The Secret to Life-Long Learning Is Taking Responsibility for It

Christina Gómez
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Baltimore, Maryland, United States.

Dynamic courses can lead to higher student interest, generating enhanced learning and knowledge.

When individuals take control of their own learning, the amount of knowledge acquired can increase significantly, due to a general awareness of their strengths and weaknesses and ability to self-assess. Taking control of one’s own learning is something that will remain with the students for life as they become lifelong learners. This is what a study at Oxford University and the Oxford Learning Institute have realized. The University of Maryland Baltimore County received the Blackboard Catalyst Award for Leading Change, due to a tool they created that shows a strong correlation between student grades and Blackboard Learn use.

In 2007, UMBC Associate Vice President John Fritz started looking at the impact that Blackboard Learn was having on its students. John believed Blackboard Learn could help students and faculty but didn’t know how to show its impact on student learning. And so, he made it his mission to find out.

John started looking at how much time students spent on the LMS and their grades. Today, Blackboard Analytics is a tool that can do this for you, but back then it wasn’t available yet. Using a homegrown analytics system, John found that students who earned failing grades used Blackboard Learn 40% less than students who received a higher grade or passed.

With these findings, John decided to build a tool called the Check My Activity tool. This application allows students to check their grades, compare their results against the rest of the class, and see the percentage of time other students were logged onto the LMS. Although John hasn’t been able to confirm exactly why students continue using the tool, one of his theories is that it might be sparking some healthy peer competition. When students compare their grades against others, different things can happen:

Illustration showing what happens when students compare their grades against others: 1. They see they were above class average. They realize they did something right, and studied the subject matter correctly and understood it well. This makes them feel good and pushes them to continue doing well. 2. They see they are in the average percentile - which might not spark too much of a reaction - or they see how close they were to being in the top or bottom percentiles. It helps them understand that they should probably work a little harder to stand out. 3. They see that they are in at the bottom of the class which makes them feel like they “lost”. It pushes them to be better, to work harder for in the future. They also see that the students at the top spent more time on the LMS, which makes them wonder how they can take control of their own learning. Illustration: TriiBU.

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Taking control of one’s own learning could mean for students to actively connect to the LMS because they want to learn more, it means finding out what is coming up on the curriculum, what subject is coming up next, or if the teacher posted any new readings or assignments. This way students are actively engaged and interested in their academic well-being by being better prepared.

John further explains that it is in the teacher’s power to create courses that students want to log into and continuously find out what is new and going on, and also give them the tools that make taking control of their own learning easier. Here is where course design can be of importance because all the teaching and learning elements have to make sense and teachers should take advantage of the tools they have available to them in order to make education more enjoyable and dynamic. John is also working with faculty on how to make better use of all the tools available through Blackboard Learn in order to make their courses more dynamic.

According to John, the research literature shows, there are three main ways in which faculty uses any Learning Management System (LMS) like Blackboard Learn:


Icon: Content collection.

1. Content collection: Syllabus and course content are uploaded by course instructor and students log into the LMS once to download the content.

2. Communication: Blackboard Learn is used as a communication tool through discussion boards, announcements, and other general communication purposes. As a result, students can meet up and stay connected.

Icon: Communication.

Icon: Online assessments.

3. Online assessments: John explains that this is the least used tactic but the most powerful. This occurs when teachers post practice quizzes and exams to help students get ready for exams. This allows students to self-assess and understand where they need more work. Moreover, collecting student’s work electronically allows for adaptive release of content, which means the teacher could tell students that unless they pass a quiz, they won’t be able to turn in future assignments for credit. This makes students push themselves and do the work in order to move forward in the course. With this type of class format, students have a reason to go into the LMS and be proactive in their learning. When students learn to take a real interested and be proactive, their relationship to learning can change significantly and have a lasting impact for the rest of their lives.

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After having the Check My Activity Tool available to students, the university extended access to faculty as well. The tool shows teachers how actively their course is used by students compared to other courses in the same department. This has also sparked some competition between faculty who are now working towards making their courses more dynamic, aiming to get students more interested, and as result improving their grades.

UMBC and Blackboard’s collaboration on the development of Check My Activity is what sparked Blackboard’s interest in creating something as useful, but with a lot more resources, and thanks to this collaboration Blackboard Analytics was later born, released in 2012, giving teachers the ability to go deeper into student data and course performance.

This collaboration and the creation of both Check My Activity and Blackboard Analytics, allowing teachers to realize the correlation between LMS use and student grades, is what earned UMBC the Blackboard Catalyst Award for Leading Change, awarded for educational innovation and development of high impact educational strategies and practices or technologies that have a measurable effect on learning outcomes, student performance or academic progression.

Socrates once said that “education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel” and taking control of one’s own learning can lead to life-long learning – that is the kindling of a flame.

The use of technology clearly helps today’s students achieve the strength and desire to be life-long learners.

Jack Suess, vice president of information technology and chief information officer. John Fritz, associate vice president of information technology, and Kevin Joseph, director of business intelligence.Photo by Marlayna Demond for UMBC.

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