Google Classroom, teacher websites, Facebook, TeamSnap, Moodle, and email are just a few of the platforms teachers, teams, and clubs have been using to communicate in the Oyster River Cooperative School District (ORCSD). Starting in the 2019-20 school year, the district began using Schoology, a program designed for schools so that all your class, team, and club information is in one place.
Before this year, Oyster River didn’t have a standard Learning Management System (LMS). Teachers were allowed to choose any virtual platform to communicate with students and parents, causing confusion over where to find communications from the school. By switching to Schoology, all school-related information, including classes, clubs, sports, and activities, should be in one place. The district plans to have completely transitioned to Schoology by the end of the 2019-20 school year. Schoology costs the district $11,500 per year, this covers all students and teachers in the district. At this point in the year, in October, the teachers are ahead of where Information Technology (IT) and the Technology Integrators had projected they’d be in the transition. These teachers are ready to open Schoology to parents, a conversation projected to start around the end of the quarter one on November first. However, many teachers aren’t comfortable users yet and students generally have mixed feelings about the platform.
The assistant superintendent for the district, Todd Allen, talked about why the district adopted Schoology. “We’re one to one at the middle and high school and we needed a platform to manage all the content that kids were going to be exposed to and teachers were going to create.” One to one means that every student receives a laptop at the beginning of the year and keeps it throughout the year. The middle school went one to one for the 2018-19 school year, and this year’s freshman class is one to one for the 2019-20 school year. The rest of ORHS plans to go one to one next year. To learn more about one to one, see Melanie Banafato’s article about one to one at mor.news.
In the past, high school teachers often used Google Classroom to manage any content they created. However, New Hampshire recently passed HB1612, a law outlining new standards for student and teacher privacy. According to Best, Google has not agreed to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law protecting student education records, or HB1612. Celeste Best is the technology integrator at the high school and was chosen to chair a committee created to find an LMS. Best said, “our school’s lawyers, which obviously I’m not involved in that conversation, are very nervous about us using Google.” According to Best, students will continue to use Google Drive, at least for the foreseeable future. Best explained that while Google didn’t agree to the privacy laws, Google Classroom was the biggest issue due to the nature of information available on Google Classroom.
Another incentive for an LMS was the ability to create a district wide standard for communication. Previously, many elementary teachers had their own websites and emailed home a weekly parent newsletter, and at the middle and high schools, teachers may have used any one of many platforms, or chosen not to use one at all. Noting that this is a transition year, Best said, “the goal is everybody can go to Schoology and they will find their child’s information regardless of where they are.”
The transition has not been without its challenges. Allen said, “the biggest issue we’re struggling with has been the compatibility of Schoology and PowerSchool.” Because PowerSchool is the ORCSD Student Information System [SIS], all the student information is in PowerSchool. The district has had difficulty getting PowerSchool and Schoology to sync, even though Schoology has said it’s possible. Because of the difficulty making the two programs sync, Schoology was not available for the first week of school.
At the time of reporting this article, in mid-October, point, many teachers still aren’t using Schoology as their primary platform for communication. Tom Hausmann, a Spanish teacher at ORHS, said he mostly uses Schoology for organization and providing links for students, much like he used Google Classroom. He said of his future plans for the LMS, “I don’t think I’ll use it for scheduling. I might use it to turn in assignments, but we’ll see.”
While Hausmann recognized that for some teachers moving all their content from Google Classroom to Schoology might be frustrating, this wasn’t the case for him. “There are some people that their whole life is on Google Classroom and that’s not me. I just needed a tool that’s easy for me to stash links and effectively organize topics in different areas,” Hausmann said.
Clare Donaldson (‘20) said that the only class she consistently uses Schoology for is Forensics, which she takes with Best. She said, “a lot of my other teachers don’t like it. Maybe a couple other classes use it for class links, but it’s really only one class that I use it for.”
Donaldson prefered Google Classroom to Schoology “because [Schoology is] not linked to Google Docs and all those things, which we use regularly […] Google Classroom has always been a lot easier because you can just link things directly.” While it is possible to upload Google documents to Schoology, you have to first download it, which you never had to do with Google Classroom, because the two programs work together.
Julia Kinsey (‘23) said, “it’s pretty confusing at first. Not every teacher uses it, so while you can use it for some classes, some teachers don’t like it. A few of them went over it in a very basic way so we’re submitting assignments and stuff like that, but a lot of people don’t understand it. I don’t understand it.” Kinsey has found it difficult to find various elements her teachers have been telling her were on Schoology, including the assignment schedule and grades for specific assignments.
From talking with other students, Kinsey found, “a lot of kids said that it’s really confusing; they don’t understand it. But, there were a few who said they did understand it and that they vastly preferred it to Google Classroom.”
While Allen recognized that not every teacher is using Schoology to its full extent, he said, “professional staff, particularly here at the high school, seem to be embracing it very quickly. In fact, I think Ms. Best told me roughly half the teachers are really comfortable users. They’ve created their own classroom sites and all that, but half are not.”
Allen also explained that all staff members are starting from different levels of understanding of technology. “When you’re doing professional development around technology you have to have it be personal. You have to identify what they need and provide it to them. And what we’re finding is that we have a pretty wide range of what the needs are.” Allen said professional development is key in helping teachers feel more comfortable with Schoology. Best and the other technology integrators held a tech boot camp over the summer for teachers for this reason. However, as the boot camp was over the summer, it was not mandatory, and not all teachers attended.
Susan Leifer, the Technology Integrator at Mast Way Elementary School, was surprised by the number of teachers who were using it. She said, “when we presented it, I guess it filled a void that they really wanted and we had all these teachers on board and ready to go. We never in a million years expected that we would have teachers where they are already by October; we thought that would take us well into March.”
Because they didn’t expect teachers to be comfortable users at this point in the year, Allen said the initial plan was to give teachers a year to build content and learn the program before opening the parent portal. But, they quickly found at the middle and elementary schools that communication with parents was a primary concern for teachers. Allen explained that the focus at the moment was on helping teachers learn the platform before introducing the ParentPortal to prevent frustration. He said, “I wouldn’t say that there’s absolutely no way that we’ll open it, we just don’t have a plan to do that right away.”
Best said the district is moving towards getting the parent portal up on Schoology ahead of the original target, “but we’re not there cause not all the teachers are using [Schoology]. We have a tentative timeline of that conversation starting at the end of the quarter.” Quarter one ended November 1st.
Best explained how parent involvement in Schoology at the high school might look. “They’re not gonna see the gradebook. They’d be able to open the assignment in terms of the document the teacher provides like, ‘here’s the instructions,’ they wouldn’t necessarily have access to your work as a student.”
Best also explained that the functionality of Schoology and the parent portal would look completely different at the elementary, middle, and high schools. Leifer explained that the first role Schoology plays is providing students links to various online resources. She explained that many of the kids are too young to be able to type in URLs, so Schoology will appear as an automatic tab when they log in and allow them to click on buttons that will take them directly to any online resource they’d need.
Leifer explained that the other big piece of Schoology at the elementary schools will be the Parent Portal. “It’s very important for our parents to get pictures, to get updates: ‘it’s a field trip, wear your sneakers tomorrow cause it’s gym.’ Because we’re dealing with itty-bitties,” said Leifer. Currently, parents are able to log in to their student’s account, but they don’t have their own login.
Schoology and Leifer, through her new role as the Technology Integrator, can also help Mast Way to achieve the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) standards. Leifer explained some of the ISTE standards, for example, kindergartners “have to be able to log on and log off, they have to know how to get on the internet; digital citizenship is a piece [of ISTE], a little coding.” She said ISTE is “just like any curriculum; it’s the scaffolding you need to go on and be successful in middle school and high school.” One of the ISTE requirements is a digital portfolio. The portfolio would include all the digital work a student completed from kindergarten to twelfth grade that they were proud of, or that showed growth. Leifer explained that this has been difficult to achieve without the perfect platform, but she hopes that in three to four years, Schoology will be able to fill that void.
Before this year, the elementary schools didn’t have any kind of LMS like Google Classroom, which made it difficult to give students access to resources, and more difficult for teachers to find them again year to year. Leifer explained that Schoology filled a void for teachers. She said, “think of it like the Walmart. Instead of going to a grocery store, and a hardware store, and a clothing store, and a shoe store, you go to Walmart and you can get all of that.”
The hope is that teachers and students will learn to use Schoology to its full capabilities so that it can grow far beyond what it’s currently used for. Allen explained that while competency grading was frustrating in PowerSchool, it’s better in the Schoology Gradebook, which teachers aren’t currently using. “The gradebook in Schoology is much more user friendly than the one in PowerSchool; it’s much more graphic. Instead of just saying ‘your kid met a competency,’ it gives you an idea of how much of the competency they met. It’s color coded so you can see visually where they’re at.” Allen said he does not envision ORHS ever adopting a competency grading system, but he does predict that teachers will use this function to give students an understanding of where they stand with course competencies.
Allen also said that by building content on Schoology it would be possible for teachers at the high school to develop their own online courses. Currently, students interested in taking classes that don’t fit with their schedules, or that are not offered, can do so through the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS). However, VLACS is not a perfect system. “One of the things that’s been an ongoing frustration by the educators here at Oyster River, is that VLACS courses, although many of them are wonderful, we don’t feel they have the same level of rigor, generally speaking, that the in-house courses have,” said Allen. If a student were to leave the ORHS curriculum sequence to take a course on VLACS, it would be difficult for them to return to the curriculum sequence. Through Schoology, students could take a very similar style course, but it would be monitored by a teacher in the building, managed in-house, and housed on Schoology.
Allen said he sees Schoology becoming the principal method of communication between families and the school. “Right now we get a lot of community feedback that they’re frustrated with how they get information from the school. For example, they go to the website, if it’s not on the main page of the website, they have to click seventeen times to get to the thing that they need, and they feel frustrated that it’s hard to get that information.” Allen said that Schoology could fix this problem. “What Schoology allows us to do is to personalize how each individual person gets information from the school.” Everyone would be able to indicate which sports, activities, or topics they want to hear updates from. This could eliminate the district-wide email blasts that give information that isn’t always relevant to the whole district.
The implementation of Schoology is an ongoing process that requires professional staff and students to learn as they go. Allen said, “there’s a lot of things it’s going to do, it’s just going to take us time to get there. I think it’s going to take us two to three years before we’re really fully able to understand all the things it can do for us.”