From a technical perspective, we wanted a more intuitive user interface and a set of tools that would help us manage our processes more efficiently. We also wanted faster access to data and more robust data sets, as well as more standard integrations and less need for customization.Bill Harlow, Director of Learning and Student Technology
Clearing The Path To An Enhanced Student Experience
Ultimate Medical Academy (UMA) is a non-profit allied health school that has been helping students succeed in healthcare careers for more than 25 years. With an average student age of 35, many of UMA’s learners are coming back into education to retrain or improve their career prospects—so it’s vital for the Academy to offer flexible courses that fit into busy adult lives, including the ability to learn effectively outside the classroom. That’s why UMA offers both a fully online curriculum and a blended learning option at its Clearwater campus, where students can take clinical classes in person and online courses to fit their schedule.
To deliver its online and blended learning offerings, UMA was relying on a legacy learning management system (LMS) which was starting to show its age.
Lisa McClure, Associate Vice President, Programs and Academic Affairs, explains: “From a student experience perspective, it was really important for us to provide a modern, user-friendly learning environment. We also listened to our instructors about their pain-points with our existing LMS: better communication tools and time-saving features were key requirements.”
Upgrading the existing platform would have been a major project, and UMA was also concerned about the ongoing maintenance burden of a system that required “big bang” updates every few years. Instead, the team decided to move to a solution that could continuously deliver new features without disruption for students or faculty.
From an analytics perspective, D2L Brightspace also allowed us to broaden our data sets and give teams such as learner services a better view of what the student is accomplishing every day.Richard Crowley, Associate Vice President, Learning and Student Technology
Choosing A Platform For Change
After evaluating various options, UMA decided to deploy D2L Brightspace. Unlike its old system, D2L Brightspace is a cloud platform that is maintained, managed and continuously enhanced by D2L, with regular releases of new functionality that the UMA team can opt into whenever they choose.
Richard Crowley, Associate Vice President, Learning and Student Technology, explains: “The ability to choose exactly when we want to adopt new features is fantastic. We have new groups of students starting every two to three weeks, so we can pick an opportune moment to introduce new functionality and get the right information out to our learners ahead of time.”
Looking at the big picture, Bill Harlow comments: “Moving to Brightspace gave us the opportunity to rethink how we do things. Now we have a platform and a partner that enable us to make positive changes to the learning experience.”
Transformation Without Disruption
Moving an entire online school to a new LMS can be a daunting prospect, but the UMA team built confidence through careful planning. Even though the pandemic hit just as the project started, the team was able to execute on its plans and deliver successfully.
Carrie Christoff, Director, Program Management, recalls: “The foundations for our success were set early. The team we worked with stayed with us the entire time. With D2L, we had a constant partner, so we could set up a cadence and stick to it. When we had questions or issues, D2L was there to help us. Their guidance was a big help.”
The successful implementation strategy was based around delivering the new solution in well-defined phases. Phase one aimed to provide at least the same level of functionality as the legacy LMS, while adding new features that would be easy for faculty and students to adopt.
“We didn’t want it to be too much of a heavy lift for our users, so we were careful not to add too many new features for the initial launch,” says Lisa McClure. “For example, we added instant messaging in phase one, because our users had been asking for better communication tools. On the other hand, while we’re excited to do a lot more with badging, we decided to defer that until later to keep the transition simple.”
While the team was relatively conservative introducing new user-facing features in phase one, they made bigger changes on the back end. A top priority was to remodel the organization structure in D2L Brightspace and redefine user roles to make it easier to build functionality for faculty and administrators in different departments. There was also a strong focus on integrating detailed data sets into the platform to enable smarter analytics.
Richard Crowley explains: “Those improvements meant we could get better data to our Learner Services team, for example on student participation in their courses. So today they have the data they need from day one to help students go through that journey.”
Making Change Happen
During phase one, the team put just as much emphasis on change management as on the technical implementation. They began designing a comprehensive training program more than a year ahead of the go-live date, and when the implementation was complete, they ran a pilot with a smaller number of students and instructors to refine the training before the full-scale rollout.
Carrie Christoff reflects: “Taking that time up front versus rushing into an implementation was really worthwhile, because it meant that we all had a common goal, and we used that as our guiding light. It sounds simple, but that’s the kind of thing that makes these projects work.”
Jennifer Birt, Business Analyst in the Project Management Office, adds: “The communication and transparency throughout the entire organization were important too. Everyone knew what was going on, and nobody was working in silos. It was a whole team effort throughout the entire 18 months.”
Richard Crowley agrees: “I came in nine months into the implementation, and the beauty of what I saw was how organized everything was. Stakeholders were brought in very early in the process, so they stayed on throughout the project. They were invested in the project and very enthused by the change, because we clearly communicated how it would benefit students, faculty and colleagues.”
Previously, advisors would have needed to go through the gradebook manually to see how a student was progressing,” says Bill Harlow. “Now they can see what the student has done in the classroom in near real time—it’s much more efficient and makes their outreach strategies more effective.Bill Harlow, Director of Learning and Student Technology
Delivering A Modern Student Experience
Today, D2L Brightspace gives UMA a modern, intuitive user experience that students and instructors love.
“We did a focus group recently, and the results were really positive,” says Jennifer Birt. “They said that D2L Brightspace has the same feel as using social media, which implies that we’re definitely meeting their expectations around ease-of-use.”
With the streamlined organizational structure and enhanced data sets, UMA has also been able to automate many of its administrative and reporting processes—for example, providing daily reports for student advisors in the learner services team.
UMA has now started planning for phase two. Zoaib Mirza, Associate Vice President, Curriculum, comments: “One of the big initiatives is our Care course project, which aims to redefine the learning experience for online, on-site, and corporate learners. We’re starting with surveys and a research phase, and we’ll be working with D2L to define the right features for our vision of what hybrid learning should be.”
Lisa McClure concludes: “In everything we’ve done and everything we’re planning to do, student success is central. That’s what’s going to keep students coming back to UMA to build their skills and take the next step in their careers.”