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Leveraging Intensive Teamwork Far Beyond the LMS Migration

A Q&A with Helen Chu

What can be gained from the immense effort put forth in an LMS migration? It can be far greater than a well-functioning LMS. At the University of Oregon, IT leaders are still drawing on the team spirit, effective policies, and efficient procedures they originally mustered in a challenging LMS migration completed two years ago.

In a compressed timeframe — six months — the university migrated from Blackboard Learn 9.1 to Canvas. They worked from Spring quarter 2015 through Summer quarter 2015, with early adopters up and running that spring and everyone else up by the beginning of Fall quarter. But IT leaders say that the collaborative strategies they developed to succeed in the migration will last well into the future. Here, CT talks with Helen Chu, associate dean of libraries and chief academic technology officer, to find out why.

"We will be able to leverage our team to create — quickly and effectively — systems and services that will get that big 'win' for us and for our stakeholders and partners on campus." — Helen Chu

Mary Grush: What originally initiated your LMS migration at the University of Oregon?

Helen Chu: There's a really simple answer to that. Our Blackboard license was due to expire in 2015. So about two years before that, we began a review process.

We had been a Blackboard shop since way back in 1999, when my predecessor saw its potential and started experimenting, with just a handful of faculty. Obviously our use of the LMS grew tremendously from that time on, but the market also changed, and having the license come up for renewal was a great opportunity, not just to ascertain what solutions were available to us, but to look at our own needs and assess which of our needs we were meeting well — or not so well.

Grush: What was the timeline?

Chu: The timeline is a very interesting piece of our migration. Many universities give themselves two years to migrate from one LMS to another — that's after they have gone through the selection process and have concluded the procurement. In our case, we had about two and a half years total to accomplish both the selection and the migration processes.

Grush: Was the overall process simple, then?

Chu: No. The selection process was crucial and involved both the RFP and a request for information so that we could understand the market as well as our own needs. The RFP process incorporated a very extensive and inclusive pilot process. We did two sets of pilots as well as additional testing and a lot of assessment. We did multiple rounds of pre- and post-surveys for our pilots. And we did several focus groups and a lot of data analysis.

So, our selection process, along with procurement, took quite a lot of time: most of two years. And it was necessary and beneficial to invest that amount of time in the selection. Unfortunately that meant that our implementation would be very short — six months — and very intense. But overall, the way we did things paid us some real dividends in the end.

Grush: Now let's discuss the migration. Many institutions can take two years to migrate. Why do LMS migrations still take so long?

Chu: The institutions that allocate about two years do that to allow their faculty plenty of time to migrate their courses. It's not just about moving content from one system to another — it's really redeveloping your course. The way a given feature works, from one system to another, might be sufficiently different to change the way people would interact with materials, assessments, or each other. And that's very understandable.

Grush: But it didn't take the University of Oregon that long…

Chu: True. We did something very different. As I said, we condensed our migration period to six months to meet our original completion target of September 2015. We really had only one fully operational quarter to migrate to our new LMS. One of the reasons we did that was that our university senate brought up the question of whether there would be an academic impact on our students, who might have to use multiple systems, not just for the pilot period but for some period of time during the actual migration. And, licensing and supporting more than one system can drive up the cost of a migration tremendously.

Finally, during the six months we had, we migrated 24,500 students, about 4,000 instructors, and three years' worth of content from 28,000 courses. We offered one or two workshops a day for about five months (totaling at least 2,000 hours of contact), and in addition we worked one-on-one with faculty at an average of about two hours each.

Grush: How did your IT staff and all the faculty involved hold up under the time constraints you had?

Well I'd like to take a moment to sing the praises of everyone who participated. We knew going in that it was going to be challenging. But we pulled out all the stops and did super-high-touch training, communicated frequently and regularly with our faculty, and aimed for a very positive output from the very short implementation timeframe. Our faculty never complained. Out of the 4,000 instructors I got one real complaint, from an instructor who was simply overwhelmed. And it's also notable that the number of courses published every term has been maintained at a consistent 20 percent rise over the number originally implemented — one of the clearest metrics we have of success.

Grush: What were a couple of the really big wins from your implementation?

Chu: There was one thing our faculty did that had lasting academic impact: During our pilot, students had indicated that it was especially helpful, when faculty had designed their online courses in a way that took advantage of the "modules" feature in Canvas — to match up to their syllabi. This made it much easier for students to find the materials they needed to focus on during a given week.

Many of the faculty designed their courses to take advantage of this and other technological and pedagogical improvements — rather than just moving everything over and dumping it in willy-nilly.

Another impressive thing came about during our rather truncated implementation period: It was the amazing job that our IT staff did. The work schedule was extremely challenging, but the payoff was that we ended up working together better than we ever might have expected. Through our team spirit, we implemented many policies and procedures that made it infinitely more efficient to work together as a team. These improvements spanned far wider ground than the LMS.

For example, this past spring we were asked to implement an online course project in an extremely short timeframe. But we were able to jump into high gear and draw on all our best practices — our ways of working together and communicating that we had honed during the LMS implementation. We were able to design and deliver a brand new workshop quickly. We created a self-service podcast studio, and we registered with Quality Matters and implemented that framework including new pilot technology systems for video production, streaming, and captioning. We were able to do all this within about a month and a half! — And, this was all on top of our regular operations.

I think so much of this is understanding where we are, setting our expectations well, and realizing that in a short amount of time we really can pull off something pretty incredible.

Grush: Clearly great benefits have stemmed from the LMS implementation teamwork. Do you have other examples?

Chu: Certainly. One important initiative our team supported was the creation of a new Teaching Academy on campus in the fall of 2016: It is an invitation-only group that meets once per term to explore the premise that teaching at the University of Oregon is engaged, inclusive, and research-led. Teaching award winners, members of the Working Group on Active Teaching and Learning, and faculty and graduate instructors who complete the National Academies Summer Institute on Scientific Teaching are invited to join the Teaching Academy, which is a collaborative partnership among the Office of the Provost and Academic Affairs, the UO Libraries, the Division of Undergraduate Studies, the Science Literacy Program, and the Teaching Engagement Program.

Within the academy are multiple faculty learning communities, including one for active teaching and learning, where faculty commit to redesign their courses (to integrate more active teaching and learning methods). This helps LMS faculty to take advantage of both physical and virtual spaces, and they learn to use the LMS in a more sophisticated fashion, led by sound pedagogical and evidence-based practices. Ultimately the classroom experience benefits, with the potential for much more interesting group work.

Working on the goal of creating a culture of active teaching and learning on campus is a great opportunity for us in libraries and IT to leverage our experience from the LMS implementation. And, it is something that has been much less daunting for us than it might have been without our foundation of collaboration and teamwork.

Still another example is in the area of LMS support: We have the option to contract with Instructure and outsource LMS support for students and faculty 24/7. But we chose not to — attractive as it was. We made a very conscious effort to connect personally with our instructors and students, because that is what we are here for. Education is primarily a people business, not a technical one. It's absolutely about people and relationships. We wanted to take the opportunity to get something bigger out of our direct involvement with faculty and students. It's really about establishing the relationships that empower us as a team to understand who we serve and truly help people going forward. That's how we leverage the transformative power of technology in the service of teaching and learning.

Grush: Do you think you will be able to leverage your culture and experience of teamwork far into the future?

Chu: Definitely. In the future, there will be projects — new things that we will need to step up to. I think we have learned how to view these things as excellent opportunities: We will be able to leverage our team to create — quickly and effectively — systems and services that will get that big 'win' for us and for our stakeholders and partners on campus.

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