In most independent schools, the learning management system (LMS) has been a resource to support the in-person learning that happens in our (physical) classrooms. The LMS provides support for teachers and students as the “go to” place to find homework assignments, extra copies of handouts, and links to helpful resources. It is also a place where students and their caregivers can check on due dates and upcoming tests or look to catch up after an absence. Few Independent schools used their LMS for more instructional purposes prior to March of 2020.
This year will be different. We say that over and over about many aspects of school for the 2020–2021 school year, and the LMS is certainly another aspect of school where that statement rings true. The LMS is the “brick and mortar” of your hybrid learning program. It provides the predictability that students need in order to feel safe. We know from years of research and experience that students can’t learn unless they feel safe. Corinne Dedini, our Assistant Head of School for Teaching and Learning, calls this “Maslow before Bloom” and she’s right. It doesn’t matter how clever and engaging our online activities are if students don’t feel safe and included in our online systems.
Moreover, as the LMS is more visible than ever, iit has become the primary lens through which families and students experience much of school. As we approach the opening of school, we must do our best to make sure that our school’s technology resources mitigate the stress of not being on campus for our families rather than add to the challenges they face.
In that spirit, here are some key points to consider when thinking about how to configure your LMS when some of school is being delivered remotely.
Make and use a template. Many LMSs have a variety of built-in templates, or you can design your own. When all classes use the same template, the learning curve is spread out among courses so that students can focus their cognitive energy on the course and not LMS navigation. This further supports the student–teacher relationship, as teaching students how to learn online is a shared responsibility.
Look at the LMS from multiple perspectives. What does it look like to move through the system as a guardian of three children, all in different divisions? What differences will a twin (or other multiples) parent see when looking at their children’s courses? If you are delivering a mission-driven program, the similarities should far outweigh the differences.
Examine course pages with your school’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in front of you. Does what you see match that commitment? Are the curated materials provided for students in alignment with your values? While the LMS reflects the course content rather than driving it, you may identify exclusions or gaps that were previously unrevealed. Consider how to address any issues that arise; now is not the time to walk away.
Make sure you do an accessibility check to ensure that pages have value for those who need to use supporting tools (think beyond just students here: consider parents and caregivers) and teach your faculty how the accessibility check works. Most robust LMSs have this feature built-in, but not everyone uses it. These systems require choosing to run them before they’ll find the photos without descriptions, colors that obscure text, or fonts that are a challenge for text-to-speech software.
Integrate resources as fully as possible. Set up single sign-on for as many online textbooks, resources, and other commonly used tools as possible. If single sign-on is not possible for a resource, consider two questions: Is this resource really essential? If so, how can you make its use as seamless as possible?
Set up systems so that all users and families can get help when they need it; make it easy to find out how to get to help. Set up FAQ’s that include videos for the most common questions. Have live support hours as much as possible and make getting in contact easy.
Determine if your LMS includes features you haven’t leveraged thoroughly. For example, are there opportunities to build community via threaded discussions, pictures, or video messaging in ways that can be monitored by teachers for safety and still let students connect? Even if some students are on campus and others are remote, the LMS provides the link between the two, helping you build one community.
As you go through this list, you’ll likely find that you need to draw on colleagues to help you with specific areas that need to be addressed. Could campus colleagues, such as your Director of DEI, learning specialists, and, of course, the tech team, provide leadership in helping faculty meet standards? Working together can lead to an LMS presence that reflects your school’s mission in the online space and allows a student to feel like “I’m at my school” when they cannot be on campus.
Feel free to share your ideas in the comments!
At One Schoolhouse lately we’ve been busy refining our ideas of best practices for online and hybrid learning. Virtual schools have existed for many years, but not until March of 2020 were there virtual districts; not until then did distance learning for early childhood and lower elementary become an actual thing; not until then did online performing arts, physical education, and laboratory science classes have to exist at scale. Everyone is new at this. We have the advantage of more experience in some areas than traditional schools—whether public or private—but we’re feeling our way along, too.
Schools have been putting a stupefying amount of effort into plans for opening for the coming school year. The listservs are frothing with threads relating to classroom cameras, microphones, telepresence devices, plexiglass shields, temperature sensors, and other technological interventions to make on-campus or concurrent learning safe and equitably accessible for students and staff. I have to admire the countless hours and creative thinking that have gone into these elaborate plans and stratagems to foil the COVID-19 virus.
It’s hard to ignore the political and cultural backdrop against which all this has been taking place. Everyone, everywhere wants the world to be “normal” again, with cheery yellow buses on the streets, homework a nightly routine, and teams and bands all practicing and playing—enacting the rituals of school as we have known it. And we have officials at all levels exhorting us to put this kind of “Richard Scarry’s Big Book of American School” in action, or else.
It really is scary. The public health picture is grim and growing grimmer; states that tried to rush back to “normal” now top the daily new-case charts. Teachers are saying that they don’t want to get sick and die—or to sicken others—from having gone to work. Parents are thinking the same about exposing their children and thus themselves to situations that will inevitably involve sickness.
More and more, the elaborate plans are looking more like designs to please the eyes of those who just want this all to go away so things can look “okay” again (if everything really ever was as great as people think). But might the time and energy being invested making things “look like school” be better spent figuring out how to adopt and fine-tune effective approaches to another round of online learning?
In making plans to gather people in a school building or tent we are flying as blind as we were when we sent the kindergartners home in March; how many prospective “return dates” came and went as April stretched into May and June? We don’t know how to do this, and doing it anything less than perfectly will cost human lives.
Cynics use the term “security theater” to describe the screening processes in place at airports, and part of what we’re seeing from schools now appears more than a little contrived. But the TSA actually takes weapons away; a COVID-carrying child or teacher doesn’t even know they’re armed.
Increasingly it looks as though schools will need to start 2020–21 in distance mode. Teachers must prepare and schools have systems in place to make “virtual school” look and feel as much like face-to-face as possible—without putting lives at risk. It’s time to dial down the delusional “best optics” and focus instead on best practices.
In our interactions with thousands of school leaders and teachers this spring and summer, we at One Schoolhouse have learned a lot about what works when “school” moves online at scale. Every school did, even if these lessons were sometimes learned the hard way and in converse—as in, Okay, THAT didn’t work, so we won’t do it again. We need more focused analysis on the experiences of the spring, not more magical thinking about the coming year.
Instead of promulgating imaginings of a fall that will all be fine, fine, fine, we need to learn from what worked in Spring 2020’s “worst-case scenario” and explore tools and ideas for doing things even better. Politicians and exhausted families may be visualizing campuses with kiddos cheerfully social distancing (with perhaps a few stragglers at home) as happy teachers hold forth in snug little classrooms, but as educators we must accept and admit that an all-online opening scenario may not be just the safest option but could be, if we work at it, a truly great option educationally.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)