Since they surfaced on college campuses a decade ago, online course management systems have grabbed the attention of the K-12 world. The first generation of systems, also called e-learning platforms, gave instructors a handy way to post homework assignments and supplemental resources
on the network. Today's offerings, no longer the sole domain of the ivory tower and far more robust than their predecessors, provide educators with an "e-parallel" for practically every single facet of the face-to-face classroom, from literary discussions and collaborative projects to "handing back" homework and administering tests. Many states and districts even use these systems to offer stand-alone courses, virtual schools, and professional development.
The appeal is obvious. For starters, teachers can streamline classroom management functions, leaving more time for actual teaching in physical classrooms. They can also use the platform to complement classroom instruction and even tailor the curriculum for individual students, affording many students the opportunity to engage more fully in their own learning. This is especially true for those who benefit from working in environments with less distraction and social involvement, homebound students, students living in remote areas, and those looking for expanded learning opportunities like Advanced Placement courses.
Course management systems, however, require a big investment of time, money, and support; they are not necessarily right for every district. Here is some initial guidance.
Issues to Consider:
- Are your teachers committed?
The success of a course management system directly relates to teachers' commitment to learning and using the product. Teacher buy-in is vital. The majority of your teachers, whether weaned on the Internet or tenants of the old school, must (1) be convinced that use of a CMS will serve their students and save them time and
( 2) commit to the program on some level — for example, at a minimum, posting their syllabus and homework assignments online. Most CMS vendors are keenly aware of this challenge and offer a variety of professional development options (e.g., train the trainer, on-site staff development) and 24/7 technical support.
- How can a CMS help instruction?
As with any technology purchase, it's important to choose an e-learning system that addresses specific goals and is tied into improved teaching and learning. Fortunately, e-learning platforms boast an array of applications that have the potential to reinforce the panoply of instructional goals districts must meet. Standard features include the ability to post lab flowcharts and build mathematical equations, as well as browse the Web within the CMS environment. Also included are "virtual critical thinking" applications such as online discussion groups and chat rooms. A number, but not all, of CMS vendors offer whiteboard capabilities and streaming video, enabling educators to insert video clips into their presentations.
- Is it easy to use?
E-learning platforms are highly complex enterprise systems. It goes without saying that you should look for one that offers maximum productivity and greatest ease of use for administrators, teachers, students, and parents without sacrificing versatility. A teacher should be able to post homework, create exam questions, host discussion groups, communicate with parents, and use all other standard features of the system without difficulty. Many systems now also allow users to make universal updates. For example, if an algebra teacher wants to update her lecture notes in all the sections she teaches, she can make the changes in just one place and they will be replicated automatically wherever those notes appear in the system.
- Do your users have Internet access?
Implementing a CMS generally assumes that student homes are wired and contain connections swift enough to accommodate the e-learning system. If students don't have home access, then they (and their parents) should have readily available access at the local library or after hours in the school computer lab. Every CMS provider we talked to indicated they operate under the assumption that participating teachers have Internet access at school, if not at home.
- Do you have the technical capabilities?
Some CMS companies, such as eCollege, host, manage, and maintain the entire e-learning environment from afar. Other vendors provide systems that are loaded onto a school district server and managed by either district IT staff or third-party contractors. And still other vendors offer a choice of both in-house and outsourced technology models. In their 2003 report What Can Virtual Learning Do for Your School?, research firm Eduventures (www.eduventures.com) suggested districts consider the following technology infrastructure questions:
- Is it secure?
CMS vendors offer several overlapping security solutions. First, all CMSs include built-in security. There's a backup system of checks to make sure that every facet of the system, from grade changes to class lists, can only be accessed by the correct party. Second, a number of CMS companies use third-party security source and site-secured (HTTPS) software. And finally, districts have the option to implement numerous third-party encryption devices and authentication systems (e.g., LDAP, Windows Active Directory) for added security.
- Can it work with other systems?
Data interoperability is critical. Can the rosters from the district student information system be easily integrated into the CMS without having to reenter data, for instance? Does the system work with open standards or proprietary APIs (application program interfaces)? Content interoperability, the ability to pass learning content from one system to another, is also important. The industry standard for this interoperability is called SCORM, or the Sharable Courseware Object Reference Model (for more infor-mation, see www.rhassociates.com/scorm.htm). Regarding SCORM, be sure to ask the following questions: Is the system SCORM compliant?
Is the third-party content we want to port into the CMS environment SCORM compliant? What would happen to content if we wanted to change vendors-is it exportable?
- How much?
Costs vary dramatically and depend on the number of users, software features, and add-on services such as professional development. Pricing models also differ: Some companies offer an annual licensing fee while others charge on a per-enrollment basis. To be sure, any buying decision you make should take total cost of ownership into account.
The Style Manager feature in eClassroom's AU+ Course Management System lets teacher's customize the look and feel of their courses.
- Can the school develop, integrate, and maintain required software applications internally?
- Does the school have an IT staff that can regularly and reliably support the technical needs of virtual learning students and teachers?
- Does the school have the hardware resources (i.e., servers) to host virtual learning applications internally? Does the current network configuration account for escalating levels of scalability and reliability?
Students using the Blackboard Academic Suite can showcase their work in one place using the e-Portfolio tool.
The WebCT Vista 3.0 gradebook automatically calculates key stats such as average, median, and standard deviation.
Crai S. Bower, a former educator, is a freelance writer based in Seattle.
"We use [our CMS] to stream video," says Tia Washington-Davis, information technology coordinator for Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland.
"We use it to post homework, for lesson information, and communication with parents. We have e-organizations and teacher-made courses running with all sorts of information being shared."
Open Source Options
Can't afford a commercial CMS? Try an alternative.
Many educators might be pleasantly surprised to learn that free open source CMSs exist. For example, .LRN, which had its beginnings at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 10 years ago, offers most of the features of the commercial CMSs. A significant advantage of this software is that educators throughout the world have the ability to continually add improvements and features (each of which is reviewed by a qualified consortium). As with most open source software, however, these systems are not considered as user friendly or easy to manage as their for-profit counterparts. One approach might be to try out the program first — after all it's free — and get a sense for whether it will work for your school.
In addition to LRN (dotlrn.org), other free course management tools include Moodle (www.moodle.org), Eledge (eledge.sourceforge.net), and Jones Advisory Group's Jones e-education software (www.jonesadvisorygroup.com).
Five CMS selection strategies
- Visit www.edutools.info/course for reviews of CMS and other e-learning products.
- Take advantage of trial versions before making the commitment. Use with both tech-savvy and tech-challenged educators.
- Create a teacher committee to help with the selection process.
- Make professional development and teacher buy-in a top priority.
- Consider trying the open source software first to test run the CMS and determine which components are most important for your environment.
The following companies provide course management solutions that allow districts and schools to develop virtual courses, content, and collaboration opportunities for K-12 students. Because they offer such a wide range of product features and services, we recommend visiting the company Web sites or contacting them directly for product demos.
ANGEL Learning ( 317) 610-3610
Blackboard (800) 424-9299
Desire2Learn (519) 772-0325
eCollege, eClassroom division
WebCT (877) 932-2863