Dr. Joseph Fiksel is Professor Emeritus at The Ohio State University and a Visiting Scholar at George Washington University. He is the author of Resilient by Design (Island Press, 2015) and has provided consulting services to companies, governments, and industry associations worldwide.
“The destruction of the Hawaiian town of Lahaina by the Maui wildfire is only the latest indication that our communities are unprepared for what some call a “polycrisis” – a rare convergence of multiple forces that results in a disaster. Lahaina residents have always lived in the shadow of an active volcano, but no one anticipated that a wildfire would be magnified by a freak windstorm, and that the town’s communication systems and water supply would fail to respond properly. ….”
First, let’s talk about the point of education and the capability of today’s learning management systems to support that process.
Children enter our world loving to learn. It is our job to support that love of learning and to remove obstacles. Each child should have an education of equity and excellence. Each child needs to be supported, seen, heard, and valued. When they are seen by teachers, parents, mentors, and peers, they can see their own unique gifts. In this way they can develop their abilities and contribute to the community. The ability to contribute brings happiness, satisfaction, and financial stability. All of this nurtures our community to flourish in peace.
We have not been doing so well in meeting those objectives. Frequent testing interrupts learning and brings many students anxiety and shame. Our very testing to ensure that they not be “left behind” can be an obstacle. We need common, advanced, effective, simple-to-use systems that let our teachers reach each child individually so the magic of learning and happiness can emerge.
Parents for Public Schools of Hawaii began 11 years ago, and I have served on the board since its founding, usually leading communications for the group. When we ask parents what they love about our schools they almost always smile and say “the teachers”. When we ask them what distresses them the most about our schools, the answer is usually accompanied by visible discomfort as they say “testing”. Parents often explain that their children are anxious during testing times, come home upset, and do not want to go to school. Some kids love tests, but the ones who do not love tests are often hurt and discouraged by them.
How can we help all of our students and ensure that school is a productive enjoyable place to be so that they continue to love learning?
Over the past two decades, many of us have worked to leverage technology, and its related partner, assessment, to increase engagement, effectiveness, personalization, and equity. It has been a tough and frustrating struggle. Overworked administrators have frequently balked at trying new approaches. Or, if they have chosen innovative systems or tools, often they have been unable to invest adequately in teacher professional development, planning time, bandwidth or devices needed to be successful.
So it is with mixed feelings that we, who have been carefully crafting tools, see this this pandemic-driven rush to virtual learning. Many districts are using old systems or not using systems at all, perhaps not knowing that there are better options. Other districts do not understand the importance of interoperability (systems working together) or integration (systems actually married to deliver results.) In some districts, schools are left to decide whether to use learning management system at all or to pick their own. This creates inefficiency, wasted money, an inability to gather district-wide detailed learning data, and frustration by parents in dealing with multiple systems in different schools. While the schools and teachers should be seeking empowerment and freedom to localize content and instructional approach, energy and time are wasted when each school makes decisions on systems that should be district-wide.
We do not just need these systems because of the pandemic. Districts and schools would have benefitted from using learning management systems effectively for years. Effective implementation of integrated systems protects our student’s time and success, our teacher’s time and success, and delivers ease of information to our families. This work can save money, make teaching more enjoyable retaining more of our great experienced teachers.
Now, in this pandemic, we realize we need virtual learning and that we need systems to manage and deliver that learning. We need these systems for this emergency, but we also need these systems for the pre-existing non-pandemic emergencies and the post-pandemic critical requirements of 21st century careers and families.
No business would let different departments choose different management systems when they have objectives that must be met. We have learning objectives for each child that must be met. Each child must be supported to realize their own unique gifts. We cannot waste time or funds in setting up rival management systems. Great freedom and creativity can be wielded if all accept the best state of the art interoperable systems now. Then we can innovate, individualize, and localize those systems.
So what are all these systems and tools that need to be coordinated? I will describe the main types with some examples below. I will note what the District/State of Hawai‘i is using now, and what I think the district should consider.
Student Information Systems (SIS) — enable enrollment, finance, school buses, cafeterias, class scheduling, grades– and some deliver special education IEPs and manage assessments, Community (family/teacher/student) Portal, etc. (Some of the leading student information systems are PowerSchool, Grade Link, Infinite Campus, Skyward, QuickSchools, Alma, and Focus) — The Hawai‘i DOE uses Infinite Campus which has many functionalities– some of which may not be fully used at this time. — I think HI DOE could continue to use Infinite Campus, seeing if it can get more performance and value from it. But it may want to move to PowerSchool or another provider after the current emergencies.
Learning Management Systems (LMS) — class set up, instructional plans, lessons, grades, classroom and teacher to home communications, etc. (Examples are Canvas, Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Google Classroom, Edmodo, Atlas, Schoology) — Some schools within the HI DOE have used Blackboard Learn (Bb) for professional development and some classroom use. So now, in response to the pandemic, the HI DOE is offering the Blackboard Learn LMS to schools who wish it. We understand from the DOE that this is an interim decision as a team with members from the Information and Instruction departments. Bb was founded to serve universities, later developing K12- versions. However, elementary schools do not use Bb and Bb is not seen as desirable for middle school students or even many high school students. It is regrettable that teachers will spend time learning the Bb system, when we hope they will soon move to a more appropriate LMS.
Meanwhile, many teachers have begun using Google Classroom for their classes even though they have to enter student information themselves. (I have just heard that the district is populating the Google Classrooms for the teachers, that they were going to integrate the classroom content into the current district SIS, Infinite Campus. Then I heard that plan has been changed and there will be no integration this year.) These rumors and changes are an example of the confusion many parents and teachers describe.
It is good that the DOE has acquired gmail accounts for all students so that they can use Google Classroom (and other benefits.) As of this writing, Google Classroom is not a full LMS, however, Google has been continuously expanding their education applications. Google Classroom is needed by the HI teachers now, since Bb does not provide the same easy student interface or support teacher elementary level lesson creation. In a few years, our Hawai‘i schools might be able to manage learning through free Google applications, but we are not there yet.
Since many other apps/software need to be integrated with the LMS, using Schoology’s LMS (which was bought in 2019 by the leading SIS provider, PowerSchool) makes sense. Schoology has easy to use standards-based learning tracking as well as grading, rubric support for project-based learning, and is more interoperable than other LMS’s. It is IMS Global certified and LTI and QTI compliant. It is automatically integrated with Google Drive, YouTube, Ck12, Khan Academy and other useful apps. Should the district decide to move off Infinite Campus, it would be easy to use Schoology with its parent company SIS, PowerSchool. Perhaps the HI DOE should consider moving to Schoology or Canvas to avoid wasted transitional training on Blackboard Learn.
Special Education Management Systems— manage, generate, track IEPs (Individual Education Plans) such as EdPlan, SpedTrak, Frontline, PowerSchool Special Programs, and eCSSS. The HI DOE uses the eCSSS system which was reviewed in the 2018 Special Education Task Force Report concluding that a replacement tool for eCSSS should be adopted. The PowerSchool “Unified Classrooms Special Programs” appears to be an easy to use manager for IEPs, 504, ELL, Gifted, RTI, and more all translated into over 60 languages. The HI DOE could consider the PowerSchool Special Programs manager application.
Virtual Learning Tools — Synchronous video conferencing: (Webex, Zoom, GoToWebinar, MS Teams, Google Meet, etc.) Currently, the HI DOE uses Webex. I do not know if teachers are finding it easy to use Webex. The BOE uses Webex without video for its meetings and the lack of video reduces the effectiveness of the meetings. Zoom has an expansion license that enables 1000 synchronous video users. If Webex has the same, it should be used. If not, Zoom should be considered. Zoom is easily integrated into Schoology. Adobe Connect is another highly scalable video conferencing alternative. The HI DOE should have easy to use synchronous and asynchronous video conferencing for teacher, admin and BOE use.
School Community Family Teacher Student Portal — Portals enable districts to reach teachers, students, and families with essential messages and to give dashboards to each user that gives them access to the appropriate student and learning information. Most SISs have portals and there are standalone portals. Infinite Campus offers a portal which is used by the HI DOE. However, from our PPS-Hawai‘i survey, it seems few families use it. The HI DOE website does not clearly feature it. Each school has their own website. Families seem to get lost between the messages on the HI DOE website, their school website, emails, and texts. The HI DOE website site map shows no pages under “G” for Guardian, no information under “F” for Families, and under “P” for Parents, few resources show up and no referral to a Parent Portal is made.
Despite district website, newsletters, flyers, and video interviews, in addition to school websites, principal and teacher communications, the district does not seem to be succeeding in communicating effectively with families. I hope that HI DOE redesigns its communications strategy using the existing SIS Infinite Campus (or PowerSchool’s or another provider’s Unified Portal). One simplified portal could provide two way communication to all parties. School websites could be connected– but the portal should be the easiest, clearest, simplest link to each student’s educational experience– for teachers, students and families.
To summarize my current thinking on Hawai‘i learning and education management systems:
Learning and education management applications have been developing quickly. Some SIS and LMS systems have been shuttered. It is appropriate to reevaluate existing systems given breakthrough new idea and solutions to old problems.
Guiding principles, systems should be:
1) Easy for teachers to use so that teaching time and flow is not interrupted and they are not frustrated learning codes or rules.
2) Engaging to students with a user interface they can relate to, delivering interactive, synchronous, asynchronous media and tracking learning in a way that is encouraging and motivational to them.
3) Effective solutions for special programs — SPED, RTI, Gifted, ELL — maximizing quality data and faculty attention to students – not record keeping.
4) “Interoperable”— meaning that systems can easily connect, sharing data through APIs, with other applications.
5) Inclusive of families, students and teachers— bringing easy, clear two way communication to all — linked to the instructional access and student progress details.
This summer, the HI DOE offered “Blackboard Learn” LMS to all schools- but made it optional. Blackboard Learn is widely known not to serve elementary or middle school students well. Investing teacher time on learning it now may be wasteful. We should rush to find the best LMS solution, preferably integrated with the SIS. Schoology appears to be a better LMS solution than Blackboard Learn or Google Classroom. We should develop an integrated SIS/LMS solution and train teachers to use it now. That will satisfy #1 and #2.
We should see if Infinite campus can provide solutions for SPED and if its portal, the HI DOE website, and communications strategies can be redesigned to better include two way communication with families and students. Infinite Campus interoperability should be analyzed. If Infinite Campus cannot meet these #2, 3, 4 needs, HI DOE should consider moving to PowerSchool or another SIS.
Parent engagement has a significant impact on student learning progress, comfort, and happiness. Yet few schools or districts have yet designed systems that support ease and variety of two-way communications between district and parent and teacher and parent. We are gathering resources here to see how easy, empowering communications can be integrated into the learning management systems.
Given the explosion of virtual learning during the pandemic, parents have been more involved in student learning providing a possible increase in the impact of parent engagement on student progress as well as an increase in utilization of technology learning tools by teachers, students and parent.
A serious equity gap has widened given the disparity in student devices, Internet access, student, teacheer and parent technology app savvy, and parental knowledge of school processes and the curriculum.
We are gathering research and solutions here with an aim to find or create effective home-school communication to support student learning and family engagement.
Enhancing School–Home Communication Through Learning Management System Adoption: Parent and Teacher Perceptions and Practices, by Nora S. Laho (This paper examines usage of various communications methods after implementation of Schoology LMS.)
…if we don’t spoil it with clumsy efforts to control it, if we use a light, caring, skilled, technologically and psychometrically advanced touch to orchestrate learning. Leveraging exemplary resources, honoring teachers, adding our talent, expertise, and concern to that of professional educators, we can support individualized learning for each learner. All humans deserve to learn and to develop their skills and talents. Now we have the capability to support learning for all and we can work to measure learning in less primitive and limited ways. Here are some of the strategies we hope to see more of in 2011 and beyond.
Know what each learner knows and what grabs their interest in order to provide the most engaging and effective lesson.
Individualize learning– providing support for each learner keyed to their interest, knowledge, and skill.
Use our current technology and knowledge to develop engaging cross-curricular learning.
Support learning programs that address real world problems and yield real world work.
Utilize cooperative learning strategies for students to learn from each other in groups and to learn to listen, speak, and cooperate effectively.
Assess student skiils and knowledge while they learn, integrated in learning, rather than in year-end tests.
Leverage media, news, and social media in learning to connect students with history, the real world, and each other, around the world.
Integrate all subjects in learning — as all subjects integrate in life and work.
Provide year-round, day and night blended* learning opportunities to all, extending the school day and the school year.
Share great lectures and lessons across classrooms, schools, districts, and states.
Hire more art, music, dance, PE teachers and integrate their teaching in core subject learning.
Enable all students to be taught by master teachers for at least a class a week.
Increase hands-on science, engineering, art, music, math and project-based learning opportunities.
* Blended learning=live in-person coaching or instruction blended with asynchronous and synchronous online lessons and resources.