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Getting 100 Percent LMS Buy-in from Faculty

These two institutions faced the same goal — convincing all their instructors to use the learning management system. Here's what's working.

When the University of Arkansas System entered into a contract with Blackboard last year, any system institution that wanted to participate could do so to leverage its buying power. More importantly, however, for one year any of the universities and colleges in the system could access the full range of products from the company and get help with training, deployment and consulting.

This was an opportunity 6,600-student U Arkansas Fort Smith (UAFS) didn't want to miss. Newly appointed Associate Provost for Academic Affairs Margaret Tanner was assigned the job of exploiting the new agreement. Particular interests: Blackboard's Outcomes Assessment, Analytics for Learn and Collaborate, "things we never had before," she said. To make those tools "operational to the full extent" for the campus as a whole, however, required every class to have its data in Blackboard. Thus was born the "100 percent" faculty buy-in assignment.

Meanwhile, Goodwin College, a Connecticut-based not-for-profit private school with 3,750 students, was on its own mission to achieve 100 percent LMS buy-in among its 89 full-time and 225 adjunct instructors — but for different reasons. There, Lisa Manley, the new director of Online Studies and the Center of Teaching Excellence as well as a faculty member, had discovered a few crossed wires at her institution.

The only people required to use Blackboard were those delivering online courses. Others were handing in student grades "willy-nilly." All the grades needed to be posted into Jenzabar SONIS, the student information system, but they might arrive in the form of spreadsheet data, via Blackboard data or inserted directly into SONIS. However, when a student would dispute a grade, all the college had to work with was the final grade itself and none of the particular details of the student's assignments. Discrepancies proliferated: Points were used vs. percentages, assessments weren't linked to the right categories, grade posting wasn't done in a timely manner and gradebooks weren't being backed up. That drove students crazy.

Then, two student and faculty surveys done between fall 2015 and spring 2016 as well as an analysis of Blackboard usage data exposed a few somewhat shocking surprises. A biggie: For some courses, it appeared there was a lag between the beginning of the semester and when students heard from their instructors. In some cases faculty took time to prepare for the course but failed to interact during the first week of an online class.

During a time when retention had become a major part of the college's five-year growth plan, those problems became "a huge issue," Manley said. She emphasized that instructors may have been communicating with students outside of the LMS — by e-mail or some other mechanism — but there was no evidence of the interactions.

That was when Goodwin administration dropped the hammer: Blackboard would be used in all classes, online and face-to-face. While gradebook usage was the "big push," according to Manley, faculty were also encouraged to post their syllabi and announcements on the LMS.

Training Starts the Transformation

While both institutions wanted to land at the same place and came up with similar tactics for achieving their goals, they approached the overall solution with unique perspectives. The use of the LMS Gradebook was mandated by administration at Goodwin. While that could have been tried at UAFS as well (and there were conversations about doing so), Tanner said, "I'd much rather have faculty willingly use a tool because they believe it's helpful, because it's providing some level of service or value to them in their class."

The big tell: It's all about the training.

Over the course of just a few months, Goodwin's instructional design team came up with an asynchronous environment in which to host nine lessons for instructors in three modes: video, video transcript or PDF. Lessons covered the basics: working with the grade center, creating assignments, deploying tests, setting up weekly units, creating announcements and posting a syllabus. If the instructor has any experience with Blackboard, it'll take about three hours to go through the training, and a little longer if not, Manley said.

Initially, to move from one unit to the next, the instructor had to pass a five-question quiz. The original pass rate was set at 100 percent, but "that didn't go over too well," recalled Manley. "During one of our faculty senate meetings, they were giving me their input on the initial start of this and were squawking about the 100 percent, [saying that] nobody's perfect." She offered up an 80 percent pass rate, which they found acceptable.

When the training was done, a screen filled with confetti, a certificate of completion was printed out and the Center of Teaching Excellence was notified about the accomplishment. By fall 2016, Manley estimated, everybody who was teaching that semester had gone through the training. Now it's just a continual effort as new instructors come on board.

UAFS started from a different place. Traditionally, training was required for anybody embarking on teaching an online or hybrid class. Faculty members had to get "certified," which meant attending in-person training once a week over six weeks. By the end of that, they were expected to produce either a module of content or a full chapter's worth of material to show they knew how.

That stipulation "became a barrier," said Tanner. "Trying to get multiple faculty across campus to be able to attend training sessions at a given time is kind of impossible."

It also led to an antagonistic relationship between faculty and instructional support staff. "This requirement put [support staffers] in somewhat of an adversarial or watchdog role that wasn't really very positive," she explained. "They all agreed they'd much rather be seen as a resource on campus where faculty would willingly come and seek their assistance."

To do that, the existing training needed to be revamped in two ways: It was "modularized" into short training courses and placed online. "It sounds simple enough, but that was a major culture shift for that particular development need that we had on campus," Tanner noted.

The result was twofold: The instructional support team could spend its newly freed up time working more directly with faculty, and faculty now had a resource they could go to any time for training.

The only threshold became the completion of an "essentials training" bundle, which explains the simplest activities in Blackboard, such as working with the Grade Center. Once a person has been "certified" in the essentials, he or she can take more advanced training in designing and changing up courses.

Next Up: Deeper Infiltration

Now that Goodwin has become master of the Blackboard grading universe, new ambitions have formed, such as having faculty use due dates in the LMS and having students upload their assignments there so that all of it can be backed up. Instructors have use of the mobile app, which allows them to access student and course data on the fly. Plus, the institution is adopting Blackboard Predict, which Manley expects will provide "richer information" for the college's retention work.

Likewise, the changes undertaken at UAFS have led to benefits beyond broader LMS usage. Now, for example, "faculty across campus are willing to be in the same room as the instructional design team," Tanner wryly suggested. "They understand that we're trying to help them." This bonding has led to greater use of online training as well as brief "information sessions" in which the instructional support team introduces faculty to "some of the cool stuff they can do in class," activities that hit at the heart of student engagement.

By this fall, 723 of 1,453 courses at UAFS had begun using Blackboard at some level, whether hybrid, online or "web-enhanced" — amounting to about half of the total. "Not bad, really," asserted Tanner. But the goal is still to get to 100 percent. Until then, she said, "We're just looking for other positive ways to expand that use of Blackboard so it's not quite so foreign to faculty. Hopefully, the comfort level will increase."

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