The K–12 educator’ s guide to choosing an LMS

by The Educator08 Jun 2017

Before committing to a new learning management system, or LMS, schools have some serious homework to do.

Ensuring that a prospective LMS aligns with institutional goals, technology infrastructure and the requirements of an entire learning community—from teachers and administrators to students and parents—will increase the likelihood of a successful implementation and ultimately, improve teaching and learning. A hastily chosen LMS, on the other hand, may inhibit technology adoption, fragment users and diminish the return on investment.

Drawing on the experiences of K–12 schools, this article summarises key considerations for choosing a new LMS. It provides recommendations for understanding how an LMS works, and for engaging with a vendor to learn more about how the company’s products, services and vision will translate into teaching and learning success for users. Finally, it serves as a hands-on guide for developing a comprehensive LMS evaluation plan built on consensus and organised around a timeline.

MATCH LMS GOALS TO INSTITUTIONAL GOALS
K–12 leaders who have successfully chosen, implemented and supported an LMS recommend that schools begin by evaluating systems based on how well they support institutional goals. For example, if a school plans to launch an ePortfolio initiative that enables students to reflect on achievements and showcase work for university admissions or employment, its LMS evaluation team should determine whether ePortfolio functionality is provided, whether ePortfolios can be shared publicly and accessed beyond graduation and whether the functionality is included as a standard feature or for an additional fee. Doing so will help the evaluation team focus on meaningful outcomes and avoid the common trap of creating extensive but aimless features checklists.

REIMAGINE TEACHING AND LEARNING
While an LMS can and should be instrumental in supporting institutional goals, its primary function is to improve teaching and learning. To fully realise the possibilities of modern learning technology, an evaluation team should consider how an LMS can streamline workflows, increase access and enable more meaningful learning experiences. This means developing LMS requirements based not only on existing processes and programs, but on reimagined methods that fully explore what technology offers in terms of its ability to improve the quality of classroom or online instruction.

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SEEK SOLUTIONS THAT PROVIDE CONSISTENCY AND FAMILIARITY
An LMS that provides a consistent academic experience at every year level—from kindergarten through high school and beyond—allows students to focus on the learning experience instead of learning the technology. Additionally, an intuitive LMS interface and tools that leverage familiar web technologies help improve student performance by decreasing the anxiety and frustration caused by complicated or continually changing technology systems.

UNDERSTAND WHAT USERS NEED AND WANT
Choosing an LMS that meets the needs of a diverse learning community requires knowledge of users’ experience with current or past systems and a deeper understanding of their expectations for a new LMS. The evaluation team should seek input from anyone who uses the legacy LMS, as well as anyone using the new platform. A simple survey can help collect feedback about what has worked, what hasn’t and what each user group hopes to accomplish with the new system. Generic survey questions can be drafted for the entire learning community, and specific questions can be targeted to administrators, teachers, students or other stakeholders. In addition

to helping the evaluation team develop criteria for appraising a new LMS, survey responses may also offer insight about why current systems have been rejected by users or have not met institutional needs. This information will help schools correctly identify factors that may be critical in creating an environment of support for a new LMS.

SCALE FOR THE FUTURE
An LMS evaluation team can’t afford to overlook the potential effects of teaching and learning initiatives, changing infrastructure or new legislation on future technology needs and usage. In addition to reviewing an institution’s existing strategic plan that accounts for known factors, the evaluation team should consider assembling school leaders to discuss how unforeseen circumstances, such as dramatic changes in enrollment, staffing or funding, may shift LMS priorities. Additionally, evaluators should consider how external developments, such as new apps, websites or teaching methods, will integrate with a prospective LMS. Does the LMS provide an open application program interface, or API, which supports interconnections with third-party tools such as Google and OneDrive? These considerations will help schools choose a learning platform that can adapt, scale and stay relevant.

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DEMAND RELIABILITY
LMS adoption may be negatively affected if teachers and students perceive that the LMS is unreliable. If they fear outages, slow response times or the loss of critical data, they will be less likely to trust the system to deliver key tests or to manage assignment submissions. An LMS evaluation team should focus on an LMS vendor’s hosting method as well as the level of uptime guaranteed by the service level agreement. An uptime guarantee of 99.9 percent, with little or no exceptions for maintenance or service pack installations, is possible. This kind of guarantee can help instill confidence in an LMS and empower more teachers and students to engage with the technology.

CREATE A PARTNERSHIP
In the 21st century, the LMS is a vital part of the educational ecosystem, making the LMS vendor a vital partner. Beyond evaluating the technology itself, schools should gauge a vendor’s willingness to develop a long-term partnership that is responsive, supportive and collaborative. Peer institutions may provide valuable insight about how a vendor connects, collaborates and creates community, as well as how it responds when things go wrong. Additionally, an evaluation team should focus on a vendor’s willingness and ability to provide upfront pricing. Because many LMS vendors price their products and services a la carte, the evaluation team should request cost proposals that include every tool or feature described in an RFP response. This allows evaluators to determine total cost of ownership and to assess a vendor’s level of openness.

TEST PERFORMANCE AND CAPABILITY
A vendor’s sandbox environment provides a virtual reality where schools can put an LMS to the test. In addition to validating functionality based on formal criteria, an evaluation team can request sandbox access for the entire learning community, enabling hands-on experience through facilitated group workshops or through individual user sessions. This allows administrators, teachers, students or other types of users to walk through day-to-day LMS activities and to simulate real-world scenarios specific to their roles. Workshop facilitators can guide users through specific workflows and features to highlight what is unique about the LMS. The evaluation team can document user experience by providing a rating sheet, asking users to rate features and usability based on what is most important to them.

ORGANISE AROUND A TIMELINE
Establishing a timeline at the beginning of an LMS evaluation process can seem relatively simple; adhering to that timeline, however, can be challenging. More than half of schools that propose a date for system implementation at the start of an LMS evaluation process fail to meet their own deadlines. Minor setbacks that frequently occur near the end of an evaluation process, such as personnel changes or the need for unexpected approvals, can result in rushed implementations—or worse, project delays lasting months or even years. An evaluation team can’t expect the unexpected, but it can build a go-live LMS timeline that balances internal needs and expectations with the reality of internal and external (vendor) capabilities.

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CONCLUSION
The LMS is at the centre of a modern educational ecosystem, but achieving meaningful, long-term results requires much more than a financial investment. The LMS evaluation process provides an opportunity for schools to invest in their own best interests by reflecting on how users’ needs and institutional goals intersect with LMS offerings. This, in turn, helps ensure that the LMS chosen will meet the unique needs of an institution’s learning community today and in the future.

CONSIDERATIONS FOR DEVELOPING AN EFFECTIVE LMS EVALUATION TIMELINE
1. Creating a complete project plan with date-based milestones will allow schools to work backwards from the go-live date. The plan should outline each step in the evaluation process, including due dates and decision-makers responsible for overseeing each activity or providing final approval.

2. Involving key administrators and LMS users in the creation of a project plan helps ensure that everyone’s needs and expectations are addressed early on in the process, which decreases the potential for setbacks.

3. Sharing the timeline with LMS vendors helps communicate objectives and provides an opportunity to understand their implementation process and timelines.


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