Guide to Selecting an LMS for K-12

Trying to decide which learning management system (LMS) is the right fit for your school or district? Unsure if now is the best time to implement one? Curious about how popular LMSs compare to one another? This free guide can help you answer these questions and determine which path forward will be best for your students and staff.

Introduction

Over the past several months, educators across the state of Michigan have been working around the clock to develop learning continuity plans that ensure students will have access to quality educational materials during this unprecedented disruption in K-12 schooling. These painstaking efforts have included securing internet access and devices for students who needed them, moving courses to online platforms, and training teachers in online instructional tools.

As these important efforts continue, it is crucial that districts transition away from triage-based decision making and start planning for the future of learning. For many Michigan school districts, the abrupt shift to emergency remote instruction has illuminated the need to either 1) select a district-wide learning management system (LMS) for the first time or 2) rethink a current learning management system that no longer serves their students or school communities.

If you are one of these districts looking to purchase a new learning management system, this toolkit is for you. Our team has assembled a mission-driven decision-making guide to help you select a learning management system that aligns to your district’s instructional framework.

This toolkit leads you from pre-planning through the LMS selection process, so you make the best decision for your district. The following three sections: The LMS Self-Assessment, the LMS Decision-Making Matrix, and the LMS Directory have been designed to keep pedagogy at the core of your decision-making process.

Step #1: LMS Self-Assessment

To help you answer the question, "Is now the right time to implement an LMS?"

Step #2: LMS Decision-Making Matrix

To help you answer the question, "What should I look for in an LMS?"

Step #3: LMS Directory

To help you answer the question, "How do the most popular LMSs compare?"

Step #1: LMS Self-Assessment

Is now the right time to implement an LMS?

Adopting a district-wide learning management system is a big investment that requires careful planning. Before you even begin to explore options, it is important to self-assess to determine if now is the right time to make the investment. Additionally, it is critical that your district understands exactly what an LMS is and what it isn’t, so you can make the right choice for your community. Lastly, it is paramount that you assemble the right team and decision-making structure, so the process is transparent and efficient. In this section, we provide you with a few tools and tips to set you up for success.

What’s the difference between an LMS and an SIS?

Student Information Systems (SIS)

SIS stands for “student information system.” An SIS houses basic information about students, contacts, and schedules. Examples of popular SISs include Mi-Star, PowerSchool, and Skyward.

Learning Management Systems (LMS)

LMS stands for “learning management system.” An LMS is a software application through which users can create and manage educational content. Ideally, these work two systems together. Examples of popular LMSs include Moodle, Canvas, and Schoology. An LMS offers schools great power in creating, delivering and linking to educational content. For example, in an LMS, there will typically be the ability to create a quiz with a wide variety of question types.


Is Google Classroom an LMS?

So, what about Google Classroom? Is Google Classroom considered an LMS? There is a good bit of discussion and disagreement about Google Classroom. Some consider it an LMS, some do not. Google Classroom allows teachers to organize, deliver, and manage Google tools. For example, teachers can share documents or spreadsheets. Teachers also can create quizzes that are based in Google Forms. The label itself matters less than understanding if you have a system that meets your needs.

What does an LMS do?

A learning management system (LMS) supports instruction. Essentially, an LMS provides the “housing” of activities. Think of it much like a school building. Like a school, an LMS can have multiple classrooms inside. Each of these classrooms is controlled by a teacher. Inside those classrooms, teachers provide assignments. These assignments may be interactive activities (e.g., worksheets, links to other resources, a quiz, information to read, etc.). An LMS is the shell in which educational activities can occur. It is a great way to provide teachers and students alike with a single point to start.

A good LMS provides a variety of options for teachers and students to create and share content and work collaboratively. Teachers should have the ability to create and assign work based on the needs of their students. Thus, a good LMS will provide the ability for the teacher to create groups, assign work to those groups, and individualize the work to meet student needs. Of course, with more options comes the need for more professional development for teachers managing all of these options in their classroom.

What is required for successful LMS implementation?

Before you get too far into the LMS search process, conduct a self-assessment. Is your district prepared to invest in comprehensive professional development, stay the course with your decision for multiple years, and really streamline your digital tools to align with your district’s vision for quality teaching and learning? To help you think about these factors, consider these keys to success:

Be Consistent

If your LMS tool changes with the seasons then why would a dedicated teacher invest the time and energy to develop robust learning opportunities? They probably won’t. They know that whatever the tool is, it will be gone shortly.

Teachers need to use the LMS to get the most out of the tool, and they need time to develop these skills. Each teacher will be on a different leg of the journey. Staying the course with your LMS will strengthen your staff’s capacity to get the most out of the system.

Invest in Professional Development

You can invest in yourself or you can invest in someone else. You can operate your own LMS or you can invest in a pre-packaged product. Either way, you are always investing time, energy, and money. Invest in staff to teach and learn skills that will help them do amazing things with students using your LMS.

Plan for the Long Term

Like all good pedagogy, truly implementing an LMS will take time and effort. The benefits for students are great. Plan to build for multiple years.

Be Skeptical of Quick Solutions

When it comes to making a decision about a learning management system, we are often bombarded with all kinds of advice. The sales pitch from any professional LMS provider will typically be well done and convincing with promises to make teaching and learning “easy.”

Making a decision without fully investigating how it will fit into your district can lead to frustration. Will the LMS grow with you, your staff, and your students? Does the LMS match the instructional strategies and goals of your district?

Streamline Your Tools

An LMS provides a “home base” and a single sign-on for students. This common entry point will lead students to other tools and applications that supplement their learning. Consider how many tools and applications your district is currently using. Letting each teacher pick from the hundreds of educational tools available creates frustration for teachers, districts, and most importantly, students and parents.

Without an LMS, parents and students may be frustrated about needing unique tools and passwords for each class, especially if they have multiple children in school. Using too many unique tools also makes it much harder to share resources within your district and train staff. A district-wide LMS can help mitigate this confusion.

Integrate Content & Tools into Your LMS

Part of deciding on the right-fit LMS for your district is understanding the technical implications. As part of your self-assessment, you should be familiar with what the LMS integration process will entail.

Integration refers to the way that an LMS communicates with other tools and applications so that the user experience is seamless. Integration is important for sharing and creating content, pulling data and reports, and communicating and receiving information across different applications linked within the LMS. SCORM and LTI offer two different ways you can seamlessly integrate content and tools into your LMS.

SCORM: SCORM is a really powerful tool for anyone involved in online, computer-based training, distance learning, or eLearning. Content can be created one time and used in many different systems and situations without modification. This plug-and-play functionality can be powerful within an organization but even more so across organizations.

Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI): LTI is another way to link different learning tools together. LTI is basically a “language” for learning tools to talk to each other. This allows activities and data to be shared between different tool sets. For example, a publisher may make a math activity available through LTI. The student would log into their normal LMS and click on a link. That link would open the publisher’s math activity (and “sign in” the student). Grades, feedback, and results could also be passed back from the publisher’s math activity to the LMS.

Build an LMS Evaluation Team

At this point in your journey, you have self-reflected and understand some of the key terms and considerations for choosing an LMS. If you are ready to make the plunge, the next step towards making the best-fit decision is assembling the right decision-making team.

It is necessary that your evaluation team represents the voices and perspectives of every stakeholder and user group who will interface with your district’s learning management system. This group should function like a microcosm of your organization. You will want to include administrators, teachers, support staff, students, parents, and back office employees. Be careful not to select only high skill/high will users.

Rather, select a range of individuals who represent your district’s continuum of users. The purpose of this team is to provide input along the way. Not every team member will need to be a part of every meeting, and achieving group consensus doesn’t mean the decision will be unanimous. The success or failure of this initiative will come down to whether or not the average-skilled user can buy-in and find success.

Finally, remember that once the decision is made, this evaluation team will need to continue to support the initiative moving forward. They should be able and willing to serve as champions and resources for the larger community throughout the implementation process.

Create an Evaluation Rubric

Creating an evaluation rubric is a critical step to identifying the appropriate learning management system (LMS) for your district. This rubric will help ensure that your review committee members are all aware of the required elements needed for a successful LMS implementation. This evaluation rubric should identify the technical, functional, systems, and user requirements for an LMS, based on your district’s specific needs.

Areas of specific focus for the evaluation rubric might include:

  • Course content management
  • Assessment and grading functionality
  • Assignment types and settings
  • User group applications
  • Data and reporting tools and integrations
  • Configuration of roles, permissions, announcements, terms, system administration, account merging, integration with other applications, and customizations
  • Third party connections, integrations, and migrations
  • Supported browsers and devices
  • Software as a Service (SAAS), and
  • Ongoing support and training.

Detailed requirements for each of these areas should be established based on district and school needs. In addition to the evaluation rubric, it is advisable that the district develop case study scenarios and identify questions that vendors will need to respond to in order to demonstrate the necessary functions of their platform. Ideally, the vendor will also create a sandbox of their LMS that allows appropriate school personnel to test the system prior to making a purchasing decision.

What guiding principles should I follow?

What guiding principles might we follow to maximize the outcomes of the decision-making process? Consider using the following guiding principles when deciding on the appropriate LMS.

Widen Your Options

  • How can you expand your set of choices?
  • Avoid narrow framing — Rather than “this OR that,” think “this AND that.”
Reality-Test Your Options

  • How can you get outside your head and collect information that you can trust?
  • Avoid confirmation bias — Remember that you are likely to find information that supports your opinion.
Attain Distance Before Deciding

  • How can you overcome short-term emotion and conflicted feelings to make the best choice?
  • Avoid short-term emotion — Consider that our brains are hard-wired to avoid loss over embracing gain.
Prepare to Be Wrong

  • How can we plan for an uncertain future so that we give our decisions the best chance to succeed?
  • Avoid overconfidence — Prepare for bad outcomes as well as good outcomes.

*Guiding principles in this section are based on the book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, Chip and Dan Heath, 2013.

Step #2: LMS Decision-Making Matrix

What should I look for in an LMS?


Remember to Lead with Learning

As you embark on this decision-making journey, you must lead with learning. What do we mean by leading with learning? We mean that your vision for high-quality teaching and learning in your district must drive any decision you make about the type of learning management system you choose. An LMS is not a substitute for a strong instructional framework; it is the vehicle to help you achieve your student achievement goals. To lead with learning, you must first ask yourself, what do we believe quality instruction looks like in our district? Then ask: how can we choose a learning management system to help us realize this vision? Once you have a strong vision, you can begin the search process.

The following matrix includes key questions for your LMS evaluation team to consider. Use the matrix as a way to organize your group’s thoughts and perspectives as you review different LMS options.
LMS Name:
Criteria No Limited Yes Notes
Does the LMS support integration with other tools and a variety of data collection and reporting methods?
Does the tool support student ownership of learning and inquiry-focused learning?
Is the interface easy to use and understand for students and parents? (e.g., Does it support mobile use?)
Is the interface easy to use and understand for staff? (e.g., Is there a good tech support system?)
Does the LMS support the district’s vision for technology integration in the SAMR model and appropriately allow for substitution, augmentation, modification, or redefinition in instructional implementation?

How does the request for proposal (RFP) process work?

You’ve determined the time is right for your district to purchase an LMS, you’ve assembled an evaluation team, you’ve identified your must-have criteria rubric, and you are ready to vet some final options. The next step is to release a request for proposal. Here are some best practices and considerations for implementing a request for proposal (RFP) process for an LMS.

Adhering to the Michigan School Code

According to the revised Michigan School Code, the State of Michigan annually designates a base amount above which school districts must obtain competitive bids. The competitive bid base amount is $24,924 (FY2020) effective September 26, 2019. Any supplies purchased by a Michigan public school district that exceed this amount in a single transaction must go through an RFP process that allows vendors to submit bids.

Following Best Practices

Best practices for allowing vendors to submit bids include:

  • Determining bid specifications
  • Advertising for bids
  • Issuing a request for proposal (RFP) and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), and
  • Awarding a contract according to predetermined criteria.

Getting Started

All district requirements and guidelines for RFPs should be reviewed and followed at all times. There are some best practices that should be considered prior to releasing an RFP for a learning management system (LMS), including:

  • Defining the requirements for the LMS
  • Creating a request for information (RFI)
  • Drafting and finalizing the RFP
  • Creating a procurement schedule
  • Identifying publication venues
  • Planning for evaluation of the RFP responses

Reviewing Your Evaluation Rubric

Prior to the creation of the RFP, the district should review its evaluation rubric to determine the features they’ll need in an LMS. Every LMS has both benefits and drawbacks, so fully understanding the key features necessary to fit the district’s needs will be critical. This step will help ensure the features identified in your rubric are included in the requirements stated on the RFP.

Planning the Procurement Cycle

When creating a draft RFP, the district should consider all phases and underlying tasks involved in the procurement cycle, including:

  • Writing and publishing the RFP Preparing the proposals
  • Evaluating proposals
  • Awarding the contracts
  • Negotiating and signing the contract, and
  • Creating implementation timelines.

Drafting and Advertising Your RFP

At this time, the district should also determine the venues that will be used to advertise the RFP. All district guidelines for posting and advertising RFPs should be followed. The district may consider vendor input in preparing the RFP; however, you should be cognizant that each vendor will be subjective and their feedback could either purposefully or inadvertently slant the RFP in their favor. The draft and final RFPs should ensure the district does not unintentionally favor an individual bidder.

Sharing Your RFP With Staff

The district should announce to its employees and potential vendors that it is entering into a procurement process in which communications with potential bidders will be restricted. This announcement should define the general nature of the RFP and outline any restrictions for communications with vendors during the procurement process timeline.

Evaluating Submissions

Prior to publishing the RFP, the district should identify the plan for evaluating any bids that is based upon the evaluation rubric previously discussed. This plan should include the evaluation criteria, method, and scoring mechanism for determining the successful proposal.

Asking for Demonstrations

Additionally, the team should determine if any LMS demonstrations will be scheduled and create a suggested plan and timeline during which these demonstrations will take place. The demonstration plan should include an overview of the scope of the demonstration, development of the demonstration agenda, and required aspects of the demonstration. The district should ask vendors to identify those LMS functions that are currently available versus those that are “prototypes.”

Selecting a Winner

Once the RFP is posted and bids are received, the district should tabulate the results and identify finalists based on the established criteria. Prior to awarding the contract to a single vendor, the district should engage with the finalists to engage in sandbox testing of the LMS with district identified courses. Once a winning vendor is identified, the district should award a contract and establish required timelines for implementation.

Step #3: LMS Directory

How do the most popular LMSs compare?

Below is a high-level analysis of three of the most utilized learning management systems in K-12 education. As a reminder, your LMS should reflect your specific community’s vision for teaching and learning and meet the needs of your specific stakeholders. This analysis does not serve as an endorsement of any particular LMS but rather is intended to serve as a launchpad for your team to begin exploring systems that work best for you.
Moodle Schoology Canvas Brightspace
Developer/Owner Moodle Now owned by PowerSchool Instructure (*Note that Canvas has been purchased by Thoma Bravo, a venture capital company) Desire2Learn (D2L)
ADA Compliance Fully ADA compliant ADA compliant ADA compliant AODA compliant
Data Fully protected. Only district has access to the data. Housed and managed through Schoology. Housed and managed through Canvas. Housed and managed through Brightspace.
Account Control Multiple options. Can be provisioned through LDAP. Can be synced through PowerSchool. Can also be provisioned through LDAP. Multiple options. Can be provisioned through LDAP. Supports Single Sign On (SSO) and integration including Active Directory, LDAP, Kerberos, CAS, and SAML.
Customization Moodle updates and allows customization. There are many plugins available to customize your experience. Customization must be performed through Schoology. Customization must be performed through Canvas. Customizations must be performed through Brightspace.
Sharing All classes can be shared easily. Individual assignments can also be shared among teachers. Sharing can be done by adding teachers. Sharing options available. Admin role may import / copy components. Course content can be shared via shared files or learning object repository (LOR)
Roles Allows for teacher, co-teacher, student and more. Roles can be added and customized. Multiple roles. Good parent support. Multiple roles. Standard roles include administrator, instructor, learner, and observer, though the system allows for a wide range of customized roles and permissions.
Tools for Assessment Wide variety of tools, including:
  • Quizzes
  • Surveys
  • Peer Editing
  • Rubrics
  • Simple Assignments
  • Group work submissions
  • Forums (Discussions)
Wide variety of tools, including:
  • Quizzes
  • Forums (Discussions)
  • Assignments
Wide variety of tools, including:
  • Quizzes
  • Surveys
  • Forums (Discussions)
  • Assignments
Wide variety of tools, including:
  • Quizzes (i.e., written responses with HTML editor and 10 auto-scored item types)
  • Discussions
  • Assignments (File, text, audio, video submissions, or observed in person scoring options)
  • Scoring rubrics
  • Competencies
  • Release conditions
SCORM Yes Yes Yes Yes
LTI Yes Yes Yes Yes
Discount Options Open source. Some ISDs will provide Moodle for free. You can utilize commercial providers, ISDs, or self-install. You may be able to get a discount if you are already use PowerSchool for your SIS


Note on Pricing Structures

LMS cost/pricing structures vary depending on a number of factors. For example, open source tools such as Moodle are technically free, but districts that choose this option have more operational/technical expenses. Other commercially available tools are usually priced based on student enrollment totals and may include implementation fees.

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