Learning Ecosystem Integrations for Improved Student Experience & Engagement

At my presentation at COHERE 2015, I spoke about the transformation that the Sauder School of Business COMM101 Business Fundamentals Course has gone in terms of how it integrates technologies to improve student experience and engagement.

The Challenge – COMM101 is a huge face to face course enrolling all 1st year Sauder students (for 2015 almost 700 in 6 sections with 4 instructors). The challenges that the instructors have bravely taken on in the past few years are how to:

  • provide hands-on in-class activities
  • engage students in group work and other informal assessments in the classroom
  • provide engaging, easily accessible online content,
  • improve mobile-friendly communications,
  • facilitate content creation by multiple instructors with user-friendly interfaces,
  • increase social learning, peer learning, group activities, etc.,
  • reduce large assessments (midterms/finals)
  • provide quick feedback to students on all assessment pieces

The Process –  Yet a work in progress, instructors opted not to use more paper handouts, nor to use just one piece of central technology (i.e. a single LMS), but instead to use a variety of integrated technologies, different online assessment types that would facilitate quick feedback to students. They substituted large assessment pieces such as midterm and final exams for group projects and presentations, informal and formal assessments scattered throughout the term using multiple modes of delivery. All of these activities then had a layer or in some instances several layers of analytics to enable instructors to see of how students were engaged and addressing the needs of disengaged students.

List of technologies used: 
1. Learning Management System (UBC Connect aka Blackboard Learn), used for:

  • Individual and Group Assignment Submission
  • Central hub for integrations (BasicLTI integrations into WordPress, iPeer)
  • Weekly Tests
  • Library Course Reserves (UBC Library content, also via BasicLTI integration)

2. Master Blog in WordPress housing content for all section students to go to

  • All instructors are able to edit a single WordPress site where content is managed
  • Posts pushed to email via Mailchimp
  • Page views monitored via WP xAPI plugin pushing to Learning Record Store (LRS – in this case self-hosted version of Learning Locker)

3. Discussion and collaboration tools (WordPress via BasicLTI Integration in Connect)

  • PulsePress is a theme for WordPress giving WP a twitter like functionality
  • Meant for groups/individuals to post in backchannel format.
  • Serves as archive of discussions
  • Also has WP xAPI Learning Analytics of Page Views

4. iPeer – student team peer evaluations

  • This is its own standalone platform at ipeer.elearning.ubc.ca
  • Allows for teams of students to self-evaluate as well as evaluate each of their peers
  • Results synchronized with Connect or exported via CSV.

5. iClickers

  • Used in class for pop Multiple Choice quizzes
  • Data can be pushed into Connect Grade Center, or aggregated in excel sheet, uploaded into Connect

9. Blogs.ubc.ca for each student to create their personal blog

  • Student blogs URLs are collected from students, then each blog evaluated by instructors based on various criteria

Here are my slides from the presentation:

And here is a Prezi to show how the Learning Technology Ecosystem that supports COMM101 integrates:

What technologies are you trying to integrate in a “learning ecosystem” to improve student experience and engagement?


WordPress integration in Blackboard Learn

When UBC transitioned from WebCT/Vista to Blackboard Learn in 2012-2013, many instructors noticed usability issues with the new platform including a non-intuitive interface and high click-rates to access features and settings. In addition, because of FIPPA restrictions, UBC had to self-host its on instance of Blackboard Learn. Performance issues and frequent crashes in the first few months of full deployment, along with the UI issues, led some instructors to consider other ways of creating and publishing course content online.

Hence the idea of integrating WordPress blogs with the LMS via a BasicLTI tool integration. UBC already had its own self-hosted WordPress instance for student and instructor blogs at blogs.ubc.ca. So all that was left was to create a means for the Tool Provider (Blogs.ubc.ca) to communicate with the Tool Consumer (UBC Connect LMS) and vice versa, via a customized BasicLTI tool. The result is that an instructor can have a private, subscriber only WordPress blog that only students from a particular course in UBC Connect can have access to (see diagram below).


In this way, an instructor is able to update all her content using the WordPress CMS which then seamlessly integrates with her Connect course which houses all the assignments, asessments and Grade center tools. Here is a breakdown of how each platform would manage the specific educational technology pieces:

WordPress CMS (Blogs.ubc.ca) Blackboard LMS (UBC Connect)
Announcements Assignment Submission areas
General course content (WP pages) Informal Assessments (Quizzes, Surveys, etc.)
Slides (.ppt, .pdf) Groups and group-related tools
Documents (.docx, .pdf) Formal assessments, including midterm and final exams
Commenting/Discussion  Grade Centre

Learning Ecosystems: BasicLTI Integrations

Learning Ecosystems has become a bit of a buzzword in the Ed Tech corporate eLearning and Higher Ed spheres, with whole conferences now being dedicated to the topic. Marc J. Rosenberg and Steve Foreman, in
Learning and Performance Ecosystems: Strategy, Technology, Impact, and Challenges (2014), suggest that “we must move away from individual, siloed, ‘one-off’ solutions to an ecosystem comprised of multi-faceted learning and performance options that enhance the environments in which we work and learn.”

Often the one-off, siloed solution is the Learning Management System (LMS) such as Blackboard Learn, Canvas, Desire2Learn or Moodle, among others. These systems try to offer everything in a one-stop shop but fail to do everything well and are often a victim of “feature-creep”, continually adding new features that don’t necessarily integrate very well into the whole and often slow down the system.

What’s nice about an ecosystem approach is that the entire online learning environment of the student is considered: everything from discussion forums to blogging sites, social media to mobile apps — basically everything that the instructor expects the students to digitally ‘touch’ in addition to the sites, apps and tools students themselves use and promote amongst themselves.

The key with good Learning Ecosystems management is to be able to link all these desperate platforms (especially the ones supported by the service unit) in an integrated fashion. Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) is one way to do this, allowing a tool provider (such as a 3rd party survey tool) to interact with a tool consumer (such as an LMS). Here we use BasicLTI tool integration with a variety of platforms linking into our core LMS, Blackboard Learn: Piazza, WebWork, WordPress blogs, various Publisher applications, etc. Here is a diagram to illustrate those integrations:

BasicLTI Integrations - New Page



What is Tin Can API and LRS?

Tin Can API or xAPI is “a brand new specification for learning technology that makes it possible to collect data about the wide range of experiences a person has (online and offline)” (http://tincanapi.com/overview/). API, in case some readers are confused, stands for Application Programming Interface and is simply a way to obtain information from a source location and pass on that information to trusted partnering applications.

The Tin Can API is able to consistently capture data about a student’s learning activities from a variety of technologies. Because of Tin Can’s simple vocabulary inherent in the coding, diverse systems are able to communuicate with each other in a secure manure by interacting with Tin Can API’s stream of user activity data.

A Learning Record Store (LRS) on the other hand, works with the Tin Can API and is a new system that stores learning records. According to their website:

“As Tin Can-enabled activities generate statements, they’re sent to an LRS. The LRS is simply a repository for learning records that can be accessed by an LMS or a reporting tool. An LRS can live inside an LMS, or it can stand on its own.” – http://tincanapi.com/learning-record-store/


I see the Tin Can API and LRS working together to create a complex set of data about student learning not primarily for the institution but for the ownership of the students themselves. Students will increasingly need data on their learning to prove that they did in fact engage with various digital learning tools as they were instructed. The LRS will potentially record all their activity in a course down to how much time they spent reading a particular article or doing an online quiz. The flexibility of the Tin Can API to record almost any activity on these platforms is what is most appealing for a Learning Ecosystems architecture approach to Higher Ed learning technology.

Here is a slide show presented by one of my colleagues regarding xAPI or Tin Can API integration with WordPress: