K-12 and LMSs are Broken, Who’s to Blame?

Posted by

Back in the 90’s I taught high school and loved it.  To this day, I still have very close friends who are teachers (middle school and high school).  As someone who stays current with K-12 and HE (as related to e-learning), I am equally aware of the challenges, successes and failures when it comes to online learning.  Heck, even blended learning and digital classrooms.

The problem though is that there is a crisis going on in the K-12 sector and it is tied in part to e-learning (with wins and losses) and LMS vendors who serve that sector.

This crisis is not just a slight blip on the screen nor a “don’t worry” it will solve itself on its own angle, rather it is one that needs to be brought to the forefront and get the help it needs to minimize it or ideally eradicate it.

Who’s to Blame?

Multiple parties in the United States:  State departments of education, School Districts, schools (private, public, charter, etc.) and K-12 LMS vendors (a chunk of them).  I might toss in the Department of Education at the government level because their focus as it relates to e-learning as a whole is not coherent by any stretch.

But for this article the focus will be on those school districts and K-12 LMS vendors (many who are lost in really “getting it”).

Possibly three parties in the rest of the world – Schools, some Governments, and a nice slice of K-12 LMS vendors.

The Data

Getting accuracy for 2014 data as it relates to schools and school districts is a challenge. That said, here are some numbers to ponder

  • 15,476 school districts in the US (answers.com)
  • 132,270 schools in the United States (NCES, 2012)
  • Close to 100 million schools in the world (answers.com)

That’s a lot of money err schools there.  Why bring it up, because K-12 vendors love to toss their own numbers around when pitching a school, school district to buy in.

Thus ignore the following

  • High retention rates – just as in corporate no one is going to say anything lower than 90%, usually it is around 95-97%
  • Student usage of the system – Let’s face it, if you have a LMS there – the students HAVE to use it, they have NO choice in the matter, so yeah, you are going to see high student usage
  • Teacher usage – Misleading.  If the usage is low there are likely multiple factors involved including:  lack of training of the system, teacher motivation (lack thereof to use it), Principal indifferent – whereas the principal does not enforce or push enough to have teachers use the system beyond just the basics; any teacher will tell you that it starts at the top – i.e. principal and in many cases the superintendent (some are overly hands-on).
  • Number of school districts, schools – Take a gander again at that data – lots of schools and school districts out there

Anyway, K-12 systems always show better than 50%, usually targeting 80% or more.  Think about it, would you buy a system if they said teacher involvement was 35%?

  • Uptime – Most systems today who are in the cloud use server farms such as Rackspace and Amazon S3 – thus that “uptime” is tied to those servers.  I rarely see anything below 98%.  Again, someone says yeah our uptime is 65% – will you buy it?  Please note that Uptime usually does not include when they have to do maintenance.
  • Teacher or school district surveys showing how much they like the product, maybe it is shown in testimonials or using data – Happy for the vendor, but they are going to show you only the data of love, not the data of despise – although…

I have seen faux pas where the slide deck has negative comments via social media.  Clearly pre-screening wasn’t there.  However, minus those issues, it is always wonderful and sunny at that vendor

Tug of War

Getting back to those retention rates I always find it interesting when the big three show their numbers and yet, they will constantly post how they landed ABC who used to be with XYZ (top competitor).  It is like a game to see who can push out as many press releases showing their triumphs over their competitors.

Who are the Big Three

Blackboard, Brightspace (formally D2L) and Instructure.  Blackboard is the oldest player in the education space and the most dominant (revenue/sales wise).


There are a lot of wonderful systems out there who fail in an area very familiar to the e-learning industry including LMS vendors as a whole – marketing – as in its done poorly or not at all.

To me the two best K-6 (primary) systems in the market are DB Primary and Frog.  For secondary (6-12) there is not one system that really stands out. 

Neo LMS allows true asynchronous based learning (self pace, non-linear) on top of the standard synchronous based seen throughout education.  There are few other K-12 systems that offer it, but ironically the big three do not.

Sure you can create courses but truly interactive self-pace is questionable at best (although the vendors will tell you otherwise).

Pricing is all over the map.  I know of one vendor who will first pitch $80 a seat, then drops a little lower.

Another vendor starts relatively low, but makes up for it using “Range” setup fees – as in, we need to discuss blah blah before we can give you an actual price. Give me a break. 

The only outstanding might be a connector or having to build an interface or them charging you to tie into your SIS or offer APIs.

Skinning and branding which is usually free in the corporate space is all over the board in K-12. 

Out of the box means – included in the product – thus if there are setup fees it should be more than just updates and maintenance. Whippy woo!


As with any LMS there are standard features seen in the K-12 LMS space, thus rather than 10% differential, it might be up to 15%, but trust me, for many systems it is the usual 10% differential from the common standards.

Standards – Seen the majority of K-12 platforms

  • Gradebook
  • Assignments – including ability to assign, view, and so forth
  • Discussion Board/Forum or some vendors are offering a “Wall” – wow talk about cutting edge
  • Social components within the system – often includes “activity threads or similar”
  • Student Profiles
  • Calendar
  • Groups
  • Assessments – ability to create and grade
  • Ability to add video to streams, courses
  • Administration area (usually not visible to teachers)
  • Student transcript or ability to view grades
  • Administration includes rule based
  • Lesson plan and/or path for student
  • Messaging – think inbox
  • Classes (some form of classroom management)
  • Journal or similar
  • Surveys or Polls
  • Chat room
  • File repository – often called “locker” or “file locker”
  • Google Apps support
  • Rubrics
  • LTI
  • Student portal
  • Parent portal
  • Mobile learning
  • SIS integration
  • SSO
  • Accepts APIs

Mixed Bag – Some have it, others don’t

  • Ability to create courses – the linear kind, as noted above a few have the ability to create asynchronus based and ability to upload courses from 3rd party authoring tools
  • SCORM including 1.2/2004,  AICC, Common Cartridge
  • Skinning your site
  • Removing the vendor’s logo – which I always recommend, you just spent a lot of money on this system, why would you want to have their name plastered on it
  • Ability to track video based courses
  • Some form of compliance requirements (seen in the admin side or already within the system)
  • Native apps for iOS and Android
  • Mobile Responsive – Should be a no-brainer here. I had one vendor who told me they had discussed it internally and decided 24 months ago not to use it.  That is two years folks.  Think of how many things and stuff wasn’t around two years ago.  Uh, shouldn’t you be updating and tweaking faster?
  • Facebook like design for social – YUCK
  • eBook publisher – If you are into ebooks and creating them there are systems that offer it, but it is by no means even close to 30%
  • math equation thing – Really if I am not into math, why would I use this?
  • Plagiarism Detection – Should be in all systems focusing on secondary
  • Web conferencing
  • Multilingual beyond five languages

Low, Low usage/capabilities – and it shouldn’t be

  • Teacher Resource Center or Exchange – Fantastic.  Basically allows teachers not only from that school district and/or schools to share lesson plans, materials and so forth, but also with other teachers from other districts, etc. who are on the same LMS – Every system should offer this – GREAT GREAT Resource
  • Gamification – Very low – which makes no sense.  Kids love it – ability to earn badges and for K-3 stickers; plus ability to win gifts, etc.  One vendor I saw in Saudi Arabia (they are global and based in Dallas), have a yearly competiton where students from all over the world (or in the country) compete for a chance to win prizes – with gamification as the cornerstone – think an academic bowl across the world – now that is cool
  • On/Off Synch – Kids use smartphones, school districts and schools are removing computers and replacing them with tablets, heck some offer loaner tablets to their students; so where is that on/off synch capability?  I hate it when vendors say they are all over mobile, but lack responsive and on/off synch.
  • Slick design for students – modern but still has the features that are standard; same with teachers

That is like me saying I am all over cutting lawns but not using a lawnmower, rather using one of the old timey ones you see from the 40’s.

  • Ability to really personalize the system based on grade or based on student – Corporate is going that route, K-12, nope.
  • App store – Should be offered to every one
  • Spellchecker and grammar checker – Should be universal
  • Video  web conferencing that is proprietary – Listen many of these vendors are making high cash intake and they can either build it, or find a freebie – interesting to note one of the biggest complaints I hear about Instructure is their web conferencing offering Big Button, which is free and well.. I’ll leave it at that
  • Screen capturing and recording
  • Private server
  • Fun to use for kids – I know it is a novel idea, fun and education – how dare thee!

I should note that on-premise (i.e. behind the district’s firewall) is nearly universal. So if you want it, don’t despair.

Blame Partner #2 – School Districts

I am very familiar with the bureaucracy that shows up when it comes time to make a decision on anything, let alone a LMS.  Squabbles and indecisiveness exist at any size of district, small or large.

As a result, you usually see

  • RFPs that are massively huge and make no sense – it is as though who ever built it is unfamiliar with what is out there – including the latest or is still living in the past with the days of on-premise (and they now seek “in the cloud”)
  • As with corporate, due diligence is all over the board, when I see RFPs that are huge as in 20 plus pages, I already know that due diligence really wasn’t there.

One vendor showed me a RFP form a large metropolitan school district that was 25 pages long, had lots of text on one side with comments and questions.

Another vendor showed me a school district whose RFP was 36 pages in length.  36 pages?  Uh, are they seeking the space and time continuum so they can build a time machine?  Who in the heck was involved with this process?

As mentioned above, large RFPs tell me a lot of things and usually it tells vendors a lot of things:

  • Likely has been blasted to multiple vendors
  • Often written by either a person with input from multiple people (including teachers either who are overseeing it for their school or via some discussion at professional development day or informal otherwise) – the result, a hodgepodge of inquiries that is all over the map
  • Seeking a “Superperson” system – Look there is never 100% perfect system – every system can be better. And honestly, they have to – to stay current with learning technology

The Missing Link

Missing the big picture – Want to get the right people involved? Ask the kids what they would want in a platform – or what they would like, yet who do schools usually ask – the teachers or administrators. 

No offense, but as many teachers will tell you, their administrator can be great, average or downright crummy – would you really want that person to make the key decisions on what should be in a system?  I mean are they using it every day?

Teachers should be asked, but it gets back to the main point – if they don’t know or are unaware or limited in learning tech knowledge (usually the case) or limited in tech (they can use the Internet), uh, how informed are they really going to be?

Shouldn’t the people using the system on a daily basis be asked?  Create a poll or survey, hand it out to the kids and let them provide feedback.

If I had a band class – wouldn’t it be great if they could record their practices either on their mobile device and upload them into the system?  But if you never ask them, then you do not know.

How many teachers – raise of hands please – are aware that kids are leaving in droves from Facebook and going to Snapchat? Or in Asia, for example – Line?

How many teachers know what Minecraft is?  How many teachers play games on an X-Box or Playstation?  How many teachers record video and upload it to Instagram or Vine?  How many teachers know what Periscope is? ( I recommend the app, it rocks!) and so forth.


Ahh, my friend Moodle.  I have a few wonderful posts on Moodle you can read here and here.  When I see a Moodle site for a school or school district, I rarely see one that looks fun to use and modern.  They look pretty stale. 

I don’t blame the people building it, because despite its charm, it has its own challenges.  Moodle and other open source platforms run into the fanatic scene – in that people either love it and saying anything negative is just unacceptable OR people dislike it.

Bottom Line

You can disagree about whether there is a crisis in the K-12 space, but to me it exists.

Perhaps this will be a wake-up all to the sector and for many schools, districts and LMSs who have forgotten what are really their objectives, goals and most importantly plan in the next three years.

If I was to give a grade to each entity as a whole (obviously there are schools, districts and LMS vendors who “get it” and are doing some really cool stuff), I’d give

  • Schools a C+
  • School Districts – D
  • LMSs – B but with caveats
  • US DOE – Incomplete

Here’s the thing though. Those grades can change and change for the better.

Because at the end of the day, the people those entities should be focused on are sitting right in those classrooms

The kids.

E-Learning 24/7