GOOD Morning Wilton recently reported on the Aug. 20 Board of Education meeting, when Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith called for a cancellation of scheduled orientation days to allow for, among other things, more time for teacher training on Schoology, a learning management system to which Wilton schools are transitioning.

At that time, one teacher told GMW, “We are not ready. The stress and anxiety that this is causing for teachers is truly palpable.”

Just days later, at the Board of Education Special Meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 25, Dr. Smith made a new recommendation, to adjust the district’s reopening plan yet again, with remote learning for all students for the first week of classes. Concerns about teachers’ training and “readiness” to use the new technology were cited as a key reason for the decision.

Smith said the district would implement the originally-approved hybrid learning model beginning Tuesday, Sept. 8. But by having all students learning remotely (and on a shortened, half-day schedule), teachers would have additional time for Schoology training in the afternoons.

So just what is Schoology, and why is it so central to the Wilton schools’ reopening plans?

Schoology (pronounced skool-uh-jee) is a learning management system (LMS) which, according to Schoology’s website, “has all the tools your institution needs to create engaging content, design lessons, and assess student understanding.”

PowerSchool, a system previously used in Wilton schools, acquired Schoology Learning in 2019.

Essentially, Schoology is the online platform where students find all of their courses, assignments, materials, calendar, messages, links to live instruction, and other class-related information. Teachers customize their course/classroom pages, as seen in the sample history class below. Schoology can also be used for things like attendance and grades; a district, school or teacher may opt to use all or only some of Schoology’s many features.

A sample Schoology screen

Though Schoology has often been discussed in Wilton in the context of remote learning, it is more than a remote learning platform. Rather, it was positioned to be a key component in all three of the reopening models Wilton considered over the summer (in person, hybrid/blended learning, or remote learning).

A flexible LMS is critical for the uncertainty of the COVID-19 era. In a blog postJeremy Friedman, a senior vice president at Schoology Learning, referred to Schoology as “a more flexible framework—one that allows for instruction to continue uninterrupted, no matter what challenges the future holds” i.e., the ability to deliver instruction under any of the three models as well as, importantly, to shift seamlessly between models if needed.

According to Friedman, this includes “resources and solutions that can help identify and address learning gaps, support social and emotional learning, and assist teachers with blended learning to keep the learning going.”

Many Wilton parents/students have expressed dissatisfaction with their remote learning experience last spring; Dr. Smith has acknowledged that the shift to remote learning under emergency conditions resulted in learning gaps for many students and has promised that remote learning this fall will be much improved, in part due to Schoology.

But many parents (and teachers) remain skeptical, and the fact is, Schoology hasn’t always worked smoothly. There were even “technical issues” that added to the delay in teacher training last week, and last spring, when schools across the country suddenly pivoted to distance learning.

Like the meteoric rise of Zoom during the pandemic, Schoology now has over 20,000,000 users in over 60,000 schools (reportedly a 400% increase in just months). In response to capacity and service issues during the takeoff, the company reported “significant investment” over the summer in the following aspects of its product and service:

  • Scalability and capacity:  partnering with Amazon Web Services to optimize the infrastructure and eliminate performance bottlenecks as more users access the system
  • Upgraded communications:  procedures to make sure Schoology can quickly respond to issues that might arise
  • Staffing:  150% increase in staffing for services, implementation, operations, and support
  • Expanded community support:  a new-to-Schoology teacher community filled with Schoology experts, mentors, and content to help onboard teachers new to the platform

Westport is one nearby district where Schoology was already in place when the pandemic hit. According to a published report of an interview with Natalie Carrignan, Westport public schools’ director of technology, Westport first implemented Schoology during the 2013-2014 school year, after having “extensively researched and tested 15 different programs.”

When Westport schools closed in mid-March, Dr. Anthony Buono, Westport’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, issued a letter to parents that included Westport’s distance learning guidelines, outlining how Schoology would be employed.

Westport’s plan called for utilizing Schoology differently by grade level. For Grades 3-5, for example, Schoology was used to deliver morning messages from teachers to students, while for grades 6-8 and 9-12 it was used more extensively, as the primary platform for posting assignments. However, Schoology does not appear to have been widely used for live classes, at least at the time the guidelines were posted. Instead, any classroom meetings were typically held on a Google platform. Parents were told that “learning modules” would be posted to Westport schools’ “At Home Learning” site online for students to access using Google classroom.

GMW reached out to Buono for comment about his district’s experience with Schoology and how its usage may have evolved as the pandemic unfolded, but did not receive a reply as of publication time.

Fairfield College Preparatory School, a private high school in Fairfield, has also been using Schoology for several years with good results, according to Timothy Dee, Fairfield Prep’s academic dean, who said, “Schoology has been a great product for our students and teachers. It is easy for both teachers and students to use.”

Dee described Schoology as “an integral part of our success during our virtual learning experience last spring.” Because students were already accustomed to finding and submitting their assignments on Schoology (and teachers were accustomed to posting assignments this way), the transition to remote learning was relatively smooth. Almost immediately upon the decision to close schools last spring, Fairfield Prep began live instruction for all classes every day; the school also kept a letter grade system and did not shift to pass/fail.

Dee credited a number of Schoology’s features with the success of the spring’s remote learning. “Schoology also has a number of assignment features that faculty made use of during the virtual learning period – most notably discussion boards and online assessments,” he said.

Another feature, “Workload Planning,” enables a teacher to look at all of the assignments their students have in other classes. Dee said, “This was important as we wanted to make sure we were caring for our students – teachers could see [when] a good majority of a class had a large assignment due one day and were able to shift their assignment due date so that students would be able to complete both assignments to the best of their ability.”

Fairfield Prep did not utilize the Schoology Conference feature during the pandemic. Dee explained, “There is also a function called Schoology Conferences which is a Zoom-like function within Schoology. Schoology did not come out with this until we were already well integrated with Zoom, but a few faculty experimented with the functioning and thought it would work well.”

As with anything new, there is a period of adjustment, but Dee offers encouraging words for Wilton students: “It takes our new students a few days to get used to the new system, but it is very easy to use and students tend to pick it up very quickly.”

He also mentioned a longer-term payoff for teachers. “It is very easy to transfer all of your resources from one year to the next, so if you teach a course for a few years in a row, it is very easy to pull assignments or other postings from year to year.”

Tracey Owens, a teacher at Fairfield Prep and a parent of children who attended Wilton public schools (one who just graduated Wilton High School this year), also had words of encouragement for Wilton teachers about Schoology. “It’s more intuitive than Google Classroom,” she said. “As a teacher, it’s easier to use.”

Owens is sympathetic to teachers feeling overwhelmed with the timing of the transition to a new LMS. She imagines Wilton teachers would probably prefer to be working on optimizing their lessons and classroom activities in anticipation of the new hybrid learning model (or another shift to all remote learning) rather than learning a new system, regardless how intuitive it might be.

Owens doesn’t believe Schoology is the only tool to achieve success this fall. Rather, she believes the main factor is the commitment on the part of teachers and the district to live classes and holding students accountable. Whether the platform is Schoology or Google Classroom, she says, teachers have the ability to hold live/synchronous classes, “Schoology just gives a little more functionality for the teachers.”

Parents looking for more information or support with Schoology may visit the Wilton Public Schools Reopening site and click on the “WPS Parent Schoology Support Page” link in the top, right corner. This will link you to the district’s Digital Learning and Information Technology webpage, where you’ll find information on how to sign up for your child’s account, a parent’s guide to using Schoology, and a parent support page, as well as video recordings of the parent training sessions from Aug. 24 and 25 (to be posted).