Students weigh in on AAPS’ plans to acquire unified platform for online learning

Sunday, May 17, 2020 - 4:02pm

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Design by Maggie Wiebe

On May 13, the Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education approved the district’s acquisition of the online educational platform Schoology by a 6-1 vote. The new platform will be adopted starting this summer, as teachers will receive training this month and begin instructing summer classes online with Schoology as soon as July. At the end of the summer, the platform will be reviewed and considered for future use in the event of a partially or fully online fall semester.

Superintendent of Schools Jeanice Swift opened the hearing of the proposal to acquire Schoology by identifying the district’s intentions to streamline communication with the unified platform.

“We are looking to streamline the learning management platform for the district,” Swift said. “The goal is to improve the tools by which our teachers do their work and to streamline the approach by which parents locate their communications from the district, their student grades, their student attendance (and) their student assignments.” 

The Schoology platform boasts efficient communication between students, teachers, parents and administrators, as well as interoperability with a number of popular educational tools and platforms including Khan Academy and PowerSchool, according to its website.

During the board meeting, Dawn Linden, assistant superintendent and district leader, presented the results of a preliminary research study conducted to gather teachers’ input on the Schoology platform. According to Linden, 186 teachers participated in an hour-long Schoology demonstration and 135 shared their initial reactions in the survey afterward.

“In general, the biggest concern was the ability to process change,” Linden said. “The major concern that we heard was learning a new tool.”

Peter Stenger, a junior at Huron High School, expressed similar skepticism regarding the benefits of the new platform in an interview with The Daily. He identified Google Classroom as the predominant platform his instructors have used since the district’s government-mandated transition into remote learning. Stenger cited experiences using other platforms like Zoom, Flip Grid and Mango Learning across different subjects. He had no previous experience with the Schoology platform.

“Right now, Google Classroom is the unified platform (at Huron), so really, I don’t see a lot of major changes (coming with the adoption of the Schoology platform),” Stenger said. “It might be a little harder for students to use the new platform if they’re not familiar with it. So yeah, maybe it could be negative in that sense ... I wouldn’t see a lot of benefit in moving to the unified platform.”

Several elementary school teachers expressed concern in survey responses regarding whether use of the platform Seesaw would still be possible. Linden said the acquisition of the Schoology platform would not necessarily preclude other platforms that teachers have grown accustomed to.

“Our goal is not to eliminate things that are working,” Linden said. “Our goal is to make things efficient and easy for teachers. … If (Seesaw is) the tool that works … we wouldn’t take it away.”

Lillian Losinski, a sophomore at Skyline High School, voiced support for the Schoology platform in an interview with The Daily. Though she did not have prior experience with the platform, she said it had potential to alleviate the confusion created by teachers using different platforms.

“From what I did read, it kind of seemed like (Schoology) was … like everything that we’re doing right now, but under one program,” Losinski said. “I feel like it’d be better because it would just be more, like, connected.”

Losinski added that Schoology might offer new possibilities for grading processes.

 “Since it’s connected to PowerSchool, I feel like maybe we would get actual grades,” Losinski said. “Right now, we’re not getting graded. (An online assignment) is either marked as complete or missing.”

According to the preliminary data Linden presented, teachers have expressed similar optimism about these possible benefits of the Schoology platform. In response to the survey question “What excites you about Schoology?”, 74.1 percent said the “one-stop shop” element and “having everything they need in one place” were the most exciting features and 57.8 percent expressed excitement about the automatic gradebook feature. 

Just around the corner from schools like Huron and Skyline, the University of Michigan is asking similar questions about the future of online and hybrid learning. In an email to the University community earlier this month, Susan M. Collins, interim provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, shared that several committees have been tasked with research on best practices for remote and blended instruction in the event of an unconventional fall semester. 

Collins said in the email she would share findings of the University’s committees’ research as soon as possible.

LSA senior Hannah Zonnevylle, Pioneer High School alum, reflected on how online learning would have affected her experience in AAPS. 

“It’s hard to say, you know, that I’m against online learning because it might be what we need right now,” Zonnevylle said. “But I do think that the in-person instruction and interactions with teachers and peers was a very important part of my high school experience.”  

Zonnevylle also shared her thoughts on how the University might follow AAPS’ lead and consider a more streamlined approach to online learning and communication.

“I could totally see a benefit to that, just because I feel like it would eliminate some of the stress, or the time it would take to get acquainted or comfortable using all of those different platforms,” Zonnevylle said. “It would probably be easier to train the teachers, you know, for only one platform, rather than working in different learning platforms.”

Contributor Julianna Morano can be reached at jucomora@umich.edu