The Rochester Institute of Technology | Customer Success | D2L
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The Rochester Institute of Technology

RIT's student base created a unique need for highly accessible software

The question

Making content accessible is always important to teachers, but for Sandra Connelly, an assistant professor of Life Sciences at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), accessibility can take on different meanings. For one student, it meant literally being able to access the material. With videos being hosted on YouTube, he was unable to view them being based in China. This presented an interesting problem: while she'd been steadily moving her class material online, how would students, who have restrictions on materials, regardless of their location, be able to access everything?

At a glance

Cliente: The Rochester Institute of Technology
Industria: Education

The Story

  • An existing solution to a new problem
  • A video for every need
  • There when you need it

Defining accessibility

Other students may be able to view the videos, but they need a different kind of accessibility. Connelly’s class, General Biology, tends to attract a number of students that require an extra bit of academic support. In a class with 100 students, 30 were deaf or hard of hearing, 16 were registered as requiring academic support, while another 35 self-identified as having learning difficulties, leaving 19 “unaided” learners. More generally, there’s an urgent need, she says, to increase accessibility of science classes. And while there are plenty of digital teaching tools that help cast a wider net, they haven’t been used to the maximum benefit, particularly in STEM fields. “Students at RIT today are not the same students RIT attracted 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago,” she says. “So we’ve had to shift gears to figure out how to engage these students and use technology to their benefits.”

An existing solution to a new problem

While she’s used Brightspace for years, last year she used the platform to create a more engaging, single point of reference class for her online students. The transition has been more than just a learning experience for Connelly’s students, she says. She herself has learned plenty along the way.
Her solution was to create short (five- to seven-minute) lecture videos, each hyper-focused on a single topic – 200 of them in fact.

The videos are multi-frame split between her presentation slides and an American Sign Language interpreter, while she delivers the mini lectures (all closed-captioned). After each video, students are given critical thinking questions to reinforce the material they just heard and encourage them to apply their learnings to problems outside biology (such as, “why might genetic testing alter the health insurance industry?”).

Students were able to turn off both the ASL interpreter and closed captions, however, Connelly quickly realized that the interpreter not only helped benefit the deaf and hard-of-hearing students, but also the rest of the class.

Working with an ASL interpreter forces Connelly to slow down in her speech and ensure each of her lessons are well-organized so they can be more easily translated. What’s more, students started watching the videos looking for visual cues in the sign language, which helped reinforce topics of conversation or lessons.

The videos also allow students to go back and re-watch the material at any time, which not only creates a more available learning environment, it’s been a huge time saver for Connelly. “It gives students access to a ‘virtual me.’”

Now, when her students want to ask her a question, she’s able to simply point them to the resources online to have it answered (and since each video is so short, they aren’t forced to sit through an entire hour-long lecture just to get their particular query). And for those who continue to struggle, using background data, she’s able to verify that they did indeed watch the material and participate in quizzes and discussions.

“Now, I don’t have to spend time walking 400 students through the material individually,” she says.

woman signing to phone

A video for every need

This video-based approach also caters to a number of different learning styles, she adds – visual learners get cues from the ASL interpreter and captioning, while audio learners can sit back and watch, and those who require lots of repetition can watch the videos multiple times – which makes the class more accessible and inclusive for her variety of students without “dumbing it down.”

Publishers’ material and quizzes are also housed on the platform, with grading automatically linked to the gradebook (a huge time-saver, Connelly says) and this year she ran all of her exams through Brightspace, creating the true one-stop spot for learning that her students were asking for.

"Brightspace is available when it says it’s going to be. If students are going to work on something at 3 a.m., there’s no reason it’s not going to be available to them."

Sandra Connelly, assistant professor of Life Sciences at the Rochester Institute of Technology

There when you need it

What’s more, the Brightspace platform offers her peace of mind: “The system is unlikely to go down,” she says, “When I’ve used other websites and structure tools, more frequently than I wanted, the material wouldn’t be available. That was nothing I or IT could control. If I had an assignment that wasn’t up for a weekend, I had to extend those deadlines to deal with it.”

“Brightspace is available when it says it’s going to be,” she says. “If students are going to work on something at 3 a.m., there’s no reason it’s not going to be available to them.”

Is it working? Her class is spending 60% more time with the material than they did in previous years, and most impressively there was a 10% increase in average class grades over previous years (not to mention that her classes have almost doubled in size as word spread). Connelly says, “You bet it is working.”

Brightspace Excellence Award winner Sandra Connelly with D2L CEO John Baker
Brightspace Excellence Award winner Sandra Connelly with D2L CEO John Baker


This case was a Brightspace Excellence Accessibility Award Winner for 2016.

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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.