Managing Your District's Staff Development: The LMS Solution
Copyright 2002 Miguel Guhlin
with Patti Holub
"I just attended a conference," began a colleague, Mark Gabehart from Northside ISD. "One of the hottest topics discussed was the future of Learning Management Systems." I quickly pulled out my notebook. I'd never heard of Learning Management Systems. As my friend shared the highlights of the conference, several questions came to mind. Here are some of the questions and the responses the authors came up with.
1) What is a Learning Management System?
As you may know, it's an easy matter to use Filemaker Pro Unlimited to create a professional development online registration system. With Filemaker Pro, you are able to create relational databases that allow staff to register online for workshops, print their own certificates, allow principals to track their staff's participation at workshops, and allow workshop facilitators many options unavailable in traditional fax/phone registrations. With the right software, you can even add phone connectivity that allows registrants to access the professional development system over the phone as well as via the Web.
Yet, as soon as one implements this solution, you realize that there could be so much more available. While the difference between the paper registration and the database-backed web registration is in the elimination of wasted paper shuffling, what is the difference between my professional development online registration system and a Learning Management System?
To better understand what a Learning Management System is, it might be better to ask you to imagine...
*Establishing job-specific learning paths that staff in your school district could follow to be successful.
*Tracking new and current employees, what training they have received (e.g. policy, sexual harassment, basic office skills), and knowing what training is required.
*Assessing whether training has been effective or not.
*Delivering both pre-packaged and customized web-based or instructor-led training
Even more powerful, imagine that each employee in your school district has an online, yet secure, portfolio that contains their photo, demographic information, professional development growth plan, training history with level of performance, a list of required district training, and, for teachers, a PDAS Teacher Self Reportaccessible only by their supervisor and the employee. One stop and administrators have easy access to their staff's professional development and work--no more certificate shuffling, or dealing with lost evidence of work.
The Learning Management System is, as my colleagues in San Antonio ISD put it, "an organized, web-based system that manages all aspects of training and knowledge." An LMS enables you to provide consistent training that is scalable, web-based, and allows for interface with existing system
s, such as Human Resources. Simply put, it is an automated way to track a school district's professional development investment that goes far beyond web-based, database-backed registration systems used in the past (Holub, et al., 2002).
2) How is it beneficial to have an LMS in a school district, regardless of size?
An LMS can manage professional development at the regional, district, and campus level. In my experience, IT's job has been to facilitate the process of online workshop registration. 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 staff development. With No Child Left Behind guidelines regarding paraprofessionals, some Learning Management Systems (e.g. Generation21) have partnered with companies that have the potential to provide online training. This online paraprofessional training can help paraeducators prepare for the assessment option, an option that they can prepare for from a connected school.
Regardless of the criteria for selecting a Learning Management System, it is important to recognize one thing--the LMS can help you manage your professional development. Yet, it can do this only if everyone in your district knows how to use it. Like
many technologies,a learning management system may be implemented but its potential users don't find out about it until after it has been judged unsuccessful. This has been one of the main selling points for LMS vendors interested in the K-12 school district market. They share, "We want you to make the most of your investment. Where most LMSs put the system in place and then walk away, we'll be here for you." As such, I would look for presentations to all major departments and multiple sessions to campus-level staff.
3) What should I look for in selecting a Learning Management System for my school district?
Selecting a Learning Management System can be tough if you're not sure what to look for. It's clear that there should at least be the following elements present:
*Support for the creation of multiple professional development paths, also known as a "learning paths," that different positions can follow. Depending on the complexity of your organization, how wide an implementation you choose to make this, 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 choices. For principals, the learning path might include the teacher options as well as how to assess the level of technology implementation, interpreting the Texas Campus STaR Chart, and getting along with your superintendent.
It is also important that the system allows staff to be a member of multiple learning paths based on there specific job requirements. A principal would be assigned the generic principal's learning path whereas a new principal would be a member of this learning path as well as a �new employee� learning path established by Human Resources.
*Online registration, tracking, and reporting: At its heart, a LMS is a database that should allow online workshop registration, setting up of classes, tracking of 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.
Another key feature of online registration and tracking is how reports are generated and shared. As a principal or department head, or even superintendent, getting an email outlining how many staff have completed a particular strand of training is critical to implementation of a new district initiative. Furthermore, if the training involves a quantitative assessment, you can see at a glance how your district is doing. With this data in hand, you can make better decisions about the quality of professional development being offered--and whether it is having the impact you designed it for. Hand-in-hand with reporting features comes security. Once we begin assessing how workshop participants are progressing through their tailored learning path, we must offer privacy and secured access. Is the data encrypted as it travels from your servers to the LMS host (more on this later)?
*Content-Design: It is also 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 should also be forgiving if the content added isn't necessarily SCORM compliant. Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) is a collection of specifications adapted from multiple sources to provide a comprehensive suite of e-learning capabilities that enable interoperability, accessibility and reusability of Web-based learning content (Advanced Distributed Learning, Some learning management systems provide access to custom curriculum development tools, while others require that you build your own and make these 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 could easily 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? What 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 how to develop 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 the staff are offered a higher paying job 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.
And, while this is not a comprehensive list of features you should look for in a Learning Management System (refer to Sidebar 1), 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 (might cost more to start-up but be less over the long-run as you pay maintenance fees rather than hosting fees). Another consideration is that you may not have the Oracle
or MS SQL 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.
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 Macromedia Studio MX? Not a problem, the courses and textbooks you would use are online. Yet, the increased benefits of having these resources may impede successful hosting of the solution on district servers.
4) How can my district make the right decision regarding a Learning Management System?
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 over 1800+ hours of online courses,
and supporting up to 5000 users are in the $30K-$40K range. You could probably get a barebones LMS for $25,000. While this seems expensive, these solutions allow you to manage your district's professional development--not just IT or HR, but ALL of 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 regards to content development.
5) Who in Texas is currently using Learning Management Systems?
Several school districts have already begun using Learning Management Systems. For example, take a closer look at these LMSs and how they are being used in Texas schools, universities and ESCs.
Course Insite* (Avatar Technologies)
  • Alamo Heights ISD
  • Boerne ISD
  • Canutillo ISD
  • Spring Branch ISD, as well as
  • Education Service Center, Region 13
  • Other customers include LightSpan ||
ExecuTrain's Virtual Campus
  • Houston ISD
  • Bellville ISD
  • Other customers include Rice University and the University of Texas at Austin ||
Generation21's Total Knowledge Management*
  • McKinney ISD
  • Other School District customers include: Cabarrus County Schools and Deptford, NJ School District ||
*Note that the lists of district customers were pulled from the LMS's web site.
6) So, let's say I want to bring a learning management system to my district. What are my next steps?
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 will also need to ask a few other follow-up questions (refer to Sidebar 2). 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:
a) Establish an implementation timeline.
b) Integrate the learning management system with existing information systems, especially Human Resources.
c) Develop learning paths and match learners to their appropriate path.
d) Acquire, develop, and/or link to learning resources.
e) Select appropriate technologies to deliver learning.
f) Require accountability and incentive systems to ensure learning.
g) Create and manage the learning content.
h) 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? These are questions only districts like Dallas, McKinney, Alamo Heights ISD and others currently implementing Learning Management Systems can answer.
These systems have already proven themselves in the business arena because businesses realize they need access to real-time, accurate information. With the new accountability requirements in NCLB, school district's are beginning to realize that they do not have this type of access to the information they will need. School districts work hard to train their staff in multiple areas but may not know simple answers to questions such as � how many people have been trained; what training have they received; and was that training effective? Without answers to these 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 these questions and keep school districts working together and moving in the right direction.
Holub, P., & Guhlin, M. (2002). Learning with a purpose: Learning management systems. Unpublished presentation.
Special thanks to:
Holcomb, T., Martinez, S., Zaumeyer, C. &, Ascolese, C. for their Feedback on this topic.
Jim Duda & Steve Throneberry, ExecuTrain,
Christine Sweeney, Generation21,
About the Authors
Miguel Guhlin serves as Director of Instructional Technology and Library Services in a San Antonio school district. You can reach him through his web site at or via email at ��
Patti Holub serves as Director of District Initiatives and Special Projects in a San Antonio school district. You can reach her via email at ��.
Sidebar 1: List of Things to Look for in a Learning Management System
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
Professional development for administrators and sharing best practices in using a Learning Management System

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
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.

Sidebar 2: Questions to Ask LMS Vendors
1) What are the standard hardware configurations? Can the LMS be hosted locally at the district level or must pricing be based on a subscription-basis and include a reoccurring maintenance fee?
2) How would portfolios of teacher records be handled? Is there a central page a staff member can look at that summarizes where they stand in regards to training? Is there an easy way to add external documents to this portfolio?
3) If a discussion board is available as part of the LMS, is time tracked? Does the system track postings or is it up to a person to do this? If the latter, the solution is undesirable due to its time-intensive nature.
4) How are documents, videos, streaming videos linked in the LMS? CMS? Same or different?
5) Are alternate tailored tutorials available if a person fails to complete an assessment a second time? A third time?
6) Is there a conversion utility available to convert MS Office documents into Acrobat Reader PDFs? Into SCORM-compliant documents that are easy to add to the Learning Management System?
7) How easily can LMS administrators track and manage the required and optional content?
8) Can database be on the same server as the web server?
9) What are the process/requirements for archival and system maintenance?
10) How many simultaneous connections can the LMS support?
11) Can the LMS vendor help us outline an implementation and advertising plan? Is this included as part of the package or are additional costs incurred?