Schoology NEXT 2019: Increased focus on K-12 LMS Market

The following is a guest post by Jeanette Wiseman, consultant at MindWires and long-time observer of EdTech markets.

In August MindWires plans to release, along with our partners at LISTedTECH, what we believe is the most comprehensive set of data on the usage of Learning Management Systems (LMS) and Student Information Systems (SIS) in North America K-12 school districts. At this writing, the data set includes the largest 3,000+ school districts.

While Instructure and Moodle serve the Higher Ed and Corporate learning spaces as well as K-12, in 2018 executives at Schoology decided to move the company away from actively selling and developing for Higher Ed and focus any new efforts on the K-12 market. This renewed K-12 focus by Schoology was quite apparent at their user conference, NEXT, which took place last week in Boca Raton, FL.

Unlike a Higher Ed LMS user conference where the majority of the attendees are the administrators of the technology – the IT or the academic technology staff focused on the enterprise level issues or opportunities facing their school – Schoology NEXT is attended mainly by teachers, instructional coaches, and instructional designers. You find yourself sitting next to an 11th-grade economics teacher or a middle school band director, many of whom attend the conference do so to fulfill professional development requirements. This situation sets a very different tone for the conference where the attendees are driven not necessarily by a new feature set or code base, but much more by how their teaching and learning goals are supported by technology. 1As a former classroom teacher and a parent of three school-aged girls, it was inspiring to me to see the animated discussions and excitement around student-focused opportunities and challenges using technology from the practitioners themselves.

Marking the 10th year from when Schoology launched as a company, the conference had a lighthearted and fun kickoff, poking fun on how most people mispronounce the company name (I am personally guilty of this) with some interesting cameos. 2

The first day’s keynote speaker, Eric Qualman, was a seamless addition with his talk on inspiration within digital leadership. Overall, the NEXT conference showed Schoology, with its narrower focus, reaching directly to its core audience in a way that a company that has a broader user demographic could not do.

An interesting example of this focus is in the development of the gradebook as well as Schoology’s Assessment Management Platform (AMP), both of which were highlighted in the second day’s keynote. Over a year ago Schoology started to rebuild the mastery component of their gradebook to include features that are often requested in a K-12 environment, but ones that a typical higher ed or corporate client would be unlikely to use. While most LMS’s will have a mastery component to their gradebook, Schoology has taken it a step further by creating functionality that better matches the hierarchies being used in K-12 classrooms. This is done by allowing teachers to view and group students at different levels in the standards hierarchy. Teachers can also manually enter or override mastery data just like they would in a traditional gradebook, based upon observations that might be happening in the classroom outside of the LMS. For instance, an elementary teacher might not be creating all homework assignments inside of Schoology, but when they observe a student demonstrating something in the classroom, they can record the observation in a way that is aligned to mastery or standards. Another significant addition to the gradebook is a streamlined and customizable Choice Activities. Again, other LMS’s have choice activity features, but Schoology has improved on it to make it something that is easier for the K-12 teacher to implement. It was explained to me this way:

Past Schoology/Other LMS:

  • A teacher decides to give students a choice. She then creates multiple types of assignments, such as a test/quiz, home assignment, etc. She then individually assigns different assignments to each student.

  • As students complete them, the teacher needs to go into each activity separately and grade them.

  • When the teacher looks at her gradebook, there are grade columns for every activity. However, for many students, the teacher is staring at blank cells since the students did not choose that activity.

  • When they synchronize with the SIS, the same experience occurs and in some systems causes people to think that they may have “missing” work, since not every SIS supports individually assigned assignments and not every student has a grade for every item (since it didn’t apply to every teacher).

Schoology’s Improvements toChoice Activities:

  • A teacher decides to give students a choice. She then creates a Choice Activity, and adds multiple types of assignments, such as a test/quiz, home assignment, activities from apps, etc.

  • As students complete them, an aggregated view for the class appears within the Choice Activity alerting the teacher, in aggregate, who has completed the task and who hasn’t. If the teacher wants to review work for a particular type of item, she can click on the student’s name, and it will display the appropriate item depending on what the student chose.

  • In her gradebook, there is now a single column that represents “Assignment 1,” and now a teacher can quickly see who still needs to submit their work.

  • When synced with the SIS, the previous problems described above are eliminated.

These changes may seem nuanced and small to an outside observer. However, having a gradebook that is designed to work in the K-12 classroom for the already over-worked teacher can mean the difference between an LMS being actively used across the district and one that’s not.

Schoology has decided to“double-down” on their investments in their Assessment ManagementPlatform (AMP), focusing on insights on student progress that both teachers and administrators are requesting. As an employee in product development explained,“By removing the silos between learning management and assessment, Schoology gives clients a comprehensive view of student performance and instructor effectiveness. Unlike tools built for higher ed or corporate learning, Schoology’s assessment reports have a focus on standards along with traditional, numeric grades.” This aligns to the path most districts are taking – moving towards a model that integrates traditional grading with standard grading to track student progress and improve student performance.

What the data shows is that, as in Higher Ed, there is a Big Four set of LMS solutions; but in K-12 market the four are Canvas, Google Classroom, Moodle, and Schoology (see following chart from May).

Looking at the data, it is hard to discount Google Classroom’s presence in this market with their free web-based tools, allowing schools to dip their toe in the EdTech pool. If you attend a general K-12 conference such as ISTE, Google Classroom seems to have rockstar status with long lines of excited educators lining up to see demos, but does this interest translate into a concern for fee-based systems from the LMS companies in this space? Not necessarily in the view of Schoology’s CEO Jeremy Friedman (and we heard the same sentiment from Instructure). They both see Google Classroom as being a gateway to using technology in the classroom and find that users quickly outgrow the limited features Google offers and eventually end up looking something more robust. To that end, Friedman looks at Google Classroom as a marketing tool for Schoology and is committed to supporting Google users within the Schoology platform. While this viewpoint makes sense, I suspect there is an additional element of hoping, or willing it to be true, and not as a clear-cut conclusion.

Several users at NEXT that I met echoed this line of thinking. Tara Amsterdam, Instructional Coach at Delaware’s Colonial School District, stated: “The difference between Google Classroom and Schoology is the end-user and how instructional design varies between the two products. Google Classroom is designed to be more of a content management systems where the teacher is the end-user. Teachers are able to distribute content to students with Google Classroom. While Schoology also offers educators the ability to distribute digital content, Schoology’s built-in features go way beyond just passing out digital items to students. Schoology is a true Learning Management System designed for the students to be the end-user.”

Despite the K-12 focus and product improvements, Schoology is still fourth in North American implementations in terms of enrollment. Canvas has a lead this market, gaining much of its market share starting in 2015. And while Instructure’s scope includes the Higher Ed and Corporate spaces (apparently as primary markets), there is still a firm commitment from them to serve the K-12 community. This is the real competition and challenge for Schoology. Significantly, however, our data showed that two K-12 districts became the only losses of customers that we are aware of in the history of Canvas, with both selecting Schoology in 2019: Tempe School District and Turner Unified School District in Kansas City.

Schoology’s strength a few years ago was its Facebook-like interface which allowed for easy start-up for the typical classroom teacher or instructor using an LMS for the first time. Today, that strength seems to be broader based on its deep focus on the K-12 market – knowing the customer inside and out in order to build the LMS that teachers, students, and their parents are looking for.

The K-12 LMS Market is an interesting space, with Schoology and Canvas being the primary competitors for fee-based products.

1 Of course teaching and learning goals are an important part of Higher Ed conferences, but for NEXT these were the primary goals, and the conference tone is quite different.

2 And let’s give Charlie Sheen credit for best pronunciation.