ASK BERT ROSS of the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS) what the district's course learning management system can do, and he'll ask you what can't it do--for students, parents, and educators. Need to take a course online due to a scheduling conflict? No problem. Want to see what courses your children are enrolled in? Check. Create online professional development videos for teachers? Done.
The efficiency and versatility of the LMS, which Ross is the manager of, is the result of an effort he began a decade ago, when he received a federal Technology Innovation Challenge Grant to support his efforts to, he says, "create an electronic learning community [so teachers could] break out of their walled classrooms and share resources across the district."
His work led him to Blackboard (www.blackboard.com), whose product offered the ease and functionality that Ross wanted. He christened the new tool the "Teacher Support System," or TSS, and piloted it with a group of six of the district's middle schools teachers. The initiative's success led to its growth districtwide and into every grade level. Today, Ross says TSS is integral to the functioning of the district, enabling BCPSS to now post 27,000 classes online for its 83,000 students and 6,200 teachers.
Ross' vision, provocative a decado ago, is now a standard way of doing school business. Learning management systems helped spawn the boom in online learning programs in school districts nationwide, as well as provide educators with faster, better ways of reaching their students.
Ross says that currently more than 2,500 Baltimore teachers are using TSS at least twice a week, for such tasks as posting lecture notes and conducting assessments. Those assessments are automatically scored by TSS so teachers can get the instant feedback they need on each student. The system also offers teachers the opportunity to receive professional development online using a range of resources, such as a video demonstrating how to create an Excel spreadsheet to mark attendance.
Ross and his colleagues are extending the limits of TSS all the time. He recently signed a requisition to purchase software that will easily integrate with Blackboard so students can collaborate using blogs, podcasting, and wikis.
Ross' enthusiasm for the system has spread to his colleagues. Mike Smith, a functional analyst with BCPSS, calls himself a Ross "disciple," and says TSS is "mission-critical" to the district's operation. "It's a one-stop shop," Smith says. "Teachers can plan a lesson, see the curriculum, store and obtain resources, engage their students, be notified of upcoming professional development, get informed on happenings in the district--they can do it all packaged at this one location."
Smith, a former math teacher, says he saw firsthand the system's benefits. "It was a way for me to share information without having to run to 20 different machines." It was also a way for him to motivate his students.
"In a typical algebra classroom," he explains, "if you ask a question you may get one or two hands. By using a discussion board or chat feature associated with this application, you may get 100 hits within 15 minutes. It's student-to-student learning. You become the facilitator and not the person who has all the knowledge. If you use this technology in the way students are accustomed to, you get the desired outcome."
The Virtual Classroom
The Gwinnett County Online Campus (www.gwinnettk12online. net)--part of Gwinnett County Public Schools in Suwanee, GA--offers roughly 100 courses. According to the virtual school's director, Matthew Waymack, some 4,500 mostly high school students in the district took at least one class online in 2007.
Making the online education program possible is the LMS from eCollege (www.ecollege.com). The system enables teachers to post course content and lecture notes, exchange e-mail with students, and administer tests and quizzes, among its many options. …