Coffee Region, Colombia
The Manuel Mejía Foundation (FMM) is a private non-profit entity founded in 1961 by Colombia’s coffee sector, with the aim of establishing agricultural education centers to train industry workers, and for the agricultural and livestock sector in general. Through its educational journey, the FMM has amassed more than 50 years of experience in training residents of rural areas, mainly agricultural producers with limited education levels. In addition, the foundation has a broad experience implementing training processes for diverse populations, including: association leaders; youth from rural areas; adults with limited education levels; teachers and public education institutions; community mothers; professionals involved in promoting agricultural and livestock activities; and company owners working with the coffee sector.
Throughout the years working in the field, the FMM has gain experience in the production and design of both printed and digital educational materials that have been used in training programs developed by coffee sector entities, as well as national and international public and private entities.
Throughout its pedagogical history as an education entity for the coffee sector, and through various face-to-face and online training programs -especially those related to continuing education for the Agriculture field-, the FMM has had a positive impact in the development of the coffee sector in Colombia.
As a result, the Manuel Mejía Foundation, as an educational institution, needs to do everything possible in order to remain at the forefront of technology, and take advantage of the opportunities offered by the latest sector breakthroughs. Leonardo García, a technology expert in Social Projects Area, with experience designing interactive activities and in digital learning environments, and Marcela Calderón, Social Project Area Lead, have been working at the Foundation for the past 13 years. Because of this, they were able to offer their support and accompaniment to the institutional board of directors during critical moments, such as with the migration of its previous digital learning environment to Blackboard Open LMS, its most recent significant change.
García and Calderón shared their experiences about this period of change in order to encourage other institutions wanting to make the leap and start migrating to Blackboard Open LMS.
Step # 1: Making a Decision
FMM’s trajectory with online methodologies began 13 years ago. “At that time, e-learning was booming and the National Federation of Coffee Producers and the Manuel Mejía Foundation began using e-learning to develop training programs using the Blackboard platform through an agreement with the Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje – SENA (Colombia’s National Training Service). Later, the foundation acquired Moodle to continue offering its virtual courses,” says García. They worked 8 years with Moodle until they made the decision to upgrade to Blackboard Open LMS.
“What led foundation board members to make the decision to migrate to Blackboard Open LMS was the desire to improve our services,” Calderón explains. The new platform has new functionalities and adaptability, thereby enriching the user experience, and that of platform administrators when managing course contents and the platform in general. In addition to this, the platform offers a friendly user experience thanks to its interface and intuitive browsing, which makes it possible to customize courses, as the FMM has always done. The ease with which one can get acquainted with the new functions and use them to enhance training activities that were already implemented, was one of the many reasons the foundation decided to approve the migration.
Step # 2: Defining Deadlines
In August 2017, after assessing the platform, the FMM made the decision to migrate to Blackboard Open LMS. It wasn’t an easy decision as they have developed more than 100 courses in the course of the past 13 years, and which are now part of the educational projects the foundation has managed up until now. All the contents, including their configurations and other settings, had to be transferred just as they were into the new platform, meaning the process needed to be carefully planned and executed in order to protect all the years of hard work.
Between September and November 2017, after one month of planning, the FMM carried out an internal audit to decide the best way to maintain all course settings, and planned the necessary steps that should be taken. In this type of process, according to García, knowing the technologies used to develop the courses is crucial. As is the case of the FMM, although courses were still current, they had been developed with other technologies and their compatibility had to be checked, in order to not generate conflicts with Blackboard Open LMS if corresponding adjustments needed to be made. To this end, García conducted tests for all the courses that could potentially present problems and made sure to have the least number of surprises at the time of migration.
In January 2018, the time of year the FMM board chose to implement the change (due to the low user traffic), the migration took place without major issues and in just a couple of days, with only some minor compatibility issues which had already been identified during the testing phase. Because of this, they did not represent any time delays when migrating. The following weeks were dedicated to adjusting all course graphics.
Step # 3: Preparing for a Smooth Transition
The importance of backing-up cannot be ignored, as it can prevent true disasters. García was aware of this, and had to be particularly careful as according to him, “certain courses contained user information which could not be lost. As a result, backing up was given a high priority to make sure that all the information was protected.” In addition, Blackboard Open LMS and the previous version of Moodle that was being used, have information recovery options that serve as lifesavers in case of any unforeseen event. Finally, the Blackboard support team was also available at all times if help was needed.
From a technological perspective, checking compatibility is essential to being able to take advantage of some of the features offered by Blackboard Open LMS, such as third-party system integration, the Conduit plug-in, which is intended to streamline processes related to registration management, grading, and other functions that the FMM is currently reviewing in relation to content management.
Just like the technology, a team of professionals must also work together harmoniously. This is why for both García and FMM collaborators involved with platform processes, continuous and clear communication was a clear priority in order to quickly solve problems. In case of an emergency – no matter how small – all those involved should be informed as soon as possible and take action immediately in order to prevent a small inconvenience from becoming a major problem.
The migration planning steps already described were also of huge help, as they reduced the number of unpleasant surprises to zero, while expediting the entire process. In this case, the most important action is to set up realistic timeframes to carry out all tasks required, and to make sure all bases are covered.
Step # 4: Taking Advantage of Blackboard Open LMS
In addition, the visual experience should also be a priority, although, for the foundation, guaranteeing the graphic customization of each course was a challenge, due to course volume. To overcome this obstacle and maintain each course’s graphic design, García took advantage of the useful options available in Blackboard Open LMS: one feature allows you to define a graphic theme for the platform while selecting another theme for each individual course, making it possible to include the oldest courses with the original content theme and using the Snap graphic theme for the overall platform. This functionality helped save time and offers a friendly and intuitive platform interface.
As García explained, “when you you’ve been working with a specific platform for a long time, the user becomes used to it and its features. For example, browsing, contents, colors, etc.” All of these elements make up the user experience and that’s why it’s important to only make the necessary changes, instead of trying to implement radical redesigns that may affect all the other features. According to this, the SNAP theme offers the student a more user friendly and intuitive interface, which allows for easy assignment completion. Plans are underway to use this theme for courses in future projects because the design increases student participation, and this makes it possible to focus one’s attention on content instead of the functional elements of the platform.
Since 2003, more than 1300 professionals have actively accessed the courses offered by the FMM. Hence, it was incredibly important to maintain the familiarity of the user experience. “In this case, providing the teaching process continuity was determining, and Blackboard Open LMS functionality made this possible,” points out Calderón. In fact, after the change, users told the FMM that the changes were welcomed.
Blackboard Open LMS Adjusts to Each Customer’s Needs
Growing coffee and all its associated processes have always been a priority for the foundation when it comes to course design. This doesn’t mean, of course, they shouldn’t be adapted to the multiple needs of the agricultural and livestock sector – For institutions like the Manuel Mejía Foundation, part of their duty is to always remain at the forefront of the needs of the sector.
Having control over course design and contents, as well as the right tools in place to exercise changes easily, allows institutions like the FMM (that are attentive to customer needs) to generate strategies in order to expand the education and technology offering to more places. In a mainly rural environment, this would not seem to be easy, but it is possible thanks to the stability of the Blackboard Open LMS platform, with its friendly interface, and the options offered by FMM courses, which allow learners to download the most relevant contents and work on them offline.
Marcela Calderón Zuluaga, Social Project Area Lead at Manuel Mejía Foundation.
Leonardo García, technology expert in Social Projects Area at Manuel Mejía Foundation.
AFP Andrés Mejía