In August of 2013, Franklin West Supervisory Union (FWSU) in Vermont was entering its fifth year of a digital transformation. FWSU is a rural school system in Northwestern Vermont. We are comprised of three separate districts (PK-12, PK-8 and PK-6) that are loosely coupled into a “confederation” which makes up what is called our supervisory union. Each district has its own autonomous school board, with ultimate decision-making authority. Finding common ground between all school districts in FWSU is not easy; however, all of the districts firmly believed in our ongoing digital transformation.
This power move served us well, but as we learned and grew, we realized our transformation was missing an effective system to keep all of us tied together in this digital world. Simultaneously, I was very aware of other districts across the U.S. implementing the use of Learning Management Systems (LMS). The idea that FWSU needed a LMS became cemented in my thinking when my college-age niece showed me the University of Vermont LMS. As I watched her access her classes, schedule, assignments, classmates, grades, teachers and email all in one place, I thought “How could we not have this for our school system?”
But what are the steps one needs to take to obtaining the best LMS—and, even more importantly, creating user buy-in for such an expensive product?
Step 1: Create a committee and understand your goals
I have worked in the Vermont education system for over twenty years, and there is one lesson that I have learned loud and clear: top-down management decisions are destined for failure. I would have been wasting my time if I simply choose an LMS for our system. This is a decision that needed a support from our boards, a committee of stakeholders, a process and lots of buy-in to be successful.
The process started with our school boards back in 2013. I spent time with each of the boards discussing the need for a LMS—specifically, a coordinated system at FWSU. Ultimately they charged me with task of finding a system that would best meet the needs of our community, our teachers and, of course, our students.
With charge in hand, I started the process of forming a committee of teachers, board members and administrators. What about students, you may ask? I considered that, and if I had to do it over, I would have asked for student representation. However, students were a large part of the process during our pilot phase, which I will discuss below.
When I put the call-out for volunteers to serve on our new LMS committee, many teachers and administrators stepped forward—some more familiar with tech and LMS’s, some less familiar. (A variety of voices representing lots of perspectives is a plus.) Some were very familiar with LMS’ and some were not. Some were very tech savvy and some were not. That is what makes a great committee. Our first meeting took place in November and we had to hit the ground running! If we were to have a system in place for the start of the 2015 school year we had work to do.
Step 2: Determine what you—and your users—need
The committee began its work in November of 2014 with the realization that many teachers in our schools have been implementing various LMS systems over the last several years. Using the appreciative inquiry process, the committee identified important elements that we used to guide our exploration explore throughout the inquiry process. I decided to use this process for two reason. First, basic brainstorming only gets you so far in committee work. Second, AI lets you do more than just admire a problem. It allows you to dream, discover and design together. Three of my favorite activities.
We knew the LMS we selected would be used by all K-12 teachers in our system. It would have to perform a variety of functions that would support all of our students and teachers. Some of our non-negotiables were:
The ability for parents, students, and teachers to easily access all content in one location.
The ability to create class rosters using our current student management system (PowerSchool)
The ability to upload and manage documents containing curriculum content.
The ability to deliver course content over a web-based interface, facilitating a remote educational experience for the instructor and student.
The ability for students to maintain their e-portfolio (PLP).
Step 3: Narrow down the options, and bring in additional stakeholders
As we moved along as a committee, we identified twelve LMS systems and then narrowed to four using a rubric with indicators and criteria identified by the committee. The four finalist were Canvas, Schoology, JumpRope and My Big Campus. I was both surprised and relieved—now I knew we would have a solid system, no matter what our final decision.
The next phase of the process was to involve more stakeholders, run pilots of all of our final four and get feedback. To bring in stakeholder involvement, we asked for volunteers to pilot the LMS’s—and we immediately found twenty FWSU interested teachers.
Prior to our pilots, we invited our LMS finalists to provide webinars for all teachers to view the features. The teachers then got started, and provided feedback to the committee though a Google Survey during the pilot process, which lasted for several months and included teachers in elementary, middle and high school. We wanted everyone’s opinion.
Step 4: The final decision, and next steps
Fast forward a few months to May, and the committee met for one final time. This was the big day when all of our work, all of our data and all of our intuition as educators would converge.
The data on its own was crystal clear. Teachers and students liked both Canvas and Schoology. However, what turned the tide in favor of Schoology was the company’s marketing. For a couple of years before we began to explore this topic, Schoology had allowed free access to teachers. We had cadres of teachers in all of our schools who signed up and had become accustomed to the product. This, in the end, made our decision to adopt Schoology easier.
We are now in our second full year of Schoology, and we are chugging along. But the process doesn’t end there! Next year, around this time, I will again convene a committee to begin the review process of our decision and our charge will be the same: Find the best LMS for the students, family and teachers of FWSU. As FWSU Digital Learning Specialist Angelique Fairbrother likes to say, “We need the Super Walmart” version of an LMS. What does that mean? It means we are now on the lookout for a system that is indeed a LMS, but also a SIS, a data warehouse and system that allows for personalization of the learning. There are certainly many players on the field right now, and more seem to be joining the game everyday. But we are still on the lookout.
And that’s a good feeling.
Ned Kirsch (@betavt) is the Superintendent of Schools of Franklin West Supervisory Union in Vermont.
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