A New Classroom Design to Increase Student Retention and Satisfaction

Sebastián Pulido
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Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Marco D’Alessio is an e-learning designer with over 10 ten years’ experience in the design and development of complex content. His background is in Instructional Design and Communication Science and has worked in fields such as management, psychology, law, health, and computer science, both in commercial and academic contexts. D’Alessio started working for Laureate International Universities (LIU) in 20081. In his current role as Learning Architect, he is responsible for the entire cycle of course design and development for the different universities. This includes curriculum development, learning activities design, and relationship management with Faculty/SMEs, vendors, and other stakeholders.

D’Alessio shared some details with Blackboard about a new classroom design customized for the University of Roehampton-London, which Laureate developed to increase student satisfaction and retention, as well as adoption of Blackboard’s learning environment. The project has been live since the early summer of 2016 and will likely continue through to the second half of 2018. Learning about this experience can be useful for the entire Blackboard Teaching and Learning Community, as there are four key areas to understand about the implementation of this new design:

Laureate’s network of more than 70 campus-based and online universities in 25 countries offers undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degree programs in multiple fields to over one million students worldwide with an international community that spans all continents1.

1. The role of HTML5 in responsive design:

The new design in HTML5 is fully responsive and allows students to engage in learning activities from multiple devices. It has been adopted concurrently with a new learning model specifically designed to engage students with activities that increase collaboration and foster critical-thinking and research skills. HTML5 became critical for Laureate about a year ago when they decided to make the transition, as it is quick and practical and doesn’t require additional plugins or other components, making it very easy to design responsive content.

One of the main reasons for student course drop out is due to the platform’s steep learning curve. D’Alessio’s team has received very positive feedback from students because they can use their smartphone or tablet devices to access course content. Most of them agreed that it was a much better user experience and that it is much easier to locate resources and information about activities, deadlines, grades, and feedback. Additionally, navigation is smoother, allowing students to focus on the content, as opposed to the platform. Most of the student body is comprised of working adults and the majority of have never studied online, so these improvements have helped to reduce attrition rates.

2. How custom building blocks extend Blackboard functionalities for flexibility:

“Without custom building blocks we wouldn’t have the functionalities we need, so they are extremely important,” explained D’Alessio. For instance, this particular project could not have been rolled out without two features: the Deep Linking Tool and the Date Management Tool.

The Deep Linking Tool allows standard web pages to contain a link that automatically detects the class a student is enrolled in and re-directs to that class only. It is extremely helpful because it allows D’Alessio’s team to produce content that can be rolled out very quickly, without having to spend a lot of time and money on it.

The Date Management Tool, on the other hand, gives classroom designers the possibility to set all the deadlines for students and does not require them to change all dates manually. Even before the courses are created, they can change the start date of 60 courses at once with one single script and all of the other deadlines are automatically updated. For instance, a project deadline that is set for week 10 will be kept 10 weeks after the new start date. That can spare Laureate and other institutions time with administrative tasks, while reducing mistakes. Additionally, features such as the To-do List and The Calendar can now be deployed and students can get notifications whenever an assignment or activity is due.

Marco D'Alessio, Learning Architect at Laureate International Universities. Photo: AFP Jan-Joseph Stok.
Marco D’Alessio, Learning Architect at Laureate International Universities. Photo: AFP Jan-Joseph Stok.

3. How to engage a worldwide student population with classroom design:

LIU’s partnership with the University of Roehampton-London focuses on international students that live outside of the UK, but want a higher education degree from the country due to the high quality education they’ll receive which can be applied in any context and wherever they may live. This means engagement must be high in order for these students to complete their studies. According to D’Alessio, engagement is fostered by guaranteeing various elements in the interaction between students and faculty members within the platform.

This interaction also has to correspond with the new learning model that Laureate is implementing, which aims to increase collaboration and research. Through this collaboration, classroom design makes the activities relate to the classroom content so that, for example, 3 out of 5 units in a module include discussions and students are required to answer a question that has been posted online and to comment on each other’s answers. Their responses cannot arrive at a single solution, but rather to a debate or discussion piece. It is an open-ended discussion that has to end eventually, but that could continue in theory. In this way, students can share their experience, as many of them have plenty of working experience in those fields. There are environments where they can share their expertise, typically in the discussion boards, synchronous sessions in Blackboard Collaborate, or in InspireNet, an internal social networking platform that enables students to connect with one another.

Research is also very important. Throughout their program, students learn to compile an annotated bibliography or a literature review that allows them to research their own topics, and then present their ideas to expand on the solution. The institution has an online library with a vast amount of resources and students are encouraged to make use of it.

Additionally, depending on the program, the university offers portfolio components with Pathbrite integration, which allows for self-reflection so that students can summarize what they have learned and also produce works that can be shared with the public, or even with a potential employer.

4. How to deploy the learning model:

The classroom design process began with a discussion cross teams about how the learning modules should change. Once the learning model was defined, D’Alessio got a template set up in Blackboard Learn that would allow him to deploy the necessary features. After that, the focus was spent on completing the content redesign. The content redesign not only changed the layout, but was also updated by subject matter experts. It’s a lengthy process – not only are they changing the graphical themes of the courses, they are also improving the content and updating it with newer resources, required readings, and changing some learning assessment components based on faculty feedback to make it more intuitive.

At LIU, there are five pillars that define a great program: the user experience, academic relevance, modern content and format, engagement in social activities, and building a lifelong learning community. D’Alessio tries to keep these components in sight at all times, but his main focus currently resides on two main pillars: content and user experience.


1Laureate’s network of more than 70 campus-based and online universities in 25 countries offers undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degree programs in multiple fields to over one million students worldwide with an international community that spans all continents.

*Marco D’Alessio – Learning Architect at Laureate International Universities

*Photos: AFP Jan-Joseph Stok 

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