Importance of Design in the Classroom E-Learning: D’Alessio

Sebastián Pulido
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Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Marco D’Alessio is an e-learning designer with over ten years of experience in design and development of complex content. His background is in Instructional Design and Communication Science and he 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. His latest role as Learning Architect, makes him responsible for the entire cycle of design and development for the courses of the different universities. This includes curriculum development, the design of learning activities, and relationship management with Faculty/SMEs, vendors, and other stakeholders.

D’Alessio shared some details with E-Learn about a new classroom design that is customized for the University of Roehampton-London, which Laureate developed to increase students’ satisfaction and retention, as well as immersion in the Blackboard learning environment. The project has been active since the early summer of 2016 and will probably continue through the second half of 2018. Learning about this experience can be useful to all of the Blackboard Teaching and Learning Community. There are four key issues to understand in the implementation of this new design: 

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 research skills and reflection. HTML5 became very important for Laureate a year ago, when they decided to make this transition, as it allows them to be fairly lightweight without having to use plugins or other components and makes it very easy to design responsive content.

One of the main reasons why students drop out is because of the steep learning curve the platform has. D’Alessio’s team has received very positive feedback from students because they can use their smartphone or tablet to access the courses contents. 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 and allows students to focus on the content and not the platform. Most of the student body are working adults and the majority of them have never studied online, so these improvements have helped in reducing 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,” D’Alessio told E-Learn. 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 leads 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 of the deadlines for the students and does not require them to change all the 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. So, for example, the deadline of the project that is due on week 10, will be kept 10 weeks after the new start date. That can spare Laureate and other institutions time with administrative tasks and reduces 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 an 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 and want a higher education degree there because they can get high quality education and apply it in any context, anywhere they live. This means engagement must be high to allow these students to finish 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, research, and reflection. With collaboration, classroom design makes the activities relate to the classroom content so that, for example, 3 units out of 5 in the module include discussions and students are required to respond to a question that is posted online, and to comment on each other’s answers. Their responses cannot provide a single solution, but rather has to be 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 years 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 each other.

Research is also very important: throughout their program, students learn to compile an annotated bibliography, or a literature review that allows them to investigate about 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 the Pathbrite integration, which allows for self-reflection so that students can summarize what they have learned and also produce artifacts that can be shared with the public, and even to a potential employer.

4. How to deploy the learning model:

The classroom design process began with a cross-team discussion 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 went to getting the content redesign done. 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 “skins” of the courses, they are also improving the content and updating it with newer resources, required readings, and changing some components of the learning assessments based on the feedback from the faculty to make it more intuitive.

In LIU, they have five pillars to identify what makes a great program: user experience, academic relevance, modern content and format, engagement in social activities, and building a lifelong learning community. D’Alessio tries to keep this components in sight all of the time, but his main focus is on two pillars at the moment: 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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