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Interview with Kenneth Chapman, Vice President of Market Strategy, Desire2Learn

About Kenneth Chapman

Kenneth Chapman is the Vice President of Market Strategy for Desire2Learn (D2L), creator of the Brightspace learning management system. He and his team work closely with information management system groups and EDUCAUSE to research grant opportunities and explore new learning innovations. In one such project, Mr. Chapman helped design a gaming and simulation builder that lets instructors easily create engaging learning activities using online course content.

Mr. Chapman has held a number of roles within D2L since 2002, including head of Research and Development. Several D2L patents are attributed to him. He earned dual bachelor’s degrees from the University of Guelph: one in Mathematics and Statistics; the other in Computing with a marketing specialization.

Interview Questions

[] Prospective students may worry online courses are less interactive than face-to-face courses. What features do learning management systems (LMSes) like Brightspace offer that help online learners feel connected to their programs and each other?

[Mr. Chapman] There are many ways that the online environment provides a richer interactive experience over face-to-face interactions.

Online learning enables there to be clarity on dates and expectations. Students have clearly laid out calendars of activities, and can receive notifications of changes to a course, helping to ensure that students know what is happening in their coursework, what is due, and what is expected of them. In our discussions with students, we often hear that this is their main concern and one of the main ways that online learning can help.

The ability to participate in a ‘safe’ environment is also one of the hallmarks of online learning. Not all students have the confidence (or language skills) to freely express themselves in a traditional course setting. Providing discussions, collaboration, and ePortfolio spaces online gives learners the ability to form and share their thoughts on their own time. We consistently see testimonials from students using our technology that they are now able to participate at a level they never thought possible before. They feel that the playing field has been leveled. Instructors always talk about those students ‘that come out of the woodwork’ in the online environment that are traditionally quiet in a classroom – which is what we make possible.

Online learning also gives students control over creating, managing and working with groups of their peers. This is something that happens naturally in a face-to-face environment, but can be difficult in many LMS-based systems, since group and collaborative work is controlled by the instructor. With Desire2Learn’s (D2L’s) Brightspace, students have access to a full collaboration suite that they control – they can form the groups they want and work with them the way they want. Instructors don’t have to manage this process – and as a result, it better represents and meets the needs of students. Unique to Brightspace, students can create groups with real-time document collaboration, organize and participate in online meeting rooms (including toll-free #s for those geographically distributed), create polls, chat, assign and track tasks. Students can also ultimately submit their work back to their course instructor if needed.

Online (education) also creates the opportunity to personalize the learning experience for students at a scale that simply isn’t possible in a face-to-face environment. Providing this personalization at scale is at the core of Brightspace’s mission to improve learning outcomes and help students succeed. We help instructors make personalization a reality by providing tools to differentiate instruction – if a student does well on an assignment, instructors can congratulate them immediately with a personalized message, and send links to enrichment or additional activities. The instructor sets up this communication once and then personalizes the communication for all students (we call this ‘Intelligent agents’). Similarly, these personalization tools can be used to nurture those students that are struggling and need some extra help, sending them remediation materials, or simply some words of encouragement.

[] Adaptive educational technologies like Brightspace’s LeaP track and automatically adjust to students’ learning needs. Researchers at the National Scientific Research Council of Canada suggest online students using this technology tend to retain more, earn higher test scores, and complete work faster than those using non-adaptive platforms. How does the technology work and why is it so effective?

[Mr. Chapman] A key aspect of why LeaP is successful is because it changes the instructor’s use of their time. In most LMSes, the instructor’s tasks are heavily weighted towards selecting content, sequencing it and performing administrative tasks. This process takes away from their ability to engage with and coach their students – and that’s what they are actually best at!

With LeaP, instructors spend a small amount of time telling the software what they want to teach; where the content is, including open educational resources (OERs), libraries, publishers, their own materials, etc.; and how they want to test their students’ knowledge. Once that is set up, instructors then have much more time at their disposal to do what they do best – work with, coach and mentor their students. The deep data that LeaP provides tells them which concepts the students are struggling with so that they can zero in on problem areas. This same data also tells them which content is most effective at helping students learn so that they can improve future lessons.

Students in LeaP have more control and freedom than a traditional ‘one size fits all’ LMS course. If they don’t understand a concept, there are always recommended readings so the student can learn more. In addition, practice questions are always recommended and immediate feedback given so students have a good idea of how they’re progressing. Students can work with LeaP to understand key concepts at their own pace and they aren’t left behind the way so many are when every student gets the same materials, in the same way, at the same time.

D2L believes that LeaP represents what next-generation learning environments need to do: Be centered around the learner and their specific needs, leveraging data and a breadth of content/materials that can provide a path towards each learner’s success. The feedback we’ve been getting from students and instructors is that we’ve struck a good balance between automating the delivery of materials to students and giving instructors (the experts) control over how the adaptive engine operates.

[] You gave a presentation at the 2014 EDUCAUSE Annual Conference on how professors can design engaging online courses. What tools and practices help faculty new to online instruction succeed?

[Mr. Chapman] Faculty new to online course design and instruction need to think about students’ motivations – and how feedback and interaction with the instructor can help them recognize their achievements and motivate them to improve. Faculty should use tools like media feedback to make students feel more [supported academically], providing them with personalized communication that recognizes their progress and gives them direction on what to focus on next.

At D2L, we provide tips to faculty and instructors on how to leverage Universal Design for Learning to ensure that all learners are able to be successful. It is important to design alternative and flexible ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge. In April of 2015, we launched our Game Based Activity Builder for instructors to easily create visual games, complete with leaderboards and avatars. These can be built from the content instructors already have in their course. Since launch, we have received phenomenal feedback on the usability and effectiveness of this tool.

[] I reviewed another presentation you prepared for EDUCAUSE highlighting the benefits of big data in education. How do online colleges and instructors use learner analytics to improve learning outcomes??

[Mr. Chapman] The effective use of Big Data in education is really about providing actionable insight at the time it is needed. It’s all about finding and putting the correct data in the correct context for a person to do something about it. Far too often ‘Analytics’ and ‘Big Data’ are thought of as their own thing, rather than something to be used to solve a larger problem. For example, when an instructor is reviewing and monitoring their course, they ultimately want to understand: “How are my students doing, who is at risk, and why? What can I do to put them on a path to success?” D2L uses Big Data and predictive analytics via our Student Success application to answer exactly those questions for instructors. Our technology shows instructors a list of their students, how they are trending throughout the course and what risk factors (dropout, poor performance) they exhibit. The instructor can then determine the appropriate intervention and implement it in Brightspace via differentiated instruction, creating agents to watch for risky behavior or engaging with the student directly.

Colleges are starting to adopt these technologies quite quickly. We’ve seen a great deal use tools such as Student Success and Degree Compass, which predicts which courses a student should take in a degree program to maximize his or her chances of completing their degree on time, with relevant courses and a high GPA. Two- and four-year colleges have been adopting these tools thus far faster than [research universities].

With the launch of our second generation Big Data platform in the cloud, D2L is at the forefront of supporting IMS Caliper [Learning Analytics]. This makes insights from data even more powerful by pulling in learning data from tools outside of Brightspace. This helps to provide what instructors truly need – a 360-degree view of the learner.

[] What advice would you offer students preparing for their first online course? How can they increase their chances of succeed?

[Mr. Chapman] I actually think that students have the least to worry about; D2L makes the environment easy to use, and we make it to reflect what most individuals expect from a web application (mobile, notifications, simple and clear tools, social, etc.). Students need to have a basic literacy for using technology, but outside of that we take great strides to ensure that they don’t need plug-ins and other deep technology knowledge that can quickly get in the way of their learning. At D2L, it is core to our values that we make sure all learners can access the environment. This means that learners with poor bandwidth, vision problems, or learning disabilities are properly accommodated and have equal access to an awesome learning experience.

If I had to give advice to students, it would be to take advantage of personal management tools (task lists, calendars, group spaces, integration with Google, Dropbox, etc.) to make sure they are getting the most out of their environment – and the opportunities to collaborate and learn from other students. Students not used to interacting with others online might benefit from taking advantage of these unique ways you can connect online.

[] What about faculty and administrators? What can they do to get the most from learning management systems and other instructional tools?

[Mr. Chapman] I think administrators need to ensure they are providing enough control over the learning experience to their instructors. Often times we see the capabilities of the learning environment ‘locked down’ for instructors, which can take away some of the interesting, innovative, and effective ways they can work with students. We have seen customers succeed when administrators recognize that there are basic and advanced users. By allowing the advanced users to showcase the power of a truly personalized and connected learning environment, they can inspire even the more basic users to explore the most interesting uses of the environment, beyond uploading presentations and tracking grades.