Friday, February 15th, 2019

Building a Simplified Classroom Ecosystem that Supports Teachers and Students

School districts today are facing the challenge of having to demonstrate the effectiveness of their digital implementations.

Author Rob Stratton

School districts today are facing the challenge of having to demonstrate the effectiveness of their digital implementations. With the dollars spent on digital solutions, the question of their effectiveness is constantly being called into question. Are students making learning gains? How are students doing on their state assessments? How much time are students spending on the application? Is this the right amount of time? This leads districts and vendors to conduct correlation studies to help determine what is the right amount of time a student needs to spend on the application to be proficient on state assessments. 

These implementations too often can occur inside a bubble separated from day-to-day learning. Schools create labs, so students can meet the magic time, while the application operates in isolation instead of being integrated into the learning environment. Resentment grows as valuable and precious instructional time is carved out and dedicated to this new implementation. Schools and districts create incentive programs to encourage students to spend more time. Meanwhile, the learning environment becomes more fractured and the learning disconnected. Over time, the implementation stalls and the district moves on to something new. This scenario is then repeated with a new implementation.  

So how should a district measure the success of their digital implementations? Successful implementations should be gauged by three benchmarks: on time delivery, simplifying the classroom digital ecosystem, and access to data that promotes student engagement and learning. These benchmarks not only support teachers and students but also demonstrate respect for teaching and learning. 

On Time Delivery - (Digital Day 1)

When should teachers and students have access to their digital resources? What are the roadblocks that cause delays in access? How can districts ensure delivery of digital resources on the first day teachers and students return from summer break?

Single Sign-On (SSO) Protocol

Prior to the purchase of a new product, specifying technical requirements should be standard and districts should require open standards, such as the standards developed by IMS Global Learning Consortium. These standards are developed by districts and vendors to facilitate interoperability, the ability for applications to exchange data without creating a custom data set. Districts should also define the method for managing access. Single Sign-On protocols ensure that users can access all of their digital resources with one username and password. SAML and Oauth2 are two examples. The benefit of SSO protocols is that access to the application can be readily shared by simply stating that a user’s account sign-in is their district username and password.

IMS OneRoster Standard

In addition to SSO, districts should adopt the IMS OneRoster standard. OneRoster enables a district to generate one set of data files to share with all vendors. The benefit for vendors is that they are receiving the same data set from each district. Rostering files help associate teachers, students and products within an application. The OneRoster standard defines the tables and fields that need to be generated to ensure that teachers and students are associated within an application to mirror how they are associated within their district’s SIS application. When a change is made in the SIS application, that change is then also reflected in the application. The OneRoster standard also associates application resources with users. For example, in a typical digital textbook application, students and teachers are assigned the appropriate resources corresponding to the course in which they are enrolled.   

Digital Day 1

Establishing an SSO and rostering solution is critical but the element that drives all of the work and makes on-time delivery a reality is the defining of the day that the application must be fully functional. Digital Day 1 is the first day that teachers should expect access to the application. For the back to school discussion, this should be the first day that teachers are back on campus. Digital Day 1 can be a reality for every district if they do the hard work of defining the SSO and rostering solutions, establishing the date that full access is expected and then engaging the vendors throughout the process. With these elements in place, an application can be up and running in minutes.

Simplifying the Digital Ecosystem

Simplifying Hardware

As well as establishing Digital Day 1, the work of the district must include a commitment to simplifying the digital ecosystem. It isn’t enough to just simplify access to applications. Districts must ensure that equipment and applications when introduced into the classroom do not disrupt the learning environment. The standardization of equipment in classrooms reduces support and professional development needs. As teachers move from room to room or school to school throughout the district, a standardized equipment configuration in each classroom enables teachers and students to get fully engaged in learning. Equipment standardization goes a long way into simplifying the classroom environment. Additionally, with a thoughtful approach to equipment upgrades, replacements can occur with little impact on the classroom.

Simplifying Applications

Equipment standardization is a great place to start but considerations need to occur around applications as well. How can districts simplify the digital ecosystem when content is spread across multiple platforms and new applications are released routinely? IMS Global standards again play a role here. While OneRoster aids in the management of accounts, IMS Common Cartridge or Thin Common Cartridge (TCC) aids in the management of content. These standards answer the question of how districts can simplify the ecosystem by reducing the number of applications teachers and students need to access. 

How can a district integrate content from a wide variety of providers into their digital ecosystem? The TCC standard allows weblinks to digital learning objects (DLO) to be shared or ingested into a district’s Learning Object Repository (LOR). The LOR is simply a library that stores all of the district’s digital assets. These assets can be from a variety of sources, including district- and user-created content, licensed content provided by the LOR or weblinks to content from other publishers ingested into the LOR via the TCC standard. The TCC standard provides users access to each learning object as a direct link within the LOR along with a wealth of metadata associated with the object. These learning objects are searchable by each state’s academic standards and any other metadata provided in the TCC. Teachers can then easily select resources from the district’s LOR from a multitude of content providers to use with students. Objects can be compiled into learning units similar to how we compile playlists of music on our phones. These compiled learning units can deliver targeted resources aligned to a learner’s specific needs. 

The LOR helps a district to on-board new applications and the content housed within into the digital ecosystem with limited disruption. It also allows teachers to integrate the new resources into the existing learning environment. Additionally, the IMS Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) standard can share a user’s credentials between the LOR and other content providers to enable a seamless user experience. Users can navigate between applications without being challenged for authentication. With the combination of TCC and LTI, teachers have seamless access to all of their digital resources via the LOR.  

Real Time Data

While planning lessons, teachers and curriculum writers identify standards and objectives. They plan engaging activities and select resources to support the student’s learning. As teachers engage students with digital content, they are at times left wondering what the students are actually doing on their devices and how well they are doing in their learning. In traditional settings, teachers provide instruction, probe students with questions to check for understanding and then redirect to provide clarification when needed. With digital implementations, a disconnect can form between the student and the teacher. Teachers begin to question, “Are the students even doing what I asked them to do? Are the students utilizing the resources for the lesson?”

The IMS Caliper standard can provide real-time data around learning objects and assessment items to answer these questions. When IMS Caliper is implemented via an LOR, the LOR can provide teachers with data on the digital learning objects as the students are accessing them. “Are they playing the video? Did they pause it?” This builds a sense of accountability for the students and support for the teacher. 

By adopting IMS standards, districts have the necessary tools in place to provide teachers greater support. These standards, when implemented together, provide support for teachers by reducing their workload and helping reduce the number of platforms that teachers have to master. A simplified ecosystem should be everyone's goal, helping teachers focus on teaching and students on learning.


Rob Stratton is a former Coordinator for Instructional Materials, Media and Instructional Technology Curriculum Services at Lee County (FL) and Vice President of Learning Innovation and Strategy, SAFARI Montage. If you would like more info about implementing a LOR or an effective digital ecosystem, please contact Rob at rstratton@safarimontage.comor schedule time to meet with the SAFARI Montage team at the RTM Spring 2019 EDU Congress.

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