Helping Solve Core Institutional Challenges Through Experience in Academia

Blog Post created by manurivl on Mar 27, 2019

Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Apr 11, 2018


A qualified consultant team and a strong strategy can make a significant difference for universities looking to develop world-class digital learning environments, focused on driving student results. Meet five members of Blackboard’s Global Consulting Team and learn how their experiences, both past and present, enable them to assist educational institutions and organizations to experience outstanding results.

Meet the Interviewees  

Adrian Powell, Director, International Platform Services at Blackboard Inc.

Chad Kainz, Former Principal Strategist, Strategy & Transformation Services at Blackboard Inc.

Louise Thorpe, Head of Consulting for Europe, Russia, Middle East, and Africa at Blackboard Inc.

Nicole Wall, Director of Consulting Services at Blackboard Inc.

Ruth Newberry, SeniorConsulting Specialist, Implementation Team at Blackboard Inc.


Before joining Blackboard, what universities did you serve and what was your role? How long did you work in the university setting?


Adrian Powell: I worked for 25 years at the University of Sheffield, a Russell Group institution in the United Kingdom (UK). The first 13 years were spent as a member of the faculty in the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, focusing on the research and teaching of semiconductor devices. However, as my interest in learning and teaching grew, I chose a change in career path and spent the following 12 years in the university’s central administration, building and leading the learning and teaching development team responsible for the introduction of learning technologies across the institution.


Chad Kainz:  Immediately before joining Blackboard, I concurrently held two roles at the University of Chicago, both as assistant chief information technology officer (Assistant CIO) and executive director for Campus & Academic Services. My career spanned 18 years at the university, where I started as a data visualization & multimedia specialist within the High-Performance Computing group.  I was then promoted to manager of Multimedia Technologies & Services a few years later, became director of Instructional Technology, and was promoted to senior director of Academic Technologies. I then became assistant CIO and executive director. 


Louise Thorpe: Prior to joining Blackboard, I spent five years as Head of Academic Innovation at Sheffield Hallam University, a large metropolitan institution in the United Kingdom. Within this role, I had institutional responsibility for technology-enhanced learning, personalization of learning, new and emerging learning technologies, and academic staff and student digital literacy. Prior to that, I was Head of Learning and Teaching Strategy and Enhancement at the University of Sheffield, a research-intensive institution, where I led the development of the institution’s Learning and Teaching Strategy, e-learning Strategy, and the former Office for Fair Access Agreement, as well as managing the institutional Learning Enhancement Agenda. Before that, I managed one of the earliest institution-wide Blackboard implementations in the UK, again at Sheffield Hallam. Over my 15 years in UK Higher Education, I also taught at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, initially in business communication and finance, and latterly, focusing on higher education and learning technologies.


Nicole Wall:  I have worked in the Australian University sector for over eight years. At Griffith University I have worked as a lecturer and as the blended learning advisor, at Open Universities Australia as a manager of quality assurance, and at a number of other institutions as a sessions academic. I have served in various roles in universities over more than eight years, including lecturing in Multimedia and Digital Design, as manager of Quality Assurance at Open Universities Australia, and as blended learning manager for Griffith University. I was lecturing and convening courses for over eight years and still provided guest lectures at Griffith University. My roles have covered quantitative and qualitative approaches to using and supporting Blackboard Learn across Higher Education, lecturing undergraduate and postgraduate courses, instructional and curriculum design & management, academic staff development and training on technology-nhanced learning, and managing development and educational design staff.


Ruth Newberry: When I first started at Duquesne University, I was fortunate enough to connect with individuals in the Division of Continuing Education who were creating a very innovative program in the early 1990s, directed specifically at working adult students. I was asked to join the team, which led to 11 years of teaching the University’s core English courses, special topics, and business writing in an award-winning and innovative eight-week program.  This program was one of the very early Professional Studies programs. The 1990s were an exciting time to be teaching as technology was beginning to reshape teaching and learning, and LMSs were starting to appear. As an instructor, I became very interested in how technology could help students and created an online Teaching and Learning Center for the program and  a mentoring program with the program's advising team.  My use of technology led in 2000 to becoming an educational computing consultant, and then the director of Educational Technology from 2003 – 2014.  As director, I developed a campus-wide training program that expanded the use of Blackboard from 25% to 85% adoption and helped programs and the University with student performance assessment. With my team of system admins, instructional designers, and media technologists, we supported the campus's use of various technologies for teaching and learning, developed a technology sustainability process, introduced an early alert system to support retention and streamlined purchasing requests.


What made you join Blackboard?

A.P: I decided I would like to apply the experience I had gained from implementing an institution-wide learning management system and driving its adoption by faculty and students to a larger audience. Blackboard gave me the opportunity to apply and develop my knowledge in the use of learning technologies to a much broader range of institutions across the globe.


C.K: Although I had a great position at one of the world’s leading research universities, I found myself in a situation where I was reinventing what I had already reinvented several times before. I truly felt that the university needed a different perspective on how to support its faculty and students. I wasn’t actively looking; I was looking for positions for a friend of mine who was seeking work in higher education, and I found a posting for a solutions director within consulting at Blackboard. I had introduced Blackboard (CourseInfo) at the University of Chicago in 1999 and depended on the learning platform for all digital learning on campus, so I was very familiar with the company and its services. The position description caught my eye as it gave me a chance to work with and advance the vision of more than one institution. I applied through the front door and the rest is history. 


L.T: At Sheffield Hallam, I really enjoyed the process of innovation and change, and I loved seeing the impact of my team’s efforts on students’ experiences and success. I learned a lot about what worked well and what didn’t in the early days of institution-wide learning technology adoption, through the rise of web 2.0 and social media, to the drive for systemic approaches. Joining Blackboard gave me the opportunity to share these lessons learned with other institutions, while at the same time learning about new contexts and challenges across different countries and different educational sectors.


N.W: I joined Blackboard as a consultant for our Analytics platforms. I had spent the years previously focusing on Learning Analytics and trying to use data to help drive the professional development of Academics in the Science Faculty at Griffith. At the time, learning analytics was a very immature discipline, and Blackboard was leading the way in providing access to data to inform learning and teaching and retention initiatives. In my mind, Blackboard was (and still is) a driving force in not just individual technologies, but also their application in an educational context. Joining the Blackboard team meant I could expand my experiences and work at a global level to contribute to the success of education even further.


R.N: While my position was moving into supporting primarily our online programs, the University was not clear on its direction and I needed a change.  I had been working with Blackboard representatives since 2000 and always found them very professional, so I reached out and when a position in the assessment field opened up, I decided to join.


How do you feel your previous experience influences your current role?


A.P: My experience gained as a member of the faculty and administration influence much of what I do at Blackboard, particularly in my consulting interactions with clients, where it quickly allows us to move past the ‘why should we listen to you?’ phase of the discussion.


C.K: When I started, I was also leaving a major humanities-focused technology-planning project, where I was a co-principal investigator and co-director with the University of California Berkeley. It engaged over 100 different colleges and universities, organizations and companies worldwide, and provided me with the opportunity to develop my community-focused leadership skills, as we needed to tackle difficult problems across multiple institutions and countries by applying different lenses to issues—process, academic, technology, cultural, financial, and so forth. I had also worked as a learning spaces subject matter expert and academic technology consultant on the side for well over a decade, and participated in IEEE learning technology standards development, all of which required critical thinking, deep listening, and interpersonal engagement skills. Additionally, the University of Chicago is one of a handful of institutions that crosses different institutional and academic cultures. It is a private liberal arts undergraduate institution and a global path-breaking research university. Working in that environment provided me with a perspective on institutional culture, investment, and the role of technology that I would have spent a lifetime gaining from multiple places. As a result, I anticipate the unexpected, complex, and seemingly unattainable in all of my work because that is, quite frankly, the norm at the University of Chicago. 


L.T: During my time in higher education, I spent a lot of time researching students’ expectations and experiences of learning technology within their learning experience. This gave me, and my team, really valuable insights into the true benefits of learning technology to the learners, and to how some pedagogical use cases work better than others. I believe this has the biggest influence on my current role. The impact for students is always at the front of my mind when I work with institutions now. I want the students to feel the value of learning technology to their own success and I want to make it as easy as possible for the institution and its faculty to support that success. My experience enables me to share approaches and characteristics of success with institutions to help them avoid pitfalls and to be successful.


N.W: At the end of the day, my ultimate goal is to support institutions in their drive for student success. My previous experiences at universities have meant I have the theoretical and educational background to understand the intrinsic nature of instructional and educational technologies, the technical ability to master technology, as well as the ability to work with the academic community to find practical solutions. Understanding the culture of universities and what it is like to be an academic is hugely valuable and means I can relate first hand to their experiences. 


R.N: Everything I did at the university involved supporting faculty and programs with teaching and learning.  My task was to introduce, especially for online programs, teaching strategies to improve student engagement and learning through technology, quality course design, and getting information out of Blackboard for accreditations. Before I even came to the university, I was a high school teacher and trained in curriculum development and assessment. I brought a lot of these best practices in active learning and assignment design for higher-level thinking to nine schools at Duquesne. I was involved in two of our Middle States self-studies and became a Middle State team reviewer. Additionally, my previous position allowed me the opportunity to interact with academic leadership, with deans and department chairs and with faculty to help them meet their teaching and learning technology needs. In my job now, I am meeting with provosts, deans, chairs, faculty, and assessment directors to help them assess student performance and program quality. Understanding the academic environment, its internal structures, culture, politics, budgeting processes, teaching and learning environment, and faculty attitudes is critical to my current position.


What were some interesting discoveries that you’ve made by coming to the other side and working as a partner to academic institutions? 


A.P:There is a lot of commonality in the issues and challenges faced by institutions across the world, yet every institution is different. Clients often emphasize how their institution is very different from all the others and then promptly ask for details of what other institutions are doing as they might like to do the same. In reality, the issues may be similar (e. g., faculty never have enough time to develop their skills), but the solution needs to accommodate their local behaviors, organizational structure, and culture. The one discovery that stands out for me came from a discussion with a group of students at a rural African university. I asked them what they would like to see from the introduction of an LMS. They responded with excitement saying that, if they could get the course handouts online, it would have a massive impact on their educational experience. After listening to them describe how they currently access resources, I understood their excitement. A few weeks later, I heard a similar request from a group of students at a leading UK institution. Of course, once we enable the simple processes to be done well, it raises the expectations of users and they immediately come back with more requirements. But that is what makes working for Blackboard interesting.


C.K: One of my first discoveries was how passionate everyone at Blackboard is about education. I didn’t expect that. As a decision-making and budget-holding client, I saw the contracts and business sides of a partner/vendor relationship a lot. But once you peel back that layer, Blackboard and many of the educational technology companies in the market have a deep passion for learning and teaching. And more importantly, you don’t have to have an academic background to have that passion. Even if one has never worked at a university, people care about learning. It permeates everything. 


L.T: Often institutions know what they want to achieve, but they do not know how, or at least, where to start. When I first joined Blackboard, seven years ago, I was surprised by how many institutions were still in the early stages of technology adoption and were not thinking holistically about how to really embed technology into the teaching and learning experience. Their focus was still on supporting early adopters to apply technology rather than creating the right institutional conditions for all faculty to be successful with technology. Over time, I have seen a growing emphasis on systemic deployment—ensuring that the use of technology is reflected in institutional policies and quality assurance criteria, encouraging faculty to developing their digital learning and teaching capabilities, developing sustainable operational processes and, of course, integrating student-impacting technologies to maximize their value. Another interesting discovery I made partnering with client institutions was how you quickly become a part of their team. You share their challenges, you learn their dynamics and you try to add value wherever you can to accelerate their progress. Whether it is an intensive engagement or involvement over an extended period, you feel much more emotionally connected to the people and invested in their goals than I expected. Of course, I expected to share my experiences and expertise as I had seen many Blackboard Consultants do when I was in higher education, but I did not anticipate just how much their success, and our shared experiences, would mean to me.


N.W: I think the biggest change for me was the change in pace and quick decision making that we make at Blackboard. As an academic, I was largely conditioned to want to evaluate, review and find evidence to support things I was working on before making firm decisions. Blackboard has given me the opportunity to act on my instincts and take greater risks. I discovered an agile culture where we are encouraged to be nimble and flexible. At Blackboard, we continuously 'focus and flare' our thoughts—diving into the details and practicalities and then also stepping back to think outside the box and be innovative.


R.N: From my previous work with Blackboard consultants, I knew they cared deeply about education, and that was a key consideration for me when joining. What I think was so different for me was being a remote worker. Moving away from face-to-face interactions, working out of my home and not seeing people was the hardest part; It was a huge adjustment for me. 


How does your role help to increase learner engagement at the universities you serve?


A.P: I lead the global Educational Consulting Services Team with members working with institutions in every region. We provide a portfolio of services around academic technology planning (new clients and existing clients wishing to move to the next stage of their development), user training (awareness of how our platforms can be applied), staff augmentation, professional development, course design, and development and quality assurance. Members of the team will be working both face-to-face and remotely with educators and administrators at a range of global institutions every working day (which includes Sunday in some regions), all with a single purpose in mind: how do we impact the learning experience of the student? Often this translates to ‘how do we get faculty to engage with the learning technologies?’ as without them the students have nothing to engage with.


C.K: Much of my work involves connecting an institution’s or organization’s vision for learning and teaching with the capabilities and investments they’ve made over time. Colleges and universities exist within an ecosystem of technologies and services of their own design and choosing. And while there was a time when process requirements superseded the needs of people, today that’s no longer the case. We’re living in a world where much of what we accomplish is enabled by technology, not dictated by it. As such, I apply a ‘people first, technology second’ philosophy to all that I do. Engaging learners is much more than providing the right capability at the right time; It is also about connecting capability with culture to provide a meaningful and purposeful result. When I worked with George Mason University on the Student Experience Redesign Project, it was all ‘people first.’ Transforming the student experience at an institutional level alters the university’s culture and, as a result, services will evolve, processes will change, and technology expectations will shift. So, when I say people first, technology second, it is more about being human-centered in thinking and design. If you understand the people, you will define appropriate and innovative ways to engage learners and educators alike. 


L.T: A significant part of my role is to determine which consulting activities across Blackboard’s broad portfolio can be applied to support an institution’s strategic goals, whether those goals relate to student success, student retention, inclusivity, educator empowerment or organizational effectiveness. I believe how learners engage with technology is fundamental to their progression and ultimately their success. My role is to work with institutions to understand how to create the right organizational conditions to support learner engagement, for example, culture, policy, processes, people and technology, and then how to create the right academic pathways for faculty to develop their skills and understand how to embed engaging learning activities within the curriculum.


N.W: My role in consulting allows me to be on the ground working directly with executive, administrators, trainers, and academics. I help these individuals find solutions to wicked problems. As consultants, we take our Blackboard solutions and ensure that they are tailored to the individual institution and associated culture. This means the institutions can lead with the pedagogy and can drive learner engagement rather than having to force students learning to follow the technology.


R.N: Assessment can lead to powerful insights about learner engagement; where are students struggling, where are they being challenged, and where are they succeeding? The processes for assessing student learning can help programs and faculty make significant changes in instruction, course design, course sequencing, curricular decisions, support services, professional development, use of technologies, and other aspects of the student's learning experience that lead to improvements in learner engagement. Assessment asks programs and faculty to examine objectively what they do in teaching, why they do what they do, and how they can improve so students can be more successful.


Can you share with us some results from your work with clients that have positively impacted learner engagement?


A.P: One personal example would be a prestigious Italian university where I had spent three days working onsite with them to develop an implementation plan for their LMS. At the end of the three days, the client executive sponsor said he had never seen such cohesive working from the group of stakeholders drawn from across the institution. When I returned three months later, they were proud to demonstrate how they were adopting the recommendations resulting from our consulting engagement, one of which was to encourage student engagement with the project. They had run a competition for students to suggest the name for their institutional environment, in which over 70% of students had voted on a shortlist of names. In just a matter of a few weeks, everyone at the institution was aware that their institution was embarking on an initiative to provide them with access to the best learning technologies available, and that those technologies were being delivered by Blackboard.


C.K: Because much of my work is strategic and long-term in nature, results often take years to unfold.  A great example is the transformation that’s currently underway as a result of our initial work at George Mason University. Sometimes little things provide a glimpse into the change that is underway to improve learner engagement. During a student focus group at a different university a few years ago, one of the participants declared that “being a student here [at this university] was like being on an Easter egg hunt.” Students didn’t know where to go, what do to, or how they should engage with the learning experience that was defined for them. This past year I have learned that within strategic planning efforts of that institution, they are actively working to solve the ‘Easter egg problem.’ The student’s comment, which was expressed within the context of our work, is having a meaningful lasting effect that is driving change years later. 


L.T: One example that stands out is a project that I was involved in with a Danish institution. This research-intensive institution had previously taken a bottom-up approach to technology adoption and, over time, whilst there were pockets of success, it had led to an inconsistent student experience and low levels of engagement. Our involvement, at least on the face of it, was to support them moving from 7 LMSs to just a single institution-wide LMS. Beyond the technology, the project was also to harmonize the administrative processes and support structures, to provide an experience that met students’ expectations of technology, and to give academics the opportunity to rethink their curriculum and enhance creativity. We focused initially on getting the foundations right—providing a learning experience that was robust, consistent, and engaging for students across all disciplines. From there, we moved to techniques to support curriculum innovation and specifically to encourage active learning. Learner engagement with the technology grew rapidly in the first 12 months of the new approach as the students recognized the value of it to their success. As a result of greater learner engagement, this institution saw increased pass rates from 50% to 80% across key courses, improved grade point averages from C to B and reached a three-fold uplift in student satisfaction scores. It was so popular with students that two students even posted a song about it on YouTube!


N.W: Particularly in our Analytics division, we have been able to build student facing dashboards about their behaviors and successes to drive students' motivations and support their engagement.  These reports are not just about comparing one student to another, but helping students identify areas where they should focus, for instance highlighting content items that their peers are looking at that week that they might have missed or showing students what success looks like and what patterns high achieving students previously had in the course. We have received great feedback from students who, to this day, use data on a daily basis to inform their behaviors. 


R.N: It’s the results we get back from the assessment process that help us then be able to dig deeper into how we can provide students with a better learning experience. Depending upon what the assessment results are, programs always have options for action. For instance, a client's science program assessed the results of a quiz given every semester on key learning outcomes as part of their program's review. The results revealed that students were struggling with a particular question.  As the program dug deeper to find out why students were not performing well on this question, they determined that the course content and activities in the course focused on recognition instead of functionality and application of concepts, critical skills students need to be successful in their next classes.  In this case, changing course activities and instructional approaches led to significant improvements in learner engagement. Whether it is looking at key exams or capstone projects for how well students are meeting student learning expectations, the practice of assessment helps programs identify where they can improve and where they are successful in the design and delivery of their curriculum for student learning success.


What are the biggest obstacles to learner engagement? Does this vary by  culture  and  country?


A.P: As technologies improve, there is an expectation that it will always be available from any device of the users’ choosing, and that it will be intuitive for that user to navigate their way through the environment. Our platforms have come a long way in meeting these expectations, but ultimately, the user experience is not only defined by the technology, but by the people who leverage that technology. One of our biggest obstacles is to ensure the users of our technology are aware of the platform capabilities and equipped with the knowledge and skills to exploit the tools Blackboard provides. Learning technologies is really a people business. Looking across the global landscape, there are many different cultures that need to be recognized if we are to become a true partner. However, most institutions have similar requirements and face the same challenges regardless of the country in which they are based. For example, they all simply expect the platform to be stable and robust. They all recognize that they need to engage learners and that the first step is to engage faculty (who simply do not have enough time to do this ‘extra’ work). Local language support is always going to be a challenge for us, especially if we are to grow in certain international markets. Particularly in our more mature markets, we need our clients to recognize their need to adapt to the changing needs of students, employers, and society in general to then continually challenge Blackboard to be their best partner possible.


C.K: Culture tends to be a challenge. Now, when I mention culture, to some degree I am referring to differences in societal norms across the world. However, I see those as factors that need to be considered as a baseline when framing learner engagement. Where I tend to focus is more on the different cultures that exist within institutions—the faculty culture, the student culture, the staff culture, etc. They are intertwined and at odds with one another, which contributes to the distinctiveness of academic institutions worldwide. They create opportunities as much as obstacles. Aside from the obvious ones, there are other cultures that need to be considered and are often overlooked or taken for granted, such as the technology culture of the institution; student and faculty life at an engineering-focused university will likely be very different from that of a community college. The same goes for the social culture, digital and/or physical, as well as the different academic cultures that coexist within a university. In many cases, the campus ‘day’ culture is very different from the ‘night’ culture and far removed from the ‘weekend’ or ‘online’ cultures. The culture of the library and the perception of studying can have a profound effect on learner engagement. Getting institutions to recognize coexistence of the myriad cultures within their institutions and helping them embrace the diversity of experiences to drive engagement tends to be a challenge. 


L.T: One of the biggest obstacles I see to learner engagement is educator empowerment. Academics are typically cautious about making changes to their tried and tested approaches that have served them well in the past and there is a reluctance to risk trying something new. When we ask faculty to consider changing their curriculum, empathy is really important. We need to understand what that means for them individually and to provide a context that overcomes their obstacles and enables them to be successful. This includes providing examples of the benefits to them and their students, appropriate and accessible support, and the time to experiment. I believe I have seen the strongest examples of learner engagement where faculty have access to robust support and professional development to develop their digital teaching and learning capabilities and have been able to internalize benefits of their preferred pedagogical use cases. I think this obstacle exists across most cultures or countries, but the reason behind the reluctance to change does vary, whether that relates to the mission and priorities of the institution or the cultural context of higher education within a particular society. Simply put, we want everyone involved in the learning experience wherever they are in the world—be they students, faculty or staff—to be engaged and empowered, and it is our goal to support that wherever we are able.


N.W: Culture plays a huge role in learner engagement. How we drive engagement in Asia (where retention is largely not a problem) is incredibly different to Australia, for instance. In China, we focus on Mobile delivery to drive engagement. It is moving into a 'mobile only' culture, where students do everything through their mobile device, and WeChat plays a huge role in influencing their engagement. We are trying to adapt to their needs. In Australia, on the other hand, learner engagement is really being driven by changes in student behaviors, whereby they require more flexible on-demand learning whilst also craving the social aspect of the university that it traditionally provides. Finding that balance and also transforming service delivery models means that it can be hard to support students within the existing resources and budget constraints.


R.N: Yes, the social-cultural-historical perspective from which students, faculty, and institutions come to education can influence learner engagement. For instance, not too long ago it was considered a radical move in higher education to move away from the lecture method to more active learning, or from the classroom to online and hybrid modalities of teaching. Not only did faculty have to rethink their instructional approach, but students also had to adapt to new methods of instruction and become more responsible for their learning. Both faculty and students needed some coaching and preparation for these new instructional methods, such as active learning and problem-based learning that replaced or supplemented the more passive lecture method. Awareness of these national, regional, and institutional attitudes help us recognize diversity in our classrooms, capitalize on this diversity, as well as ensure that we design program curriculums, learning activities and instructional approaches, and support services that will help increase the many levels of "engagement" that exist in the today classroom.