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!
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)