How To Manage Your District's Learning Opportunities

by Miguel Guhlin - mguhlin@gmail.com
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Source: Leigh Blackall

“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. It’s implementation would save the Human Resources Department time in assessing clerical job applicants.

Development of the CAB module—using Adobe’s Captivate program—took 3 weeks and 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 login into the learning management system—which we call ePath—and participate in a facilitated 100% 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, the course had 59 teachers 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 their time is lacking.

Using NCLB Title 2, Part D funds, my district will be investing in InfoSource and PBS TeacherLine courses. The InfoSource provider provides teachers and administrators with access to ISTE National Education Technology Standards (NETS) aligned content. The benefit is that teachers can work their way through the content 100% 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 of this is handled 100% 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), as well as allow for interface with your 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:
  1. Knowing that everyone needs to participate in professional learning, how do you currently manage that?
  2. How are you going to help people understand the benefits of managing your district’s learning opportunities?
  3. How will the learning management system you select help your end-users manage their own learning?
  4. What online content can you find, or develop, that will meet the needs of your learning community?
  5. How do you get started?

It is with that last question in mind that we will begin.
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 how 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.

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 professional learning opportunities. Or, worse, 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 participate in professional learning, would it not be nice to have that data at hand rather than make rough estimates?

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 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, that errors were being made, and 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 that actually affects. If your district is spending thousands of person-hours on managing paper, each staff member creating their own tracking and certificate issuing system, couldn’t that money be better spent on a system that uniformly addresses all the issues?
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.

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 this 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, 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 (LOTI), 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 and certificate tracking: 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. Also, participants should be able to un-enroll from a workshop given time but prevent un-enrolling to foil attendance tracking.
  • Report Generation: 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.

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%, anytime/anywhere learning opportunities to staff? Of course, the way to accomplish that is to purchase content. And, purchasing content can often be less expensive than developing your own.

Some essential elements of online content to consider:
  • 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) 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 Source: Got SCORM?.

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.

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 (might cost more to start-up but be less over the long-run as you pay maintenance fees rather than hosting fees). With a learning management system, it is easier to let the vendor host their 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 these providers may 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 these resources may impede successful hosting of the solution on district servers.

Another consideration is that you may not have the MySQL, MS SQL—or other database—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 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.

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. 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 may not know simple answers to questions such as the following:
  • how many people have been trained;
  • what training have they received; and
  • was that training effective?
  • how much time was spent in online professional learning vs face to face meetings?

Conclusion

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.

Sidebar - Request for Proposal Guidelines

The following is a recommended—albeit not complete—list of considerations for a learning management system. While a request for proposal should be carefully developed by your district’s purchasing department, it is hoped that these guidelines aid your development of an RFP.

System Requirements

  1. The system specified must have an architecture that supports scaling to (NUMBER_OF_STAFF_IN_YOUR_DISTRICT).
  2. The system(s) specified must support YOUR DISTRICT’S STUDENT INFORMATION SYSTEM used by the District.
  3. The system is web-based.
  4. The system includes secure, encrypted web-based access for staff.
  5. The system(s) specified must be able to connect Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) data sources.
  6. The system allows for the local hosting of the data and the LMS application.
  7. The system provides data import and export capabilities in non-proprietary formats (e.g. CSV)
  8. Application provides for the import of pre-existing staff development schedules and staff data.
  9. Application offers an interface with other external professional development components and existing third-party proposer software applications.
  10. Application provides sharable content object reference model (SCORM) or web standards compliance, as well as allowing the easy addition of non-SCORM compliant resources (e.g. multimedia presentations, web pages, video clips in Flash,AVI,WMV, MOV,MP4 formats).
  11. Comprehensive documentation, both hardcopy or PDF, and online help, containing program features and software support.
  12. Technical support hotline is available from 8:00am-5:00PM, Monday through Friday.
  13. Technical support hotline is available through a toll-free telephone number.
  14. An after-hours technical support point of contact is available for urgent situations.
  15. The system supports web-based access for retrieval and input with web component running on Microsoft Internet Information Server or Apache web server.
  16. Application is password protected using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) security.
  17. The system is designed and coded to be 100%, 32-bit client/server.
  18. The system must support and allow the use of convention Cut/Copy & Paste functions, with or without the use of a mouse.
  19. The system must not require specialized in-house maintenance, operating personnel, or network engineers.
  20. The system must implement a “plug-n-play” method of installing only the desired module(s).
  21. The system must be fully integrated, with all modules sharing a common database.
  22. The software must be able to execute on and take advantage of, i.e. make use of all available processors, on a multiprocessor server.
  23. System is Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) compliant.
  24. System provides an audit trail of all data changes.
  25. A printable or exportable audit trail report is available of all data changes.

Application Features

  1. The system(s) specified must allow the establishment of learning paths that school district staff can follow.
  2. The system(s) specified must provide a multi-level approval path for approving course request (e.g. Faculty member requests a course, principal is the fist level of approval, area superintendent is the second level, etc. until final approval).
  3. Application will provide the ability to determine, in summary fashion, daily attendance for a multi-day class, e.g. 3-day class, some individuals only attend two of the three days. This information is needed in a report and data file format.
  4. Application will not allow entry into a course, when the maximum number of students in a call is reached, except by manual override.
  5. Application provides automatic and manual scheduling of staff development requests in accordance with course offerings.
  6. The system provides for automatic notfication of staff development session status.
  7. The system provides assessment and reporting tools for staff development offered.
  8. The application’s printing module provides for pagination of all printed materials.
  9. The system provides for automatic notification of staff development session status.
  10. Application provides for centralized administration and management, as well as scheduling.
  11. Application provides—or allows for interfacing with—an online forum (e.g. Moodle) for synchronous/asynchronous courseware.
  12. Application provides for displaying web-based catalogs and printer version.
  13. Application provides class data by participant’s name or number in a viewable or printable format.
  14. Application allows participants to see where they are, what they are registered for, and how much they have completed in relation to their learning path goals.
  15. Application allows for facilitation and tracking of face to face and virtual sessions.
  16. Application provides for email notification of cancellations, scheduled reminders of upcoming staff development, and other user-defined events.
  17. This application supports alpha, numeric, and special character grades, within the same system.
  18. The program screens are customizable with the District logo.
  19. The system must include access to setup options for all modules in one common setup screen, no matter which modules are installed.
  20. The system must allow the user to access the participant maintenance module without leaving the grade reporting area, or existing the main system.
  21. The system must allow the ability to search for participant by name, ID, or employee #.
  22. The system must provide participant demographic information.

Printing Capabilities

  1. The system has the ability to print all reports in black and white.
  2. The system must have the ability to print all reports to a printer or to an ASCII file.
  3. The system must allow reports to be customized, selecting only the data elements needed, and excluding others.
  4. Reports are customizable with the District logo.
  5. The system must allow the user to sort printouts by name range, data range or course range.
  6. The system must allow the user to enter/modify the headings on reports.
  7. The system has the ability to pull all certifications for a student.
  8. The system is capable of creating PDF files.

Proposer Services

  1. The proposer will provide best practice approach(e) for varied implementations and applications.
  2. The proposer will provide an evaluation design for measuring implementation integration and use.
  3. The proposer will outline an implementation plan.
  4. The proposer will outline a District advertising plan for LMS.

Written Responses Required

  1. What kind of infrastructure is required in the District for your product to operate successfully?
  2. What is the minimum available network bandwidth for your product to operate?
  3. What operating system requirements are mandated by your application for Intel-based computers?
  4. What are your system’s browser requirements?
  5. How many simultaneous connections can the LMS support?
  6. Is the product server-based?
  7. How is management of user accounts handled?
  8. Can the District use a 3rd party reporting tool to query the product databases?
  9. Can participants search for specific learning resources?
  10. Can participants register themselves?
  11. How do participants know if a class is available and if their registration request is accepted?
  12. Can participants monitor their own progress from a self-service interface or central page to see where they stand in regards to training?
  13. Is there an easy to add external documents to the participant portfolio?
  14. Can system access be based on organizational hierachies?
  15. Does your product provide a facility for pre-training and post-training assessment?
  16. Can your product be used to maintain the mapping of skills to jobs and competencies to training?
  17. When using these mappings, can your product identify skill gaps?
  18. Will your product record and track various professional certifications?
  19. Can the catalog mix online with instructor led training?
  20. How are instructors added to the system?
  21. How are facilities (training locations) added to the system?
  22. Does your application automatically identify conflicts and issue warning notifications to participants? Administrators?
  23. How many standard (pre-defined) reports are available within the application?
  24. Will the District have the right to reprint all manuals/training materials associated with this system without additional cost to the District?

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.