In 2004, Ontario's Ministry of Education conducted research into common needs across its 72 school boards. Based on this needs assessment and the results from a pilot program, in 2011 the Ministry awarded a $4 million contract for a province-wide Learning Management System (LMS). In 2016, the Ministry will award another multi-million dollar contract, based on needs identified more than a decade ago.
Here's a list of things that didn't exist in 2004: Barack Obama's presidency or Justin Trudeau's political career; Justin Bieber's rise, fall, and attempted comeback; the iPhone, Facebook, or Uber. The needs identified in 2004 have likewise changed in the past decade. Two major needs that were identified across Ontario's 72 school boards were the unequal access to e-learning, and duplication of effort. A provincially licensed LMS was the most cost-effective way to meet these needs in 2004. But today's reality is different and an LMS is no longer the right solution.
Old school thinking in a new edtech market
Access to e-learning solutions is less pressing today than ever. More schools, teachers, and students have access to the internet: 96 per cent of Ontario schools report having internet access in classrooms in 2014 (up from 12% in 2005), and close to 60 per cent of students have access on their own devices. Education technology has investor interest, with 2015 US investment alone at $1.85 billion USD.
More than ever, there is choice in the market. Every product segment of education technology is exploding with well-funded competition, and many of them offer free solutions for teachers. There are even free, lightweight options like Google Apps for Education and Microsoft's Office 365 suite that provide most of an LMSs functionality, raising more questions about the need for a province-wide solution.
In this nascent market, backing in a one-size-fits-all solution rather than letting teachers and school boards make the best choices kills competition and stifles innovation.
Satisfaction not guaranteed
A second argument for investing in a provincial LMS is reducing duplicated effort and spending across school boards. Results from the last time the province awarded a $4 million LMS contract in 2011 suggest that this hasn't actually happened. Teachers across the province routinely complain about how difficult-to-use Desire2Learn (the existing LMS) can be, and are constantly looking for lightweight apps to replace specific functions (I should admit that my company, Edusight, has been a beneficiary of this trend). In fact, most districts actually pay for LMS solutions in addition to D2L because their needs aren't being met.
An LMS is supposed to be a single, blanket solution that can do everything from calendars to forums and communication tools to quizzes -- a miracle solution. Unfortunately for LMSes, much better individual tools exist for each of these functions.
Google Apps for Education or Office 365 (one of which most school boards have adopted) both provide more robust calendar functionality. Mobile communication tools like Remind (used by 1 in 3 K-12 schools in the US and growing fast in Canada) have rendered the need for old school posts on LMS forums obsolete. Quiz and polling apps like Socrative provide students and teachers with instant feedback and insights in the classroom. Best of all, switching across all these different apps is a workflow teachers, students, and parents are now used to -- it's how we use our phones for everything else in our daily lives.
The jury is still out on whether LMSs are effective. A 2014 study shows that administrators think their faculties are far more satisfied with LMSs than they actually are (85 per cent expected satisfaction rating vs. 60-65 per cent actual satisfaction rating). A quick look online and you'll find no shortage of vocal dissatisfaction with every LMS provider under the sun, from teachers, students, and even administrators.
Let's end one-size-fits-all thinking in education
So let's recap. Ontario is about to spend $4 million on a one-size-fits-all solution for problems identified in 2004; on a solution that has tons of free and cheap alternatives in the market, doesn't really reduce costs or duplication, and is arguably ineffective for teachers.
Instead, let's allow school boards to make their own choices in the market. The needs of students and teachers in Thunder Bay differ from those in Oakville -- we should allow each of those boards to choose the solutions that best fit their needs from a very active market. That $4 million could be better spent increasing funding at the board level, whether that's to buy an LMS or to solve more pressing infrastructure challenges like getting 100 per cent internet access in schools.
Ontario has an ambitious and progressive vision for education, one that shifts the focus away from grades and standardized tests to more holistic assessment of student learning. Achieving this kind of bold education reform takes courage and long-term thinking. Let's leave behind old world approaches that favour cost-cutting and efficiency over innovation. Let's incentivize new solutions that can move us forward towards achieving this vision for education in Ontario.
Note: This op-ed originally ran on Edusight's blog -- for similar posts and educational content, follow Edusight on Medium!
Follow Vikram Somasundaram on Twitter: www.twitter.com/vsomasundaram