Students ask, the University delivers: Fitting the best tools into a single-sign-on LMS

Christina Gómez
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Maastricht, Netherlands

No matter how technology is employed in education, it shouldn’t be introduced without thinking about a delivery method and how the students are going to welcome it. Today, with the amount of tools in both students’ and teacher’s hands, it’s no wonder institutions want to extract the very best from each tool and use as many as possible. Finding a way to make tools function with each other is a wonderful method, which allows for increased student learning. However, a delivery method needs to be taken care of.

This is the case at Maastricht University, where one year ago, five different student services were integrated into one portal in order to use the best technology available for every need. The services were:

 Course information was extracted from Blackboard Learn
 Class schedules where managed via a tool called Syllabus
 Student grades were managed through SAP Student Lifecycle Management, an application widely used in Europe.
 For the student’s institutional Email, Maastricht chose MS Outlook.
 Faculty information, which was general for all students, was distributed using several intranet systems.

In the past, students had to log into each system, in order to retrieve the information that was relevant to them. This wasn’t practical, especially when the new generations know that applications can solve these types of problems, they know there are alternatives. They also don’t want to spend too much time logging into different systems when time could be spending time more wisely.

So students representatives in the University Council started complaining hence the Board of Directors, susceptible to student feedback, decided to develop the Student Portal. This new one-stop location for accessing and managing students’ personal university information considerably improved information supply at Maastricht University. The Student Portal was co-created with the Student Project team, a body of four students employed full-time by the university to make Maastricht University more student oriented. This was valuable, as faculty and students usually have different needs, so it was important to have student feedback throughout the project as most LMSs are not designed by students, and needed changes are easily pointed out by students.

It was clear that there were several things that had to be build in the student portal: one central location where everything that was important could be found through a single-sign on. This meant that all services had to be integrated into a single platform. Students also asked for the main page to have all reminders and due dates to keep track of assignments. Before that, due dates were only found within each individual course so students would have to enter each course page to see their tasks and to-dos. With this information, a platform that extracts data from five other systems was created. It was designed in such a way that the information is presented to students in the most efficient way possible. This became the Student Portal.

Charles Bollen, Coordinator of Digital Learning Environment, explains that Blackboard Learn is a tool too complex and valuable to allow it to become just another database. So what they did at Maastricht University was to hire the conceptual design company Zuyderlicht to integrate Blackboard Learn with all the other databases used, in order to get the best of both worlds. The Student Portal uses the tools and functionality that Blackboard Learn has to offer, allowing Maastricht University not having to come up with a brand new LMS, and still be able to use the tools they think are best for specific purposes.

Maastricht University (UM) is the most international university in the Netherlands and, with more than 16,000 students and 4,000 employees, stands out for its innovative education model, international character and multidisciplinary approach to research and education.

Thanks to its high-quality research and study programmes as well as a strong focus on social engagement, UM has quickly built up a solid reputation. Today it is considered one of the best young universities in the world.

Their Problem Based Learning (PBL) learning method is not based on the classical teacher-led class but rather students are put into small groups, and are given a problem to solve through discussion, and are encouraged to find additional literature to complement their argument. This approach makes students think for themselves and want to find solutions for problems rather than simply comply with what they are given. It incentivizes them to search for solutions outside of the material given by their teachers. The approach to education which Maastricht employs, is in the end what generated the Student Platform for being built because students spoke up, didn’t conform, asked to be part of the solution and found an answer to the problem they were being faced with in real life, even if they weren’t necessarily studying Education or Computer Science.

This is after all the objective of education: that students are taught to think, rationalize, construct and change whatever they see in their lives that needs to be better. Technology is simply a way to that objective, and Maastricht University wants the two things to go hand in hand, without getting lost in the technology or losing the educational factor.


*Charles Bollen, Coordinator of Digital Learning Environment in Maastricht University

*Photos by: AFP Anthony Dehez 

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