For a variety of reasons, a growing number of K-12 students are enrolling in either fully online or blended courses.  While New Internet Usage tools are helping to create more dynamic and authentic distance learning (DL) courses, the optimal learning space for primary, especially, and secondary students would be any number of blended models that combined online programs with the traditional F2F classroom.  E-learning is gaining considerable ground as policymakers strive to meet the 21st century mandate.  A study by the North American Council for Online Learning states: “…a large part of the future of education will involve providing content, resources, and instruction both digitally and face-to-face in the same classroom…It is likely to emerge as the predominant model of the future.” (as cited in Picciano & Seaman, 2009)  

In order to introduce and develop digital literacy in schools, governments are aggressively outlining information and communication technology (ICT) standards from early education through to grade 12.  The B.C. Ministry of Education website, for example, provides a quick guide to e-learning, with a collection of “Draft Profiles for Technology Literate Students,” directly linked to the 21st century skills of Figure 1.  Without a doubt, there is a top-down sense of urgency to meet the needs of the Net Generation.  Unfortunately, as these ambitions trickle down through the school districts, school administrators, and individual teachers, they devolve into concerns about development costs, funding policies, course quality, and the need for teacher training.

            To deal with such issues, more schools with some form of formalized online learning are turning to a Learning Management System (LMS) like Moodle (open source) or Desire2Learn (proprietary).  The basic idea of LMSs is that e-learning course activities and materials are organized and managed within a single integrated system.  LMSs offers management tools for the instructor (management of assignments, file sharing, formative and summative assessment, grading, participation feedback, internal links, etc.) as well as interactive and collaborative tools for the student (email, discussion forums, wikis, messaging, chat rooms, external links, etc.).  With such diverse capabilities, LMSs support the learning characteristics so necessary for K-12 education: by their very existence, they follow the principles of direct instruction (DI) yet contain extensile capabilities that help educators foster higher-level constructivist objectives.

Guided Discovery

One of the most important advantages of LMSs is that they support Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive levels with a flexible formal learning space. For instance, through an LMS framework, teachers can follow conductist learning practices through clearly outlined assignment pages with established curricular content; sequentially designed modules (which could also allow for differentiated learning); continuous evaluation of student progress through quizzes and tests; grading; and control over the pace of learning. (Lytras & Naeve, 2007)  More so than ever in the computer age, K-12 students require critical feedback, and need a tether to clear baseline standards by which they may measure their achievements.  Increasingly, students of today are exhibiting what Brown refers to as a gaming disposition, where surprisingly, “…contrary to what people think, is these kids, first of all, are incredibly bottom line oriented.  They want to be measured because they want to see how much they are improving.  And, in fact, the most common mantra of a real gamer is ‘If I ain’t learnin’, it ain’t fun’” (as cited in MacArthur Foundation, 2010).

Simultaneously, a constructivist approach may also be cultivated through problem-solving or project based learning (PBL) activities established through the LMS and possibly supplemented by external links to interactive websites designed for varying ages, abilities, and objectives.  For more advanced students, LMS blogs, wikis, and discussion forums can reinforce the basic mechanics of writing through extensive writing practice while, at the same time, creating opportunities for students to build and restructure their knowledge in a social constructivist mode.  Considering how the Net Generation has become more adept with seeking out YouTube sources of information, LMS tutorials (like Moodledocs) could help students orient themselves on how to learn online.  Once again, constructivist goals are supported by a DI and cognitivist foundation.

A rationale for LMSs is supported by studies on secondary students’ experiences, as well as teacher and course developer perceptions, about e-learning.  In his study on K-12 web-based learning, Barbour (2012) found that the majority of students were generally satisfied with their online experience.  While his findings did not reveal “explicit concerns about the level of autonomy or independence required to complete their virtual school courses,” students did express issues with personal time management and motivation.  The structure of LMSs could quite possibly help students to develop the responsibility necessary to be successful in an online learning environment. In other words, the “External or extrinsic sources of motivation, such as rewards (i.e., grades) and punishments (i.e., deadlines), have been found to be effective in getting students to complete their work.” (Barbour, 2012; Nasser et al., 2011)  The LMS capabilities for grading, regulating submission deadlines, and limiting quiz/test time and attempts, all contribute to a virtual supervision that may help keep students on task. 

While Haughey and Muirhead (as cited in Barbour, 2012) described the ideal virtual learner as highly motivated, self-regulated, with strong reading and writing skills, and a confident familiarity with technology, Barbour’s (2007) earlier study counters that the teachers and course developers in his interviews were more concerned with adolescent learners with average and below average motivation and self-regulation.  LMSs could be flexible enough to follow the suggestions these educators made: that there be a high degree of structure and a greater level of interaction to increase the chance of success.  LMSs could provide the flexibility for differentiated learning and support activities “that allow students across the spectrum to be engaged and able to respond at different levels.” (as cited in Barbour, 2007)

The structure of LMSs could also be conducive to providing a sampling of independently developed external software programs.  Through both internal and external links, students could be introduced to a collection of programs and websites that target an array of skills; for example, from developing geometry thinking in grade 2 students (Chang et al., 2007) to guiding learners through a more technically and conceptually challenging dynamic geometry software for 7th graders (Keşan & Çalişkan, 2013). The integration of either program into the LMS with its feedback capabilities could very well provide the instructive framework by which students could work their way through differentiated activities based on the variety on teaching models used in computer-assisted instruction (CAI).  Independently, students could progress through instructional, hypothetical, and experiential models where they could receive immediate feedback and make mistakes without embarrassment.  For the more complex programs, like Geometer’s Sketchpad, “The activities took time since the students reach generalizations by struggling, exploring, and building their own knowledge during the application.” (Keşan & Çalişkan, 2013)  Having access to the program through the LMS would allow students to work beyond the time constraints of a single math class, while still having access to centrally located instructional materials.


Also of great importance is the role that LMSs could play in creating a sense of community: it acts as a communication hub, where members can congregate to get the latest news; pick up their assignments, clarify objectives, discuss issues or concerns; link to suggested sites or activities; and interact with others who share a common purpose.  In a fundamental way, a well-structured LMS could help students understand how to build a community of practice.

While the formal learning space of the LMS is structured and centralized, it is nevertheless reshaped and expanded through critical interactions.  In a 2002 study of Web-based communication, Jung et al. translated Moore’s classification system (learner-content, learner-instructor, learner-learner) into “three types of interaction: academic interaction, collaborative interaction, and interpersonal or social interaction.” (as cited by Repman et al., 2005)  LMSs’ significant strength is that they integrate asynchronous capabilities for all three types. Furthermore, with the capability of integrating external live web-based conferencing tools, LMSs could also encourage the synchronous communication essential for fully online DL programs. The novelty and engagement of online synchronous instruction not only taps into the video culture of today’s youth but also, primarily, lets them see that they are not alone and that there are other learning partners with, perhaps, similar goals, concerns, or opinions.  As Armitt et al. observed: “The interactions with peers and tutors enable the re-evaluation of the information perceived through association, integration, validation and appropriation, thus allowing deep learning to take place” (as cited in Chen et al., 2005). 

Teacher Buy-In

Nevertheless, the true potential for LMSs may never be actualized without the dedication of school districts, school administrators and, in particular, teachers.  The expectations educators have for professional development should be no less than the expectations they have in the learning objectives for their students. School superintendents must take the lead in encouraging transformative practices when it comes to technology initiatives at the school and district levels (Kara-Soteriou, 2009) “Therefore, schools need leaders who can facilitate the change process and support a learning community for technology integration.” (Afshari et al., 2008) School administrators must re-evaluate their own attitudes, proficiencies, and practices with regards to integrating technology if they are to model the objectives they envision for their staff and students. Therefore, to successfully implement an LMS, an effective school administration will not only exemplify the integration of technology but also

·      provide easily accessible technical assistance;

·      develop professional learning communities (PLCs) to encourage skilled personnel to step into leadership roles;

·      enable teachers to discover the benefits of the LMS platform, and become increasingly proficient in its capabilities, through professional development opportunities;

·      provide consistent access to technology;

Such professional support would allow teachers to develop into active Netizens themselves; consequently, they could then focus on a holistic approach to building knowledge, such as that put forth by Koehler & Mishra (2009) in their discussion on TPACK2 (technology, pedagogy, and content knowledge).  Using an LMS could accommodate a school vision that recognizes multiple disciplines, instructional requirements, and approaches to learning.

            Still, if the teacher, for whatever reason, is not willing to commit to this vision, the full potential of an LMS will remain unrealized.   The teacher’s role is significant in promoting interactivity, and he or she must be familiar with the full range of tools available in order to help students advance beyond simply accessing information. “Net-Geners typically lack information literacy skills, and their critical thinking skills are often weak… They may be digital natives, but they do not necessarily understand how their use of technology affects their ways of learning.” (Spires, 2008) Student-perceived teacher expectations have a powerful influence on the use of ICT (Nasser et. al., 2011).  Barbour’s (2012) study found that since many virtual schoolteachers were former classroom teachers, they used the synchronous time to conduct lessons as they would in a traditional classroom, while underutilizing the asynchronous capabilities of the LMS.  Consequently, few of the students even bothered to access the course content at all.  If these teachers had learned the full benefits of their LMS, they could have taken full advantage of the interactive possibilities to engage these students.  Additionally, Barbour (2007) found that teachers who also developed their course materials had a better sense of how students used those materials.  Educators need not reinvent the wheel when it comes to sharing or reusing certain content, but developing a course in an LMS encourages teachers to have a stake in how students can fully benefit from asynchronous interactions and activities.

2.  “TPACK is the basis of effective teaching with technology, requiring an understanding of the representation of concepts using technologies; pedagogical techniques that use technologies in constructive ways to teach content; knowledge of what makes concepts difficult or easy to learn and how technology can help redress some of the problems that students face; knowledge of students’ prior knowledge and theories of epistemology; and knowledge of how technologies can be used to build on existing knowledge to develop new epistemologies or strengthen old ones.” (Koehler & Mishra, 2009)

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