choosing a learning management system is really about finding the LMS with the right content that meets your district's needs. It's also about investigating how much of an investment you're willing to make in regard to content development.

Since a learning management system affects everyone in your district at a variety of levels -- supervisors, employees, department heads, and those responsible for content development and delivery -- it will be important to get approval, support and funding from all stakeholders.

You also will need to ask a few other follow-up questions. The key during implementation is buy-in from the superintendent and other central office staff; it cannot just be one department pushing it out to staff.

Some other steps you might consider taking:

  1. Establish an implementation timeline.
  2. Integrate the learning management system with existing information systems, especially human resources.
  3. Develop learning paths and match learners to their appropriate path.
  4. Acquire, develop, and/or link to learning resources.
  5. Select appropriate technologies to deliver learning.
  6. Require accountability and incentive systems to ensure learning.
  7. Create and manage the learning content.
  8. Analyze the return on investment.

Learning management systems certainly offer a lot. But is K-12 ready for them? What is the return on investment? In my district, the return on investment question goes before the school board soon.

Although my district has about 54,000 students, 9000 employees, and will have to pay an annual cost of $47,000 for its learning management system, the cost is worth every penny. When you consider how much time is spent by countless staff working through the paperwork, it's clear that schools are well-served by learning management systems. School districts work hard to train their staff in multiple areas, but might not know simple answers to such questions such as:

  • How many people have been trained?
  • What training have they received?
  • Was that training effective?
  • How much time was spent in online professional learning vs. face to face meetings?

Without answers to those questions, it is difficult to plan and staff appropriately and respond to staff needs. A well-implemented and maintained LMS will help provide the answers to those questions and keep school districts working together and moving in the right direction.

 

REQUEST FOR PROPOSAL GUIDELINES

Click here for a recommended list of considerations for a learning management system.


LMS Key Components

Administration/Management/Support
* Centralized Program Information
* Centralized Scheduling
* Easy management of educational resources
* Assessment of Learning Effectiveness
* Easy addition and management of learner portfolio components
* Ease of tracking external professional development offerings (such as in-house, off the shelf, customized solutions)
* Login/Password access when appropriate
* Online forum/support for synchronous/asynchronous courseware
* Automatic Emailed Confirmation of registration, changes in status or courses
* Interface with external professional development components and SCORM compliant
* Interface with course management system (e.g. Moodle)
* Interface with broadcast learning tools (e.g. Wimba)
* Professional development for administrators and sharing best practices in using a learning management system

Pre-Curriculum/ Staff Needs Assessment/ Skill Gap Analysis
* Registration & Payment
* Tracks progress of the learner through a program of study
* Forum for learner collaboration
* Displays web-based Course Catalogs and allows for print versions

Curriculum
* Provides tracking of synchronous/asynchronous professional development components
* Provides for synchronous professional development models
* Allows participants to see where they are, what they are registered for, as well as how much they have completed in relation to their goals.

About the Author

As director of instructional technology for a large urban district in Texas, past president of the state-wide Technology Education Coordinators group in one of the largest U.S. technology educator organizations (TCEA), Miguel Guhlin continues to model the use of emerging technologies in schools. You can read his published writing or engage him in conversation via his blog at Around the Corner.

Miguel Guhlin
Education World®
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Updated 07/16/2012