Valdosta State University | Customer Success | D2L Middle East & Africa
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Valdosta State University

Using Brightspace to implement a unique CBE experience


In November 2009, President Obama launched the Educate to Innovate initiative to move American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math achievement over the next decade. Recognizing that great teaching is part of any child’s success, President Obama also issued a challenge to the nation to recruit and prepare more than 100,000 new teachers over the next decade. Rising to this challenge, Valdosta State University (VSU) has turned to an innovative Competency-based Education (CBE) initiative delivered online via the Brightspace platform to raise the technical skill levels of elementary teachers currently working in the State of Georgia.

At a glance

Client: Valdosta State University
Industry: Education

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  • School system dissatisfied with the existing endorsement programs offered by the state


  • Using Brightspace to capture critical analytics on student interactions


  • Ability to perform a study that is in-depth, discipline-centric and authentic
  • Teaching teachers the technologies in K-5 classrooms
Valdosta State University Logo

The Challenge

“Like many educational institutions these days, we are actively exploring alternative ways of doing business, and we were intrigued by the competency-based education model and its success at the University of Wisconsin,” says Dr. Anthony Scheffler, Interim Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, and professor in the James L. and Dorothy H. Dewar College of Education and Human Services, VSU.

While VSU staff explored possibilities surrounding CBE, Scheffler and the school’s Dean were approached by the Valdosta City School System to partner in the delivery of a science endorsement program, allowing K-5 elementary teachers to strengthen and enhance their competency levels for teaching elementary science. The School System was dissatisfied with the existing endorsement programs offered by the state, and were seeking a better option.

“As those discussions evolved, we saw this particular endorsement program as a great fit for us to pilot using a CBE model,” says Scheffler. “Each endorsement has three courses so they are small. The curriculum could be completed in a short timeframe, and we had a school system ready to sign on and provide ongoing feedback. We saw it as a win-win for VSU and the schools.”

students in library using computer
To fund the initiative, VSU’s Dewar College of Education and Human Services was selected by the Council of Adult and Experiential Learning to receive a national JumpStart grant to assist with the implementation of the CBE program.

VSU has been a D2L Brightspace user for several years. It was first introduced to the learning management system through a state systems-wide learning initiative. Brightspace is used university-wide, and all classrooms are provided with access to the LMS for face-to-face, blended, and strictly online learning. For the CBE pilot, VSU staff arranged for a separate instance of the platform allowing them to try and test out new features unique to CBE.

“We were looking for a lot of flexibility. We knew CBE would be different from the average online course. We needed a platform that could be shaped in a way to achieve the model we were trying to build. Based on our knowledge of the Brightspace platform, we knew it could be molded to the goals and objectives of the program,” says Vincent King-Spezzo, Senior Online Instructional Designer, Centre for eLearning, VSU.

In CBE, content personalization is key. “Our students are working professionals, so they have to be able to accomplish a course where time is not a limiting factor. Brightspace allows our science endorsement students to progress in highly personalized ways, while still capturing the metrics we need to demonstrate the student has fully accomplished the course and achieved mastery,” says King-Spezzo.

students using microscopes

The Solution

Aimed at working teachers, VSU’s science endorsement is all about demonstrated learning. Following the CBE model, teachers use a variety of projects, activities, and lab experiments within the classroom to demonstrate their mastery of the subject matter. They are also asked to videotape lessons, draw diagrams or illustrations, and take before and after pictures. Working with the teachers is a team of three VSU staff: a success coach; an instructor responsible for learning outcomes, guidance and content understanding; and an assessor, whose sole role is to go through the assessment and grade the student. In VSU’s CBE model, the mastery of subject matter can take two forms: Mastery Level III, which corresponds to an 80 percent or higher on a traditional transcript; and Mastery Level IV, which indicates a higher level of student mastery and translates to a 90 percent or above on a traditional transcript.

To support the instructional team, King-Spezzo and his VSU colleagues utilized Brightspace to capture critical analytics on student interactions. This includes the number of times logged into the system, the number of active discussions, content modules accessed by date, assessments in the Dropbox, and so on. VSU also used Brightspace Intelligent agents to streamline communications between the instructor and the student.

“These agents allowed us to automate certain routine aspects of communication, such as notifications, so instructors could focus on higher value, higher level communication with their students,” notes Spezzo-King.

Kathy Sundin, online communications coordinator for VSU’s Center for eLearning also stepped in to create a custom web front end. As a result, when a student enters the CBE course, they view a streamlined, simplified interface solely focused on CBE.

“We wanted to put all the technology in the background so the students could just focus on learning,” says Sundin.

Finally, VSU worked with D2L to overlay the CBE program’s Mastery III and IV grade scheme over the traditional number grade found in the Brightspace system; color coding and simplifying the new CBE grading format so students could view their progress at a glance. When students submit work via Dropbox, the assessor uses the Brightspace rubric to assign a level of mastery on every single criterion. This rubric provides students with an acknowledgement, and feedback on their progress.

"Our students are working professionals, so they have to be able to accomplish a course where time is not a limiting factor. Brightspace allows our science endorsement students to progress in highly personalized ways, while still capturing the metrics we need to demonstrate the student has fully accomplished the course and achieved mastery."

Vincent King-Spezzo, Senior Online Instructional Designer, Centre for eLearning

The Results

Given than the CBE learning model is new to both VSU staff and students, the science endorsement program was kept deliberately small. Only 10 teachers, recommended by participating school systems, were admitted into the first phase of the pilot.

“In reflection it was smart to start small. We didn’t want to get into issues that would not necessarily advance our understanding of CBE,” says Dr. Scheffler. “We were able to keep the pilot highly interactive, with teachers coming in to see us monthly to provide feedback.”

Scheffler admits there’s been a learning curve throughout this CBE pilot.

“There’s a lot we have learned on the operational and functional sides, in terms of curriculum design, and we continue to learn about accessibility. We said this was what we wanted with this first program, to go with a form of backward design, start with the competency and then have it flow through to the mastery. We’ve also found we had to trim out a lot of the activities in order to work efficiently and strategically through the design model. Through this we have learned less is more.”

Through the VSU CBE pilot, elementary teachers in the State of Georgia are able to perform a study that is in depth, discipline-centric and authentic, and yet provides them with the flexibility to fit their schooling around work and life obligations. It’s also driving teachers to use the very same technologies school systems are now putting into K-5 students’ hands.

“Today, we expect teachers to use Google in the classroom and set up students for personalized learning. By using Brightspace to learn in a technologically friendly way, our hope is they’ll ultimately teach this way as well,” says Scheffler.

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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.