When school opened in August, we knew we were going to be up against one obstacle that would be a source of stress for every student, teacher, and administrator in our school: the loss of our previous LMS. We still had a district-wide SIS, and a very small and very limited LMS, but we would be without the robust LMS on which we had become dependent, one that had been financed with money from a grant which had expired.
We are a Project-Based Learning school with 1:1 technology. Among other things, this means our students use their school-issued MacBooks more like working adult professionals than like kids: Our students use their laptops to manage and assign work within their groups, to monitor and edit task boards and logs, to develop and resolve Need-To-Know lists that are cross-referenced with rubrics, to conduct-organize-apply research, collaborate in each step of the process (whether a group member is in another state or on a bus to a band competition or in the same classroom), to develop written reports of their findings, to cooperatively build digital multimedia products and coordinate formal presentations, and to publish to a community of their peers, as well as reaching out to the community.
Our students may have projects going on simultaneously in as many as eight or nine different courses, and they are graded in five variously-weighted categories for each course. Managing agendas, emails, course and group discussions and project assignments can be complex. Teachers are using a wide array of digital tools to deliver content and guide progress, and we all dive in and try new things as they appear on the horizon.
"Where do I find what's due? Where and how do I submit? How do I monitor my grades so I can catch problems before the end of a term, when it's too late?" The answers were different depending on the project, the course, the group... It was a stressful juggling act for students. Grades alone were a diversified conglomerate of data: Students needed to know how much the rubrics in 40 different categories were going to effect their GPA. "Where do I publish assignments? Where and how can I manage and grade student work? How can I see data on outcomes? How do I provide resources? How do I make differentiated material and project paths available? Where do I house flipped learning videos and Intervention material, and how do I track it, compile it, report it, archive it?" Teachers were having to patch together a wide variety of online tools, and, in many cases, print out results to enter by hand into a different platform that could not import data or files from anywhere else.
We –– students and teachers –– had used our expansive access to digital tools in ways that had transformed learning beyond anything an ordinary LMS could accommodate, and when we tried to squeeze into one, it just didn't work. We were too deep into the digital world to just ditch it all and go back to paper, or to fall back to just using technology as glorified paperwork. Once you know that massive levels of collaboration and cross-referencing are possible, you can't un-know...
We tried sample versions of a variety of LMSs aimed at both educational and business applications. Stress mounted. and then, one by one, we started using the FFT version of Canvas. Because it was the free version, there was no school-wide administrator level account and no communication with the SIS, which leaves a mountain of data entry to be done manually, but other than that, this was the one place that could accommodate almost everything we were doing more than anything else we had tried (and we'd tried them all).
I am happy to say that our district found a way to purchase the full "with-admin" version for us, for the remainder of the year. We are working on getting the bulk of our content into Canvas over the winter holiday, in hopes that our students will have been added via the SIS by the time school is back in session (or shortly after... we are prepared to just straddle multiple systems until the first progress report, if need be).
People in education technology talk about ways of achieving the highest SAMR levels: how do we use technology in the classroom as more than a digitized worksheet? The tricky part is that once you get staff and students using digital tools to access, manipulate, and create a wider variety of data than would ever have been possible on paper, once you have everyone in your learning community collaborating outside of physical, geographical, and temporal restrictions, across platforms, with a wider variety of online tools and access than would ever have been possible on paper, once everyone is using and doing all of this, corralling it all so everyone can find everything becomes monumental, which is precisely why it would "never have been possible" on paper.
Imagine going into a bricks-and-mortar library and being told that all of the books were shelved in totally random order, and then trying to find a specific book. The right LMS not only enables and promotes transformational education, but the wrong LMS or no LMS inhibits, frustrates, and truncates attempts at those higher SAMR levels, especially if you are making a school-wide effort. The right LMS removes barriers and allows teachers, students, and administrators the freedom to fly.