Sessions.edu: Visualizing the Learning Management System

Online design school Sessions.edu faced two challenges: Foregrounding the importance of design in a production level Learning Management System and converting their LMS system over a two month time period. Angel software and a close working relationship with CyberLearningLabs permitted them to accomplish both objectives.

Sessions.edu is an early, if not the earliest, fully online school of design and new media in the United States. Founded in 1997 with offices in New York City, Sessions.edu predates and has survived the Internet bubble. Sessions.edu offers more than 60 courses and certificate programs in graphic design, Web design, digital design, multimedia, and new media marketing. Sessions.edu has delivered courses to over 16,000 students from more than 100 countries.

To meet its rapid growth in student demand, Sessions.edu began shopping for an improved LMS in 2003. The fact that the school's students were designers posed problems as well as opportunities. The LMS they selected had to have a highly flexible look and feel to carry the visual expectations of design instruction and student projects. After a systematic review of the market, Sessions.edu selected CyberLearningLabs Angel as their LMS of choice. The screen shots below show the "out-of-the-box" Angel and the Sessions.edu modifications used to brand their curriculum. The design lineage is apparent, but the customization gives Sessions.edu its desired look.

Sessions.edu courses are delivered entirely online because their goal is to provide a high-quality, self-paced design education to students anywhere. Sessions.edu enables students to take courses at their own pace with design professionals, submitting their work for critique and feedback through an online learning environment. Class projects are designed to mirror the challenges a student would encounter in the real workplace. The Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) accredits Sessions.edu.

Students represent a broad spectrum, from the complete design newbie to the seasoned professional. Some are designers considering a career transition to freelance design; some are self-taught students looking for formal design education; and others are seeking access to new skill sets required in the fast-changing design industry. Most are mid-career adults already employed in large companies.

Twenty percent of Sessions.edu students study from outside the United States. Even though English is a second language for many, these students are excited to take part in a New York-based school in which the instruction is delivered in English. They see it as a chance to practice English, as well as design. Since the majority of class exercises are hands-on design projects, language has not been an obstacle in delivering instruction. The range of design styles in student work dependent on culture and national norms introduces unique aesthetic sensibility into class discussions and shared projects.

Angel's integration of student workspace into the LMS is an important feature from Sessions.edu's perspective. One of the school's core objectives, particularly in their certificate programs, is to help students build a portfolio of design. Consequently, the intermediate and advanced classes provide a coherent ePortfolio structure while leaving maximum latitude for individual creativity. Within the constraints of the project (a client brief, supplied text or graphics, or other design requirement) each student should be able to create a professional-quality piece to include in a portfolio. This portfolio provides a vehicle to demonstrate skills and accomplishments with potential employers or clients.

Sessions.edu adopted Angel in 2003 after outgrowing their previous LMS. Sessions.edu particularly valued the communication tools and finding an LMS that could be adapted to their educational model -- with a capacity for visual and functional customization. They have found Angel's open architecture and support team engaged and responsive in trying to enhance the student experience.

To date, students have responded positively to the launch of Sessions.edu customized version of the basic Angel architecture. They have found the communication tools for classroom discussion and professional networking very useful. Navigation and ease of use also are rated highly by these design students.

Sessions.edu offers class profiles, an enhancement well received by the classes. One student noted: "This whole time I have really been curious to what the other people look like and what they are doing and how they are doing. I always checked out others work, to compare to mine, and I wanted to talk to them without confusion."

Once Sessions.edu committed to introducing Angel, they wanted to get it up and running within two months. Gordon Drummond, Sessions.edu Director of Curriculum reports: "This conversion was a big project management challenge for us. Because of our timeframe, we had to run four projects concurrently: Customizing/configuring the environment, developing the look and feel of the interface, developing students and faculty training materials, and migrating our content. One thing that helped us was that CyberLearningLab's support and documentation were so thorough we were able to get up to speed quickly. Another thing that helped us is that Angel's basic feature set is very intuitive-- it just makes sense from an educational standpoint. We got buy-in from faculty because we were giving them what they'd been asking for, for years."

The new LMS holds future challenges and promises for Sessions.edu. SCORM hasn't come into the picture as yet, but sequenced design skills would be a logical fit for SCORM-compliant content and assessment. Complying with Section 508C requirements also will continue to be challenging with the highly visual content that makes up the core of the curriculum.

Drummond's closing comments offer good advice for all organizations selecting their LMS: "Choose a system based on your educational model. Figure out which features are essential to the success of the learning experience -- for students and faculty -- and keep it simple. If you can, customize the environment so that learners only have access to features they actually need. A subtle, re-assuring design style is a critical component of the successful instructional context."

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