How to Make an LMS That Competes With Social Media

Christina Gómez
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Gjøvik and Trondheim, Norway

The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) has, since 1st of January 2016 been the biggest university in Norway. However, before that, it was three independent colleges and one university. The Norwegian government decided to merge the four institutions in order to make one cohesive university and be able to ensure the quality of teaching. Three of the campuses are located in different cities and have different cultures, ways of teaching, and even different LMSs. They unite 9 faculty departments and over 40,000 students.

Integrating 4 institutions into 1.

Silje Belsvik is the advisor for the Center for Teaching and Learning. Her job at the original NTNU was being an advisor for teachers and students who wanted to understand more about the technology of teaching and learning. Her job today is to additionally work with the Teaching and Learning Centers at Ålesund and Gjøvik. She explains that this new addition to her job is sometimes challenging because of the different cultures and sizes of the campuses. The four university campuses are spread out within three cities in Norway: Trondheim, Gjøvik, and Ålesund. The first step the university had to do in order to bring these institutions together is to unify teaching and learning styles, terminology, methodology, objectives and teaching strategies. This work is done by the administration staff like each of the faculty department deans, The Steering Group, The Board of NTNU, the all the Deans and Unions, and obviously the Teaching and Learning Centers of which Silje is an advisor. They want to give a new structure to all the faculties, so that if medicine, for example, is taught in different campuses, it will all have the same teaching structure and quality. Also, the institution wants to have many of the same teachers teach at all of the campuses, so the logistics of having teachers travel from city to city each week. These are all different aspects of the merger that take a lot of work from different branches of the institutions.

One of the things that she is hoping will be able to start unifying all institutions is Blackboard Learn, as it is the first common thing they all can unite in. It is the common language that will begin to merge teaching styles, technologies, and the learning terminology. One of the challenges is to unite all of the new NTNU as one institution, and for people to get used to the new ways. She says that the complete merging of the institutions is still a couple of years away, but everyone in the institution is working hard towards that goal and to be able to achieve it successfully.

Implementing an LMS that enhances learning and is attractive

The second step is to actually create the Blackboard Learn platform for the four institutions. As of right now, NTNU has two Norwegian-created LMS, which as of August of 2017 will be replaced by Blackboard Learn. The transition is difficult since most educational institutions in Norway have been using these LMS for over 10 years, so they are very set in their ways.

One of the many challenges for a LMS is the distractors like social media apps: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Why do they distract the user? Because they are well designed with a great look and feel; they have images and videos that pop up, and the one of the biggest factors: notifications. Because of this, students are often wondering what is new on Facebook. It is statistically known that young people check their phones every thirteen minutes, regardless of receiving a notification or not. It takes a lot of hard work from the teacher to keep 200 students concentrated during a whole lecture. Social media it is not only the competition in terms of a distraction factor, but also as an LMS. When talking to students, asking them what they do when they have to do a group project and how they communicate with each other, they all answered: a Facebook group. Sometimes, even the teachers create a Facebook group in order to have an open dialogue with all the students in the class. This doesn’t really make sense if the LMS of the university provides these tools. The conclusion is that if the LMS is not attractive, neither students nor teachers will want to use them.

When the decision to implement Blackboard Learn as an LMS was decided, Steinar Hov at NTNU in Gjøvik, the project manager, was excited. He started searching for the numerous tools and options that Blackboard has to enhance learning and be able to bring something different into the class. He is also focused on recognizing the other tools Blackboard offers and to be able to bring the needed materials to the classroom in order for the tools to work properly, such as projectors, cameras, Catchboxes (which are stuffed ball with a microphone inside that are thrown into the audience so that everybody can hear the question asked), amongst other things. When taking all this into consideration, he thought Blackboard Learn had too much gray design and layout. The layout wasn’t attractive or very interactive. He wanted to have and uncluttered workflow that feels natural. A tool that requires too many clicks and going back and forth makes the process longer, something that students won’t be able to withstand. Education needs a balance of things; there is no point in having all the technology if the teacher is an old-fashioned educator which has a Powerpoint presentation filled with text, just like there is no point in having an LMS that students do not want to use because it doesn’t capture their attention.

A project group with focus on design, layout and user experience was created and they started investigating and decided to change the layout. They starting looking at changes by:

• Hiring a consulting company that handles the changes within Blackboard so that he could make whichever change he
 Looking for colorful icons to make Blackboard Learn look more attractive.
 Redesigning various modules.
• Adding a color scheme that would stand out.
• Making the course front page stand out with modules and announcements with a menu that is very graphical.

The only problem until now is that some of the new modifications don’t show up in the Bb Student app, which is something very important because mobile phones are what students are most exposed to. However, they will keep working on the design until the end of July, when Blackboard Learn will be unveiled to the students and the teachers.

Finding ways to motivate students via LMS tools

The digital part is not the only thing that Steinar has to think about; he also has to train teachers and students to really make the most of Blackboard Learn. However, the teachers have to make sure the content and the way they transmit it really gets to the students. One of the things that Steinar has had a problem with is the fact that since Blackboard is an American company, they have an American grading system.

Things are different in Norway. There are no numbered grades; in Norway students don’t get an A+, a 100 or a 10. They normally get an ‘Approved’ or ‘Not approved’. However, Steinar also analyzed that today’s students are a generation of gamers. Students today want an extra motivation; they want to beat their own high scores and are very competitive. He decided to explore the Badges tool in Blackboard Learn. Students will still get an approved/not approved, but if the student scores above 90% they will get a gold medal, if they score 70% they might get a silver medal and if they score over 50% they get a bronze. Steinar explains that numbers don’t mean that much to students. If a student is told in their feedback that they got a 20/27, it’s one thing, but another is when they got a silver medal but their friend got a gold, and this allows for there to be a healthy competition through a pedagogical approach that makes students want to collect medals and get higher grades. More importantly, it encourages students to try again and try harder. Additionally, it also has the notifications aspect, similarly like social media apps, and that allows for there to be engagement of the student with the tool, and with the class discussion.

Most of these ideas are due to a book Steinar read called “The Brain Rules” by John Medina. The book tries to explain how the brain works, and rule number 4 is that humans don’t pay attention to boring things, and rule number 10 is that vision trumps all other senses. It’s clear that these two rules fit perfectly into education and that they have been the biggest inspiration for Steinar in order to do all the valuable work he has done. Education technology is fundamental today, because technology is all around us and it is an integrated part of many students’ lives. Education can’t isolate itself from that.

With a little imagination and design, Silje, along with hundreds of other people, were able to integrate the four campuses, which all had individual ways of doing things and started to cohesively work together. Steinar found a way to take all the advantages of a great tool like Blackboard Learn and transform it into something that students feel they are a part of and works with what they know, and is still attractive and engaging. This type of imagination is what made it possible for technology and teaching come together so beautifully.


*On left: Silje Belsvik – Advisor for the Center for Teaching and Learning at NTNU.
*On right: Steinar Hov – Project manager at NTNU.

*Photos by: AFP Thor Nielsen (Silje Belsvik) and AFP Geir Olsen (Steinar Hov)


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