The LinkIt! Team
Over the past two decades, K–12 digital platform offerings have proliferated at an unprecedented pace. This dramatic increase in the number of available options has been coupled with an increasing level of platform complexity and sophistication. In many cases, the increasing competition in the space has spurred technical innovation that confers obvious benefits to both educators and learners, but it has come with a host of challenges in terms of usability and interoperability across different platforms. This challenge was particularly acute as many schools attempted to implement learning management systems (LMS) for the first time in recent years in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
What exactly was the role of these new systems? How would they work with other more established digital platforms already in place? As schools transitioned back to in-person learning, how would this role evolve and how would educators evolve with it? Well, there are no easy answers, but the road to exploring these topics, and more specifically, evaluating the role of the LMS as a relative newcomer to the K–12 digital ecosystem, begins with building an understanding of the major categories of digital platforms and the respective roles that each plays in the school environment.
The discussion below focuses on major platform categories, but there are certainly other noteworthy digital platform categories including Response to Intervention (RTI), Special Ed, and College & Career Readiness solutions that are tailored to specific students (or a subset of the population). Then, there are of course curriculum or courseware platforms that deliver content or lessons related to specific instructional programs to students outside of a more generalized LMS solution. These topics will be addressed in future blog posts.
Student Information Systems (SIS) are the cornerstone of the digital ecosystem for most K–12 school districts. While most teachers and students have limited direct interaction with SIS platforms, they are critical systems that record and store student enrollment information, maintain attendance and behavioral records, gradebooks, manage class scheduling and rostering, and often support communication with parents via messaging solutions or direct portal access. While the SIS is not necessarily the most important digital platform in the ecosystem, it is typically the foundation upon which other platforms are built in the sense that the SIS serves as the system of record that feeds into other digital platforms. So, for any system that requires an association between students, classes and teachers from a record-keeping perspective, the SIS is the gold standard; the definitive source of truth.
Data Warehousing and Assessment Management systems are platforms for analyzing various academic data sets with robust reporting and analytics capabilities. While the SIS typically serves as the definitive record of the “current state,” the data warehouse is often used in the context of longitudinal data analysis, enabling educators to do a “deep dive” into historical data in search for trends and patterns related to student performance and instructional efficacy. Over time, many data warehouse platforms have added assessment management features that enable the platforms to not only store a variety of disparate assessment data sets, but also to directly capture such data with the aid of online testing applications (and related tools for assessment design) or plain paper-based bubble sheet generation and scoring. The LinkIt! Platform is one example in this category of solutions that draws from the source data of the SIS, but also extends the available SIS functionality with deep analytics and assessment management tools.
Learning Management Systems have long been popular in post-secondary education, but have established a significant presence in K–12 only over the last few years. There is little doubt that the challenges of COVID-19 accelerated this trend dramatically as schools needed to quickly find a solution to keep lines of communication open between teachers, students, and parents, and ultimately, deliver instructional content to students learning in a remote or hybrid learning model for the first time. Widespread school closures following the pandemic accentuated the value proposition of this category of solutions for K–12 schools, transforming what was once a discretionary line item into a necessity to reach students working at home.
Features of LMS platforms vary considerably, but in general, most available options support interactive and personalized learning with some or all of the following capabilities:
○ Assign instructional and lesson content
○ Assign and grade student assessments
○ Engage with students with messaging/notifications
○ Parent communication via messaging/notifications
○ Dashboards to keep information organized
It is also increasingly true that districts may implement multiple LMS platforms based on their level of complexity and appropriateness for a specific use case. High schools, for example, often require more robust features and use a proprietary LMS like Schoology or Canvas whereas elementary and middle schools often use Google Classroom or Seesaw which are typically thought to be both easier to implement and more affordable from a cost standpoint.
Over time, there has been some convergence of basic features and functionality that overlap between these core systems, particularly in the areas of classroom assessment, grading, and reporting that sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish different solutions. These similarities often beg the question, "Why can't I get everything in one place?" While there are certainly some commercial providers that advocate for this approach, the reality is that each system has its own unique value proposition and set of features. Often, systems that attempt to be “all things to all users” end up falling short of expectations in one area or another simply because this broad approach usually comes at the expense of depth and detail in certain key areas of functionality that are important to users, or put in more colloquial terms, vendors that promise to deliver robust solutions in all product categories risk becoming the proverbial “Jack of All Trades, but Master of None.”
Moreover, technological advancements that support rapid integration, such as Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and interoperability standards such as QTI, OneRoster, and LTI have made it easier for disparate systems to communicate with one another, exchanging information seamlessly and without the need for manual, human-driven processes. The widespread adoption of these technologies has made it possible for schools to achieve a “best of breed” approach that maximizes their ability to choose the right applications for the right purposes and not simply relying on providers that promise an integrated approach with offerings in all categories.
Districts that have both LMS and district-level assessment management tools often wonder how the assessment capabilities of both systems should be used. This dilemma is certainly understandable given that this is one area where functional capabilities of both types of systems may overlap.
The strength of the LMS assessment platform category is that they are often easy to use. The assessments that they deliver and support are typically unique to a teacher's scope and sequence, more formative in nature, and integrated with their daily assignments and lesson plans, as well as their grade books. From a data perspective, the biggest limitation of an LMS-powered assessment is that the data is for that teacher and that teacher only. In other words, because the assessments administered via the LMS are often particular to individual teachers and their respective classes, the resulting data has a tendency to remain siloed, and not really analyzed or accessed by anyone else. This may be advantageous in some respects, but the inability to aggregate data across classrooms makes it difficult to identify larger scale trends and patterns in school or across a district. On a related point, most LMS platforms do not readily distinguish between assessments and assignments and this can also contribute to difficulties when it comes to interpreting data on a larger scale.
By contrast, the strengths of assessment management and data warehouse platforms are the ability to support and enable robust test creation, flexible assessment administration (online or offline), and advanced and large scale reporting.
● Used for common or summative purposes (mid-terms, finals, district quarterly or interim assessments).
● Test creation: Diverse item types, assessment content options (tests, item banks), item tagging (beyond standards to skills, topics, DOK, district-level goals), collaborative test co-authoring and publishing approval logic.
● Test administration: An interface that mimics that state testing experience in look/feel/navigation, more test security features (browser lock-down, honor pledges, shuffling questions & answer choices), accommodations and tools (timed/scheduled testing, section-based preferences, districts vs. teacher vs. student preferences), adaptive testing, advanced grading (interactive rubrics, blind scoring, algorithmic scoring).
● Reports and analytics that lead to data-driven decision making:
■ Fewer, but higher quality datasets
■ Enabling teachers to compare scores, questions, standards to class, school, and district averages
■ Robust reports for teacher collaboration and administrative analysis (demographics, school comparisons, longitudinal analysis)
■ The ability to measure test reliability and item validity to improve quality of assessments
■ Data that can be leveraged for multiple purposes and accessed by multiple stakeholders (instructional coaches, curriculum supervisors, school psychologists, other teachers, next year's teachers).
Modern LMS platforms are an increasingly important part of the K–12 learning experience and it is important to understand their role in an increasingly complex ecosystem. What was arguably a luxury item for most schools five years ago has now become a critical component for instructional delivery and support. At LinkIt! we have invested significant development resources in the creation of meaningful integrations with top tier LMS platforms that enable student data to be shared across systems, and ultimately, put more power in the hands of both educators and their students. Often these integrations include features such as single sign-on, the ability to launch a sophisticated assessment powered by LinkIt! Technology and even provide access to our robust analytics dashboard with a single click from an LMS. While we believe that LMS solutions are here to stay, we also understand that the most successful LMS implementations are based upon a “best of breed” approach in which the right content and technology solutions are integrated such that they are readily available from the LMS. Put another way, developing a firm understanding of the limitations of an LMS platform is the best way to ensure long term implementation success.
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