Laureate is the largest global network of degree-granting higher education institutions worldwide, with more than 70 campus-based and online universities in 25 countries across all five continents. More than one million students across the globe have access to undergraduate and graduate programs through Laureate. Pepijn Kalis works at Torrens University Australia, which is part of the global Laureate International Universities network, and leads the Online Learning Environment team. Pepijn is in charge of building, administrating and maintaining contents in the Blackboard LMS and other learning platforms. He spoke to E-Learn about how his experience as a former Blackboard consultant has helped him and Laureate build better learning environments.
Torrens University offers a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate programs in Business, Education, Hospitality, Design, Health, Project Management and Sports Management. With campuses in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane, students have the option to study on campus, online or both, and are given the chance to work with industry partners to minimize the gap between study and work, thus increasing their employability.
Experience at Laureate’s service
Pepijn has an extensive background in various educational topics such as e-learning, educational and learning technology, media technology, software training, consulting and advisory, support and implementation. He has a degree in Digital Communication Systems and started working for Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW) shortly after graduating, where he set up the online radio and television area and managed the news website.
Later, Pepijn started training individuals in the use of online systems and developed his own LMS from scratch while working in RNW’s training department. From there his interest for online learning started to develop as the possibility of reaching people through an online environment appeared. This early LMS had some basic functions like a forum, plus the possibility to build assessments, and it didn’t take long for Blackboard to offer him a consulting job.
In 2008, he joined the company as a trainer in Europe, the Middle East and Africa for institutions and governments. Later, he started doing implementations, giving advice and overseeing migrations from other platforms into Blackboard. During these implementations, Pepijn looked at strategic and managerial aspects that were best suited for each client and taught clients how to run the different tools.
An unusual opportunity presented itself in 2014 when his wife was called to work in the Eastern Congo, and so he accompanied her to work as a volunteer in projects like building an urban Wi-Fi network for an entire population. During his time working for Blackboard, Pepijn had also completed work in Australia with Think Education. After one and a half years in Africa, he wanted to get back into educational technology and was hired as the Online Learning Environment Manager for Torrens University Australia in Sydney.
The learning environment at Torrens University
Australia’s long history with distance education should also be noted. From the delivery of books to remote locations, to training via radio, TV and eventually DVDs, this legacy has made the introduction of online environments a more organic process. This also means that the focus at Torrens, and the challenge for Pepijn, is not only to give high quality education to students living in the big metropolitan areas, but also to students in remote regions, small country towns and overseas.
At Torrens, the online and blended learning approach was established from the beginning and was implemented as an integral part of the University’s strategy to deliver high quality educational materials. Pepijn focuses on the online and blended student learning experience, where Laureate’s network has been extremely helpful, as they can communicate with other campuses and universities to access -and contribute to- a great amount of resources and adapt them to the Australian market. That is, Pepijn expressed, what makes the network so important.
All the available resources and tools, guided by Pepijn’s know-how, have contributed to the structure of the Online Learning Environment, which was conceived as a classroom with pre-built content where students have assignment submission due dates but can go at their own pace. Aside from course contents and materials, Torrens also delivers online synchronous sessions through Blackboard Collaborate which can be recorded. This feature is beneficial for students if they miss a class due to work requirements for instance, they can always review the materials at a later date.
There are several aspects that make this kind of learning experience unique such as class sizes, which can help prevent dropout rates by engaging academic staff with students and vice-versa.
There are several aspects that make this kind of learning experience unique such as class sizes, which can help prevent dropout rates by engaging academic staff with students and vice-versa. Also, as noted earlier, all the course content is pre-built at the beginning of the semester by subject matter experts and lecturers. This allows students to see all of the contents from day one and can go through the materials in their own time. Pepijn commented that this is one of the features which significantly enhances the student’s experience. However this does not mean that everything is written in stone, this is a dynamic environment and teachers can add new research and useful content to their courses.
Every course has an online presence, whether it is taught entirely on-campus or not. Torrens has also focused on multimedia content, otherwise referred to as mixed media, to teach in a practical way by means of videos, animations or interactive objects which can be embedded into the LMS. Joint work between the subject matter experts, lecturers, writers and the multimedia team allows for the creation of high quality content.
Potentializing initiatives with Blackboard
In his six years as a consultant, Pepijn had the opportunity to work with more than a hundred institutions between governments, schools and universities. He was generally sought after with the request on how to give the “wow” factor to staff and students, and to help staff create that experience for the students. As Pepijn told E-Learn, there is no right answer and every institution has different requirements. A lecturer’s strength is teaching and there’s no need to tell them how to do it, but after listening to them and getting as much input as possible, it’s easier to help clients think of different ways to utilize the tools for their students or for a specific subject matter.
A good way for lecturers to understand e-learning, and to be able to take the learning experience to the next level, is to have them do an online course themselves so that they can step into the students’ shoes. It is also important for teachers to show students that there is always someone available for them via the online environment, so that they can trust the LMS to have everything they need. The online learning environment should be well-structured to guarantee a seamless user experience for students. Students shouldn’t need to ask about the use of the platform but rather focus entirely on their assessments. Pepijn suggests that virtually anything can be achieved using Blackboard’s LMS with the proper assistance.
Pepijn Kalis, Torrens University, Australia. Photo: AFP Andrew Murray.