By Darren Victory
One thing is clear: Teaching in the age of COVID is no picnic. Teachers, students, and caregivers are struggling to navigate the ongoing crisis in ways that preserve their emotional and physical health. It all feels so chaotic, so disorganized, and at times so… impossible. No wonder wine sales have shot through the roof!
Organization and consistency are difficult to come by when you’re suddenly thrust into the unknown. When I hear from frustrated teachers and caregivers, I often picture a fish (I know, I know… stay with me), swimming upstream against the rapids, racing alongside millions of other fish in a frenetic fight to somehow forget everything it knows about the river in order to build a new home on the shore. Confusing. Terrifying. Overwhelming. But certainly not organized and consistent.
The answer? We need tools to keep us organized, right? We need tools to track student progress, communicate with caregivers, collect student work, etc. Wouldn’t it be nice if a company could offer a solution?
*cue trumpets* Enter the mighty Learning Management System (LMS for short, because education desperately needs more acronyms, initialisms, and other such nonsense). Canvas, Schoology, and other LMS software promise teachers a way to streamline the demands of remote instruction — a consistent way to organize their classes, keep up with student work, and communicate with caregivers.
LMS software is not cheap. Even before COVID, the LMS market was deemed one of the most lucrative opportunities in Edtech. Now, the desperate need to move instruction online has led to unexpected exponential growth as experts in market trends predict LMS sales in the U.S. to top $25 billion annually by 2026. In short, COVID pumped an entire summer of economic sunshine into an already positive forecast.
So what do teachers, students, and caregivers get in exchange? Depends on who you ask. For some, tools like Canvas help greatly with organization and communication; for others, the software feels confusing, messy, and leads to nothing but frustration. Some teachers call their LMS a lifesaver; others cringe at its very mention, fighting the urge to throw their laptops into oncoming highway traffic.
The question is not, however, whether you like your LMS. The question is not whether using an LMS might be a nice way to organize documents, student work, and parent communication. The question is whether the high price of that organization is the best option for spending limited funds, particularly during a time when we desperately need states and districts to invest heavily in both re-opening schools safely and high-quality PD on remote instruction.
Is LMS software necessary?
When we ask states and districts what they are doing to prepare teachers for teaching online, we typically here something like, “We are buying insert LMS here.” To be clear, we do not need complex software to teach online. The only tools we need: Videoconferencing (free), shared documents (free), and communication tools (free). Schools would be wise to invest in professional development on pedagogically sound instructional practice in a remote setting rather than spending millions for LMS training. Sound pedagogy should be our driving force; the tools we use in our daily practice are nothing but… tools.
Several states require districts to use a specific LMS, advertising the mandate as necessary for the sake of consistency, claiming the software is the only way to provide quality remote instruction. The real reason? States want to track instructional minutes as an accountability measure. At what cost? I wanted to know how much states and districts are paying for LMS software. In a matter of minutes, I found scores of examples:
- The board of education in Anne Arundel County, located near Baltimore, approved a contract to pay D2L Learning $2.9 million for its Brightspace LMS.
- Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, Lowell Public Schools joined many other districts across the country in using relief fund dollars to pay for its LMS. The cost? $813,248.
- In Florida, Hillsborough County Schools are under fire for spending more than $12 million on computer-based learning systems this year while at the same time pushing for major staff cuts.
- The Texas Education Agency announced it will use COVID relief funds to give schools “free” subscriptions to an LMS called Schoology for two years. The state claims the initiative will “save” local school districts $40 million dollars. Hey, Texas, if you’re using relief fund money, the software isn’t free!
A side note: I used the search term Learning Management Systems for Education to look at news results for the past week. Of the top 50 results, 18 were from business trade publications offering investors their predictions for the LMS marketplace, which is now predicted by some to balloon by billions due to COVID-19.
With so much money floating around, we might think states could supply schools with much-needed PPE, face shields, and other safety supplies. We would be wrong. As Newsweek reported last week, most teachers across the country have purchased PPE for themselves and/or for their students. And social media feeds are bursting at the seams with stories about teachers spending their own money on safety supplies. Teachers spending their own money on supplies: Shocking, I know.
Spending millions on expensive LMS software when we cannot afford to reopen schools safely is a bad decision. These complex learning management systems are unnecessary, and in many cases complicate matters so much that teachers and students become frustrated and overwhelmed. Even when teachers find the software helpful, many students and caregivers report frustration with a lack of consistency from teacher to teacher – same LMS for each class, but different expectations from every teacher. LMS software does not guarantee organization and consistency.
If your state or district has provided you with an LMS and you find it helpful, by all means, continue using it. But if you are not required to use an LMS, please don’t feel guilty for kicking it to the curb. You do not need an expensive LMS to be a successful teacher in a remote instruction setting. Many teachers have found great success in simplifying and paring back the technology end, finding a balance between live and recorded instruction, and spending the majority of their time conferring with students and teaching to individualized goals based on strengths and needs. They have done so at a cost of… wait for it… zero dollars!
Our schools have yet to experience the negative economic impact of COVID-19. States and districts should be preparing for massive budget shortfalls. Now is the time to be thoughtful and wise about education spending. Rather than funnel billions of taxpayer dollars to a handful of edtech companies for expensive software, states and districts would be much better off investing the funds in smarter ways:
- Provide schools with what they need to protect teachers and students. PPE, cleaning supplies, proper ventilation systems, etc.
- Invest in getting books into students’ hands. Book access was already one of our greatest challenges before schools closed. COVID exacerbated the problem, not only for students who are learning from home but also for those back in classrooms, where safety precautions like quarantining books has complicated the challenge of keeping our students supplied with a wide variety of high-quality, high-interest books.
- Hire more substitute teachers. Avoiding this investment sends a clear message to staff that you fully expect them to show up for work regardless of whether they have symptoms and could infect others.
- Hire more teachers so we can do away with this nonsensical notion that teachers should be teaching face to face and online simultaneously.
- Invest in additional support staff and special education teachers who can work one to one with students and families to address the needs of any student who struggles to be successful in an online environment.
- Spend more money on school counselors and SEL-related services. We are in the middle of a pandemic. People are suffering. Students need social-emotional support now more than ever.
- Provide teachers with high-quality professional development on remote instruction – emphasis on the word instruction. Remote instruction PD should be centered on teaching and learning in a remote setting rather than solely on how to use technology tools.
States and districts should not be spending money on expensive LMS software while failing to provide sufficient funds for the safe reopening of schools. Edtech is making a killing off the myth that teachers cannot be trusted at a time when districts desperately need to invest in keeping their students and teachers safe. No matter what, teaching online is going to be hard, but we don’t need gold-plated software to be effective teachers in a remote setting. And we certainly don’t need LMS tracking tools to hold us accountable for a mission we have already gladly accepted.
Darren Victory is a literacy consultant, former journalist, and former fourth-grade reading and writing teacher from Fort Worth, Texas.