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Saint Leo University

How the school took advantage of an LMS search to change its learning experience

Saint Leo University provides online programs and personalized attention to its students while maintaining high academic standards.

Adult learners make up the majority of online students at Saint Leo’s, which is why they needed a system that could not only be easily learned, but was also accessible from any device. They saw Brightspace as the upgrade they were looking for.

At a glance

Cliente: Saint Leo University
Estudiantes: 14,000+


  • 40 locations across seven states
  • Offering online programs since 1998
  • 86% of students are adult learners
Saint Leo University Logo


Saint Leo University is Florida's first Catholic University and offers a liberal arts-based education for people of all faiths. Its mission is to provide an exceptional learning experience while strengthening the character of its community by creating a student-centered learning environment.


Like so many good stories, it all started with a problem. It was 2015 and Saint Leo University, a school just north of Tampa, Florida, received some unsettling news: its learning management system (LMS) was being shut down. But Jeff Borden, Chief Innovation Officer at Saint Leo, decided to look at it as an opportunity to do something better for the school’s students.

When faced with a problem, Jeff says that “with every solution that we have, we try to see if we can impact other problems.” If the school needed to replace its LMS, why not find a solution that could help tackle some of the school’s biggest challenges? Social learning, integrating learning science into every classroom, and the inclusion of mindset and grit were top of mind problems that Saint Leo desired to address.

But for Saint Leo, like many schools, the two biggest issues involved shifting from college access to college success. With enrollment, the school wanted to better connect the right student to the right program at the right time. But retention more closely aligned to the school’s core values. How could Saint Leo more quickly identify students who weren’t going to graduate? How could the school understand the realities—both inside and outside of the classroom—for its 15,000 students and help them in real time?

Saint Leo wanted to create a platform that generated meaningful, educational experiences, where rich data would help the school learn through analytics, on its own. They wanted a system that was both effective for faculty and satisfying for students. Saint Leo wanted one experience, regardless of how many platforms their vision required.

Testing the waters

Saint Leo decided to take advantage of the LMS search to create a whole learning ecosystem for the school. Jeff purposely uses the word “ecosystem” because it implies interdependence—all the parts would need to work cohesively to create Saint Leo’s vision of creating immersive, personalized, adaptive learning at scale.

In order to integrate a true “system” of learning, Saint Leo had to choose commercial products that were API rich, while also being highly data-centric. After curating the list of available tools, pilots were performed. One pilot involved Brightspace and another LMS provider in fall 2015. Following this pilot, the clear winner from both satisfaction and behavioral analysis was Brightspace. As it had already been determined to be API-rich and data-centric, Brightspace became the obvious choice for Saint Leo.

Let me upgrade you

But it wasn’t simply ease of use, technology capability, or learning analytics that attracted Saint Leo to Brightspace. The evolution of the Brightspace platform was a natural fit for Saint Leo. With the platform’s highly centralized curriculum (generated by full-time faculty and carried out by adjuncts), Saint Leo could ensure that required parts remain in the course to maintain accreditation requirements with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Saint Leo could also have the consistent look and feel to all its courses, while still allowing for flexibility in delivery by the individual section professor.

As the school deployed five external facing and nine total commercial systems, all leveraging API integrations and solving multiple problems, Saint Leo could now move forward and build “Lions SHARE”—that complete learning ecosystem that Jeff had envisioned. And with mature, cornerstone pieces to the system like Brightspace, leveraging its Valence APIs, Saint Leo was also open to other student-centric tools that would complete the vision. Jeff felt that the Brightspace APIs helped to give “a much richer, more connected experience for [its] students.”

"We were instantly upgrading from a 2002 Cadillac to a 2016 Lexus."

Jeff Borden, Chief Innovation Officer at Saint Leo University

Hitting the ground running

Jeff describes the transition to Brightspace as “instantly upgrading from a 2002 Cadillac to a 2016 Lexus,” over the previous LMS. He credits the Implementation Services team at D2L with being an integral part of ensuring that upgrade ran smoothly. In fact, those quick wins and the ease of working together allowed the Saint Leo team to focus on the other tools included in the system and ensure they would work just as effectively.

About four months before beta testing and eight months prior to full launch, Saint Leo hosted a vendor summit where all desired platform representatives came to campus. Jeff describes, “We locked them in a room and made them promise to come out only when we had one system, one experience. D2L helped lead the charge and within 24 hours had already integrated with our most promising on-ground tool, MeTL.” Saint Leo would use the MeTL technology as a digital whiteboard with powerful analytics.

During the fall, Saint Leo added in the other tools, all of which are white-labeled to students. This put the finishing touches on the infrastructure of the ecosystem that is Lions SHARE. Including Social, Courses, Whiteboard, Folio, and Productivity, Lions SHARE went live for all 15,000 students in January 2017.

For the first time, Saint Leo students can instantly connect to other students and faculty at any of the school’s locations, in 44 centers or fully online from around the world.

Almost instantly, students were impressed with the new system. Some students have posted that they never felt connected to the students outside of their courses before, actually thanking Saint Leo for the move.

Another immediate benefit was a mobile experience. Lions SHARE now has an app for the social component as well as leveraging Brightspace Pulse to give its students access to their courses, making it far more in line with how many students today want to learn. When they took courses at other schools, the students couldn’t access materials in the middle of the night or on a train. Now, Saint Leo doesn’t have to stand in the way of students looking to learn anywhere, anytime.

Finally, students are also being supported 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout the whole platform. Through email, phone, or live chat, students can get help with any of the diverse parts of Lions SHARE, allowing them to quickly resolve any issues and get back to learning. Through D2L, students’ needs are met by a single helpdesk, only receiving warm transfers if a student needs to speak with a Saint Leo representative. According to Saint Leo, with a current 95% first call resolution rate, faculty and students have never felt so supported.

Saint Leo is looking forward to the flexibility that this new ecosystem has added for both its teachers and students. Jeff has ambitious goals for Lions SHARE. He says, “We think we will be able to create a kind of learning environment that students won’t get in most other places.”

Jeff says he’s never been one of those people who says, “If we could only save one student, it’s worth it.” While that sounds nice, it doesn’t result in a particularly impactful school. Instead, Jeff notes, “what we’re doing here is savings a truckload of ‘one-students.’” And it’s all because when the school was faced with a challenge, it decided to think differently. Saint Leo connected learners to one another, to educational experiences, and ultimately to success.

Saint Leo received honorable mention at the 2017 Learning Impact Awards.

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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.