The University of Suffolk | Customer Success | D2L Europe
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The University of Suffolk

Using Brightspace to connect students, tutors and employers

At a glance

Client: The University of Suffolk
Students: 4584
Staff: 415 FTE
Industry: Higher Education

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  • Strengthen relationships between the University, students and local businesses
  • Use one platform to underpin learning for degree apprenticeship courses run in collaboration with employers
  • Develop a more personalised learning experience for all students
  • Find a solution that could also support staff development


  • D2L’s Brightspace platform
  • An ongoing training and support plan
  • Bespoke templates for degree apprenticeship courses developed in collaboration with D2L’s Creative Services Team


  • A platform that supports all types of learning, wherever that learning takes place
The University of Suffolk Logo


The University of Suffolk is a transformational university, absorbing the best of UK university traditions and aligning them with a twenty first century audience and a modern world of employment and entrepreneurship. It is a thriving academic community which makes a clear and immediate impact. Its national and international impact through research and innovation brings recognition and opportunity to the region and supports regional growth and development. Its purpose is to change the lives—of individuals and communities—for the better.

"We can clearly see that this outcomes-based approach to learning is working, with students reading three times as much content and spending twice as much time on it than their traditional degree student counterparts."

Ellen Buck, Director of Learning & Teaching, University of Suffolk

The Challenge

Suffolk is a large, rural, coastal county with below average numbers entering higher education. The original mission of the University of Suffolk was to encourage more people from across the county to continue with their studies.

One way of doing this has been through building relationships with businesses and the local community to identify skills gaps and potential opportunities for collaboration—fuelling the adoption of vocational courses and producing more ‘work-ready’ candidates to boost the local economy.

These collaborations, with organisations outside of the traditional academic environment, prompted the University of Suffolk to review its existing Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) provider. The need to maintain a close relationship with students who are working remotely as well as with businesses that have different working methods and requirements, meant that the University needed a solution that could facilitate a blended learning approach.

Ellen Buck, Director of Learning and Teaching at the University of Suffolk explains: “We needed to reach people that were out in the field learning but were also still very much part of our university life. To achieve this, we sought a partner that understood the nuances of modern learning and could support our efforts to provide a more personalised learning experience.”

As well as supporting learning, Ellen and her team required a platform that could also be used to enhance staff development: “We wanted a platform that could be used as a continuous personal development (CPD) hub—whether training is being delivered by IT, HR or elsewhere, the solution needed to bring departments together to create an individual learning and development resource.”

students around desktop computer

The Solution

A panel comprising members of the student body, support staff and tutors was brought into the process to make a collaborative decision on the new provider. The panel was invited to complete tasks within each shortlisted platform that they would normally carry out in their existing roles, as well as considering how the solution could support future learning. The platforms were then scored against specific criteria, with the user experience counting for 40% of the overall weighting.

According to the University, D2L’s Brightspace platform won across the board, for its pedagogical and technical functionality, usability and the ability to evolve with the needs of the University.

The Brightspace platform went live at the University of Suffolk in August 2018. The University developed its Degree Apprenticeship content in parallel with the implementation process. “This meant we were learning about the processes that Brightspace uses for content creation and working with D2L’s Creative Services Team to design templates and structures at the same time as rolling out our Degree Apprenticeship courses. This had its challenges, but it helped us to understand the capabilities of the platform,” adds Ellen Buck.

Training sessions were run with course teams and administrators to ensure they understood the platform’s essential functionality. The next phase was to offer “uplift” services to support course teams in making full use of the system and to help them recognise its potential as a tool for learning delivery, rather than simply as a repository for course materials.

teacher lecturing

The Results

The Brightspace platform has enabled the University of Suffolk to redefine its pedagogical practices, breaking down barriers and creating one big community, both within the university and more widely. Learning environments have been connected in a way that they never could be previously, with bridges being built between learning, teaching and research.

Students feel supported in their learning wherever they are, from reading notes on the go to working on assignments while at their place of work. Employers can see how their student placements are progressing academically as well as in the workplace and can feed back directly within the platform. Tutors can liaise freely with both students and employers— sharing information on engagement and performance levels and taking remedial action at the first sign of any issues.

“This isn’t just about connecting learning spaces, it’s about connecting people. For example, Brightspace supports the learning tripartite relationship within an NHS Trust as part of our BSc (Hons) Nursing (Degree Apprenticeship)— the personal tutor, the student and the practice educator / employer can all meet together and evaluate progress using the online learning environment as the foundation for that discussion.” – Ellen Buck, Director of Learning & Teaching, University of Suffolk

"We know we can glean even more from Brightspace as we continue to delve into the analytics. We have built a true partnership with D2L, and we believe that with Brightspace we have the foundation on which we can build the best possible learning journey for all."

Ellen Buck, Director of Learning & Teaching, University of Suffolk

What's next

Ellen Buck believes the University of Suffolk can derive even more value from Brightspace, with scope to build in new structures that ensure everyone associated with the University can make use of the platform. The team are currently undergoing training on one of Brightspace’s Performance Plus tools— Insights—to gain even greater visibility into patterns of learner behaviour.

For example, initial analysis has shown that engagement levels with course materials that support Degree Apprenticeship programmes are particularly high. On one module of its BSc Nursing degree students are viewing an average of eight pages of content and reading it for an average of 24 hours. For the same module on the Degree Apprenticeship course students are viewing an average of 30 pages for an average of 52 hours. Insight suggests that these students are completing more work, more efficiently so the university is examining how the purposeful use of instructionally designed content within the degree apprenticeship course are easier to consume.

“We acknowledge that while this programme has been designed for online, the other has not. There are still lessons and good practice that we can learn and roll out across more programmes.

“We have built specific templates and checklists within Brightspace for our Degree Apprenticeship courses. Students are required to confirm they have read the content within the platform. We can clearly see that this outcomes-based approach to learning is working, with students reading three times as much content and spending twice as much time on it than their traditional degree student counterparts. “We know we can glean even more from Brightspace as we continue to delve into the analytics” Ellen concludes. “We have built a true partnership with D2L, and we believe that with Brightspace we have the foundation on which we can build the best possible learning journey for all.”

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Fueling up:

Upskilling to grow careers

Name: Zaria
Age: 27

Policy prescriptions: Invest in a Learning-Integrated Life; Transform the learning of today with new partnerships; Accelerate the shift to skills-based learning and hiring

Zaria has five years of work experience and is ready to change jobs and enter a field that has high growth potential in her region. The national government has been investing in collecting better skills-based labour market information for years and has developed a public platform to offer individuals specialized tools to assess their skills against current market needs, and to locate employers that are currently hiring.

On the employer side, the human resources team is closely examining a recent internal skills audit done at their organization and determines that the organization needs additional digital marketing specialists. They initiate a search for individuals with the skills they will soon need and spot a strong candidate in Zaria who requires only light training on regulatory issues regarding the sale of electric vehicles, along with some formal skills development courses on social media marketing strategy. After a successful interview, Zaria is offered the job.

Upon joining, Zaria will receive an educational benefits stipend from the company, and access to a company-provided platform of curated programs for skills building from approved providers. Upon completion of a set of courses, Zaria will receive a credential from a company approved program verifying her technical knowledge and marking the end of her probationary period at the company. To ensure she continues to build her skills, she will move into a formal mentor program with one of her colleagues to receive continual peer-to-peer feedback on her demonstration of skills and knowledge. information

This affordable and accessible learning through employer-funded training has enabled Zaria to begin working while also upskilling to ensure her long-term success in the company and growing industry. The employer is investing in its employees, and company leaders are thinking further into the future about the skills the company needs, and the types of job candidates who will succeed. This match, based on skills potential, was made possible because of government investment in high-quality labour market information and a national platform that matches job candidates with career opportunities based on the candidates’ skills and the identified skill needs of a given job.

Taking the road less travelled:

A networked postsecondary education

Name: Sam
Age: 18

Policy prescriptions: Transform the learning of today with new partnerships

Sam is a prospective postsecondary student who has always been interested in pursuing a global and interdisciplinary education. Sam’s siblings have all instilled in her the importance of studying abroad, having spoken fondly of their academic exchange semesters, field research trips, and intensive language immersion programs. She is inspired, but unsure whether this pathway will be available if she chooses not to complete a four-year degree at one institution.

Sam is interested in understanding how emerging technologies can be used to modernize and improve government services—an area in need of talent not only in her home country of Canada but also abroad. She could take on a general political science, public administration, engineering, or computer science degree at the university close to her home, but none of those degrees feels like the right fit to build the skills she needs to pursue this career interest.

While researching options, Sam learns of a new degree completion pathway that allows students to take courses from a network of universities, colleges, and polytechnic institutions throughout Canada and stack them for skills-based  credentials that are recognized by major Canadian employers. A set of four of these credentials grants an individual a degree-equivalent endorsed by each institution. Sam identifies the skills and knowledge she wants to work towards and charts out four credential pathways:

  1. Service delivery design
  2. Change management
  3. Applications of emerging technologies (e.g., artificial intelligence)
  4. Machinery of government

With this customized learning pathway, Sam has full flexibility to decide how she wants to structure her courses, the institutions within the network she will study at, and the format and model of courses she prefers—whether live in-class instruction or online courses.

Cost flexibility is built in as well—students pay a standard fee based on the number of competencies they intend to learn rather than the normal standard of ‘credit hours’. The province in which Sam lives has endorsed this networked model of  postsecondary education and adjusted its financial assistance program to better support students. Grants and other non-repayable assistance take into consideration the number of courses the student is taking across all institutions when assessing financial need. Previously, Sam would have been required to be a full-time student at every institution to receive support.

Sam also has the option of starting with foundational courses or applying for Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) information so her existing knowledge and skills can be tested and she can move on to more advanced topics.

Sam completes her first three credentials in three years and uses her certifications to apply for a one-year work-integrated learning experience with the federal government in Germany where she can learn first-hand about the applications of artificial intelligence in government. When she returns home, she applies for PLAR to certify her learning on the machinery of government and is granted a degree acknowledging her four-part customized education.

The collaboration between universities, polytechnics, and colleges to create a networked approach to degree completion, and its endorsement by the provincial government, allowed Sam to graduate as an alumnus of multiple postsecondary education institutions. Her exposure to different thought spaces and networks was highly valuable for ensuring she was engaged throughout her education and set up for post-graduation success. In the rapidly evolving field she has chosen, she understands how important it is to continuously upskill, and is prepared to return to formal education for more stackable credentials as she continues throughout her career.

Route guidance:

Personalized professional development

Name: ZheYuan
Age: 33

Policy prescriptions: Prepare teachers for their own lifelong learning journeys; Accelerate the shift to skills-based learning and hiring

ZheYuan is about to join Marama’s school as a new secondary school teacher. He completed his professional teacher education a decade ago, and teaching looks a bit different today than it did when he was studying. With the incorporation of learning technologies in the classroom, and expectations of teachers delivering competency-based education information, he needs personalized professional development to feel comfortable and supported in this new opportunity.

The school district has been on its own learning journey since shifting to a competency-based education model, and has had some growing pains. Over time, the district has come to recognize that success depends on school administrators working closely with teachers to co-create systems of instruction, and pathways to professional development. The district has its own online learning management system (LMS) for teacher professional development, with a catalogue of content covering a range of subjects including:

  • Strategies for student-centred instruction
  • Design thinking—how to prototype and iterate on solutions to test new approaches
  • Online content—using learning management systems to advance competency-based education
  • Data analysis—interpreting student progress

ZheYuan is excited that he can take on professional learning to suit his needs on his own schedule. He recalls an earlier time when he had to spend nine hours a month in-person taking the same professional development courses as his peers who were teaching very different subjects and had varied skill levels and pedagogical needs than him, which was less than effective.

ZheYuan can also take advantage of his teacher community in the LMS, connecting both in asynchronous chats and in live discussions with other teachers and experts from across his region to ask questions and share his experiences. He sees some upcoming dialogues hosted by his school district to share learnings and signs up for those sessions, knowing he will get a valuable peer perspective from other teachers. ZheYuan is thankful that his school leaders recognize and value professional learning and provide the supports and the time needed for improvement.

D2L Whitepaper Contributors

Lead Authors:
Malika Asthana, Manager, Strategy and Public Affairs
Joe Pickerill, Senior Director, Strategy and Public Affairs, International

Jeremy Auger, Chief Strategy Officer
Mark Schneiderman, Senior Director, Future of Teaching and Learning
Brendan Desetti, Senior Director, Strategy and Public Affairs, United States
Mike Semansky, Senior Director, Strategy and Public Affairs, Canada
Nia Brown, Senior Manager, Strategy and Public Affairs

In the driver’s seat:

Owning the personalized learning journey

Name: Marama
Age: 14

Policy prescriptions: Prepare teachers for their own lifelong learning journeys; Accelerate the shift to skills-based learning and hiring

Marama is enrolled in a school with a competency-based education model information. Students are responsible for owning the personalization of their learning pathways, making choices alongside their teachers in how and when they learn.iii Teachers play a central role in guiding and validating all learning, regardless of where it takes place—offering formative assessments to evaluate a student’s mastery of skills and knowledge. Teachers use data from these assessments, gathered through an online learning management system (LMS), to differentiate instruction and provide targeted supports so that all students progress toward graduation. As a student diagnosed with a learning disability, Marama is supported in her education by this personalized learning pathway.

All students complete an assessment in ninth grade to identify their natural strengths as a learner. Their teachers use the results as inputs to design tailormade educational pathways with learning materials and activities that suit the individual students’ learning needs. In Marama’s case, this includes:

  1. Supplementing lecture-based teaching with structured but independent reading
  2. Shadowing professionals who work on the concepts she is learning about
  3. Taking the stories and lessons she’s learned and sharing it back with classmates by designing a creative and interactive presentation

Over the course of the school year, Marama spends a third of her time in live lectures (sometimes online) with her teacher alongside other classmates—but the rest of her time is spent learning in the ways that suit her best. She can log into her online LMS from her mobile device to access her school resources and complete on her own schedule before the assigned deadline. When Marama finds a concept that interests her, she can ask her teachers and counsellor for support in finding a working professional to speak to, or work alongside for a couple weeks, from the network her school has curated over time. And when she has learned something, she is encouraged to reinforce her learning by applying her skills and developing content to share back with her classmates.

Marama’s personalized learning journey empowers her to own her education by learning in ways that are effective for her, with the support that allows her to be successful. Her teachers have high-quality data about student strengths and performance they can share with her parents to show them how she is mastering specific skills, and where she may need extra support. Her school experience empowers her to embrace her subject interests very early on, and she advances to deeper topics quickly as she submits evidence of learning that demonstrates her proficiency. She graduates having cultivated a mindset for self-directed learning early in her education.