Not long ago, a principal at a neighboring district told me that she was impressed with all the things we were doing with our learning management system (LMS) and that she thought her district should also have an LMS. But she couldn’t say how they planned to use it. I’ve seen many districts jump into implementing LMS software without first having a strategic plan, resulting in their not choosing the system that best meets their needs and failing to take full advantage of an LMS’ capacity for real instructional transformation. I always advise colleagues to consider carefully how an LMS can support what they want to accomplish for their students.

Ultimately, an LMS is an instructional tool. It’s designed to facilitate high-quality teaching and learning experiences. Without a vision for how this can be accomplished, instruction won’t really change, and student outcomes won’t change—only the method of delivery will.

To make sure you get the most out of your LMS software, consider these four keys to choosing a system successfully:

#1: Develop a Plan

Success starts with this critical first step. Articulate what you want teaching and learning to look like in your school or district, and what you would like your teachers and students to be able to do. Then, think about how LMS software can help you get there.

When my school district, Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver, WA, decided to give every student a digital device by the 2017–18 school year, we reasoned that this approach would let us create exceptional learning experiences for our students.

For instance, we wanted the learning to be varied and personalized for every student, addressing each student’s specific needs. We also wanted to take the ceiling off our students’ learning, meeting them where they were and then taking them forward as far as we could without the artificial constraints of grade-level progression. This approach—competency-based education—has gained so much favor among educators that, according to the NASSP’s recent position statement on the subject, 40 states have allowed for competency-based pathways. 

We needed a platform in which teachers could build and manage these rigorous learning experiences for their students; where curriculum specialists could curate high-quality instructional materials for teachers; and with which educators could assign content to individual students to help them learn the specific skills they might be struggling with.

If a teacher has 150 middle schoolers for whom she’s responsible, differentiating the learning experience for each of them is really hard—unless she has tools that can help her do that. That’s one thing an LMS can do well.

#2: Conduct a Needs Assessment

Once you have a clear sense of how you would like teaching and learning to change in your schools, the next step is to determine the features of an LMS that will help you reach those goals. What are the must-have features that support your vision?

For us, we wanted a system that would integrate seamlessly with our other software, such as our student information system. The LMS we would choose also had to support assessment of student progress, so we could measure individual proficiency and plan our instruction accordingly. A key to personalizing education for every student is knowing where each child is on the learning spectrum, and then delivering highly targeted instruction—so the system we would choose had to support those abilities.

We needed a system that would support the development of all learners. We wanted a system that would allow us to find, collect, and curate high-quality content. We also looked for features that supported communication and collaboration, and we wanted something that would allow the students themselves to monitor their own progress so they could take ownership of their learning.

#3: Find an Appropriate Platform

Our process for choosing an LMS involved a wide range of stakeholders with representation from several departments, as well as a mix of central office and building staff. Our selection committee included teachers, instructional coaches, and principals from all grade levels—elementary and secondary—as well as curriculum specialists and IT personnel.

We evaluated a number of products, and in the end we chose a platform called “itslearning.” Not only did this solution meet our criteria for the various features we wanted, but it also gave us the flexibility we desired.

As we began the search process, we realized there were several free LMS platforms available, including some that charged a premium for additional features. These free or “freemium” offerings might be all you need if you’re simply looking to shift some instruction online to create a more blended learning experience. But we wanted something that was more adaptable to our particular circumstances.

#4: Think Holistically 

Since we’re undertaking a cultural shift in how we address learning, we are using the itslearning platform to provide personalized and variable learning and work experiences for educators as well as students. In the 2015–16 school year, principals and instructional coaches received training that modeled ways to use the LMS technology to streamline their particular work processes. Principals experimented with the system for a full year before they introduced it to the teachers in their buildings.

We have been executing our LMS since the beginning of the 2015–16 school year. We have approached the project incrementally, knowing that we want all students to be using it by the fall of 2017. In the 2016–17 school year, principals used the platform to create professional development courses for teachers and to facilitate communication and collaboration as well as for teachers’ professional development. The next step will be teachers applying that knowledge to their own classrooms in the following school year.

Evaluating your needs should start with your vision for teaching and learning, but it shouldn’t end there. You also should consider the kind of relationship you want with your LMS provider.

If all you’re looking for is a platform for hosting digital learning experiences, then a free or freemium LMS is probably sufficient for your needs. In our case, we didn’t just want a product-we wanted a full partner to help guide our implementation.

Implementing LMS software can be challenging. We knew we needed to build out courses, import our existing content, make sure the system integrated with our student information system and other programs, and train staff, among other tasks. What’s more, transforming how teaching and learning occur to take advantage of digital technologies is a heavy lift: It involves shifting the entire culture of a school district. We wanted a provider who was a full partner in these efforts to help lighten the load, and that’s what we found with itslearning.

When fully implemented, we anticipate the system will support the development of every learner in our district, including adults. Our mission is to create personalized learning experiences for our adults and kids. The flexible learning platform we have chosen will facilitate every aspect of that—from instruction and assessment to data analysis and professional development.

While we’re not there yet, we’re well on our way. I’m confident we will be successful because we approached our LMS selection process the right way. We began with the end in mind, and we determined why we needed an LMS in the first place. We defined what we wanted instruction to look like, and how an LMS could support this vision—and then we went about choosing the best solution to help us meet those goals.

When choosing an LMS for your own school, don’t just look at the price tag or compare features. Begin with a clear vision for how the system can help you transform instruction, and then choose a system that will help you turn this vision into reality. Only then will you truly get a return on your learning investment. 

Chris McMurray is the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for the Evergreen School District in Vancouver, WA.