Ready for a Virtual Course Management System? before Your District Invests in an E-Learning Platform, Ask the Hard Questions

Article excerpt

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:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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. …