In Partnership with 74

LAUSD creating shared digital site for students, teachers, parents

Craig Clough | October 29, 2015

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A resolution approved by the LA Unified school board on Oct. 13 didn’t receive a lot of attention, but the vote to approve a pilot program with the online company Schoology has the potential to completely change how students, teachers, parents and administrators interact.

The resolution launches a two-year pilot program that will test an online grade book and learning management system (LMS), with the goal of going district wide should the program prove successful.

The grade book will create an online platform that lets teachers track student performance, enter assignments and assessments and view the “complete picture” of each student. The LMS allows teachers to assign homework digitally, communicate online with students and parents, archive past lessons and give students personalized lessons and homework. Both are to be linked with MiSiS, the district’s computer system.

Phase one of the pilot is set to launch at 10-20 schools in spring and expand to as many as 20 more schools next year, at a total cost of $598,240. To launch at every school after the pilot, LA Unified estimates the maximum cost to be $6,436,012, with an annual tab of $1.7 million after that to maintain the system. According to the resolution, funding for the pilot is already available within the current MiSiS budget.

The district’s last few attempts to launch a major digital technology initiative have not gone smoothly. There was the aborted $1.3 billion effort to give an iPad to every student and teacher in the district, a program that stumbled at nearly every step. The launch of MiSiS last year also caused serious problems as the cost of the system ballooned to $133 million from $25 million.

Jeremy Friedman, CEO of Schoology, said he believes the district has learned from the past technology troubles.

“I think they have learned a lot with some of the experiences they have had in the past, and this is something we do with most of the large districts. They do not go district-wide with a rollout in year one. So this is a phased approach,” Friedman said.

Schoology has plenty of experience developing online tools for school districts. Friedman said the company currently has contracts with over 1,000 districts, including the entire country of Uruguay, the state of Delaware and Jefferson County in Colorado.

The program does raise some equality issues. With more classroom content, homework and interaction moving online, a child without a computer at home or a smart phone may be at a disadvantage. But Friedman argues that moving to digital platforms will actually level the playing field, even with limited online access at home.

“Having this info online, despite the income disparities, and who has access to what device, there are places within the school that people should have access to devices, and there are places outside of school such as the library, where people should have access,” he said. “The goal isn’t to hinder people’s performance; the goal is to create a greater accessibility that they wouldn’t have otherwise had.”

LA Unified declined to comment on the Schoology contract.

Friedman said the goal isn’t to eliminate paper homework but for digital copies of the homework and lessons to be always available. For example, he said, a student who left homework at school could access it at a library or a friend’s house.

The program also allows parents to check out their child’s grades and to communicate with teachers. There will also be Spanish and other language versions of the platform for English learners.

Friedman said Schoology has increased completed homework and that shy students more easily engage their teachers.

“Students who often underperform in a classroom setting and rarely participate in classroom discussions, they rarely ask for help,” he said. “What we have seen with Schoology is their persona is different in a digital environment.”

Friedman also said the platform allows for teachers to personalize lessons and assignments for individual students. And because the homework can be assigned online, extra lessons for struggling students can be given in a way that students don’t feel “they are being singled out.”

According to the board resolution, the Schoology contract would be much cheaper than the district developing its own online program, at a cost of $10 million over two years.

LA Unified actually has developed an online grade book in-house and had 2,000 volunteer teachers test it before conducting focus groups in the spring. The results were not good. According to the district, the system was “severely deficient and would require millions of dollars in investment to bring the MiSiS grade book and teacher module up to the minimum requirements needed by teachers.”

The development of an online grade book, as well as MiSiS, grew out of a 1993 class action lawsuit against the district. A court ordered LA Unified to create a district-wide system to track student records. MiSiS and the online grade book eventually were developed as a result of earlier efforts to satisfy the court.


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