Blackboard Education Leadership Forum 2013

Strategies to improve student recruitment engagement and retention

This one day event was an opportunity for both Blackboard and users of its software to showcase their ideas and experiences. These notes summarise what I took away from the day, the full set of slides will be sent to participants later, and I will share with colleagues as necessary.

Some of the most interesting comments were from Rick van Sant at the end of this piece  – for example how to drive technology adoption in an institution and the impact of requiring all marks to be in grade book.

The other idea I particularly like is the use of students to provide technical support, at least to other students, if not to staff.

MOOCs inevitably make an appearance, but the hype seems to have gone, and people are trying to identify the reasons for doing them.

 Jay Bhatt, (CEO, Blackboard)

Jay suggested we are approaching a perfect storm in education and need to ask the questions:

What is the value proposition?

Is the education interaction available the right one?

He felt that BB has opportunity to influence perfect storm.

Compared to other markets, there appears to be a lateness in globalisation of education, but this is now happening in areas of population growth

He cited the lack of universities and HE places in China, suggesting that they will turn to western brands and online education.

Considering the US, where 76 % of high school students have a mobile device, why do educators still use textbooks?

Looking ahead to Education 2020, we need to understand where education is going. This will involve:

  • Truly global – By 2020 40% of all college grads will come from  India and China
  •  Non-traditional learners – In US 85% of learners are non-traditional
  •  Consumer preferences – current course constructs are antiquated
  • Learner centric education
  •  Big data in mainstream – even BB isn’t doing enough on this   Data should support retention. How can we use analytics to support this?
  •  Online mobile everywhere – online enrolments has grown 10x growth rate of traditional enrolments

Jay recognised that BB has to improve- products not well integrated with each other. They could be better at innovation and needed to be a better citizen to the education industry

The BB plan for the future is : Accelerate, integrate, innovate

On MOOCs, he suggested that the key thing is that they bring attention to online large scale education .

On Citizenship- BB need to be contributing back to industry and used  BB Connect and push technology for reporting bullying through use of a  mobile device. BB have decided not to monetise this, and pushed it out free to US school districts

Blackboard Labs will deliver some innovations into public area for beta testing, for example the development of an online polls system, instead of voting clickers

 Sue Rigby, University of Edinburgh

This presentation was on how Edinburgh we using BB for recruiting and positioning. As a research focused institution, they want to recruit international elite who can afford the fees and by 2020 want 15000 postgraduates with  50% of these off campus.

They intend to achieve this via online delivery and aggressive marketing with an increased digital presence for marketing .

They intend to place courses and programmes online, in particular part time vocational masters, with  10 new awards per year.

They don’t  think MOOCs will transform education for Edinburgh, despite the fact they have run them through Coursera. They are now exploring if MOOC can be shared with U21 network. However a large number of students were exposed to Edinburgh through MOOCs and this was cheaper than any other form of marketing.

Edinburgh also ran an online open day which attracted 400 unique visitors from 60 countries. This included the use of academics in chat rooms. This meant huge training requirements and although moderately effective was not sustainable.

Edinburgh now use static video to showcase masters awards.

There were incidental benefits though- more digital awareness, more trained academics, , more focus on marketing as a valid activity, more preparedness to try new things

It was noted that lots of academics are neither digital natives nor even digital converts, and still rely on papers and books.

Esther Jubb , University of Derby Online

Now running 23 online programmes with 65% of students from UK. In 2009 there were 1100 students with £1m turnover – that is now 2400 students and £4.4m turnover. In the University, part time students contribute is 44% of income and 29% of student numbers.

The key message was –  It’s hard!!!!

The Derby online model is to use a dedicated separate business unit.

The biggest difference is in how academic staff are used. Discipline leads exist in the unit who line manage associate lecturers who are remote from the university. Derby Online Recruit online specialists to deliver the programmes, thus ensuring that everyone is dedicated to being an online tutor. There has been no problem recruiting Specialist online tutors. May even  be working for other unis! Offer them support and a community of practice

Student recruitment is carried out using a virtual open day using BB collaborate, and is focused on individual programmes and the support services available. There is a 40 to 50% conversion rate at open days!

To support engagement and retention, Online learning advisors, like a client manager, will proactively check students, eg if not engaging with learning materials.

It was noted that students want learning experience to be consistent. Lecturers have to use a common template. There are also content development standards – since learning content is commissioned not just from Derby staff.  Derby Online se “universal design for learning” so don’t need to make further reasonable adjustments.

The following success factors were cited- executive support, evolution after10 years, clear focus on online only, the existence of the perfect storm where technology is here and people are comfortable with it, tough economic climate

There were some issues though – Derby Online don’t use the existing TEL team as they are funded by faculties. There was also an issue of access to library budgets.


Peggy Brown Syracuse University

Peggy talked about the impact of MOOCs on recruitment and retention. At Syracuse, all staff are already required to teach online as they are a  well-known and established online provider. However it is different teaching in MOOCs, compared  to credit bearing course.

She cited the need to recognise institutional motivation behind running a MOOC eg for professional development, to provide a certificate of completion or even earn a scholarship

Syracuse therefore used their MOOC as a marketing tool – successful completion meant that studnets had fees waived for part of the course they subsequently enrolled in.

 Angie Clonan and Luke Miller, University of Sheffield

Angie and Luke presented on an internally funded development to develop MOOCs when there was institutional indecision about MOOCs.

They used BB coursesites as the staff were already familiar with the software, which was open and robust

The stats were:

  • 1394 join requests
  • 1048 registered
  • 603 started
  • 136 continued to end and 73 certificates issued.

Not everyone was interested in getting a certificate. Participants were from 61 countries. From evaluation, the reasons for non-completion were time commitment and technical. Incentives to complete would have been more valuable accreditation, access to instructor, reduced time commitment

It was difficult to evaluate or to provide cost benefit analysis howver the cost was about £70k for all 3 MOOCs.


Wendy Kilfoil,  University of Pretoria

Wendy spoke about the use of Learning Analytics in a country with 15% HE participation rate. Overall the country has 27% dropout in first year and only 25% complete in 3 years, while at Uni of Pretoria the figures are much better, with  8.1% dropout and 39% completing in 3 years.

Now using analytics for BB Learn. Integrated BB and Oracle Peoplesoft  and,then get lecturers to commit to putting formative marks on BB.

The system enables students to reflect on their progress and allows faculty staff to feedback on course design. The university provides dashboards for a range of different users, eg student, lecturers, award leaders, deans, exec


Rick van Sant, (Blackboard)

The final talk of the day was about improving experience through technology adoption

We are probably in late majority in developed world, and early adopters in developing world , so the lifecycle position depends on which market you are in.

There may be a chasm in lifecycle caused by  MOOCs, regulations etc and other disruptions .

Considering a capability maturity curve, Rick felt that 80% of universities were still in phase 1 , or exploratory phase.  Hardly any were in the phase where elearning had become mission critical. This suggested that institutions needed to know where they are, to be able to identify where to go next .

Rick suggested the need for an elearning adoption ecosystem, which cannot be based on a single technology or product. The ecosystem is about building the digital culture. As part of this, Blackboard should be owned by the teaching and learning community and not the IT department

For a successful ecosystem to develop, the following were proposed:


  • Dedicated eLearning coordinator or distributed champions
  • Use students for blackboard support!! Even Faculty staff will learn about tech from students
  • Senior academic leadership to drive vision
  • Policy development to facilitate eLearning eg hiring policy, appraisal
  • Level of person and course usage – analytics
  • Clear differentiation between passive and active engagement – is it just a repository for information Digital business processes complementing digital learning- need to create a digital culture, re social media, wifi, mobile etc.
  • What is the university strategy to 21st century education and digital culture.
  • All of these need to be connected.

Rick also talked about the barriers to adoption by faculty staff:

  • Fear of the unknown- knowing fear is there means we can understand why there’s problem
  •  If it ain’t broke – can we answer why they need to do something different
  • We’re all alone  in this together – divide and rule, ego surrounding what we are as academics
  • Know thyself – don’t know ourselves as teachers, why would you know about science of t&l?


He suggested that there are four types of faculty-

  • Entrepreneurs
  • Risk averse
  • Reward seekers
  • Reluctant

which can be plotted as a 2 x 2 matrix of motivation on x axis and skill on y axis.


The most important factor to success in technology adoption is ease of use, which is why they have been making BB easier to use.

Suggested there should be Faculty wide demos,  Lots and lots of training, creation of champions and mentors,  help centres located where staff are located, newsletters (no more than 1 page)with tips for beginners and pros.

He concluded by saying we need to be creating a new norm driven by top down institutional value change and bottom up student demand. This can be supported by management policies to support digital usage and providing the right technology. Finally he suggested that requiring faculty to enter all grades in grade book would lead to staff getting over the fear of using the system. This could lead to rapid expansion of use of other features by staff, plus students respond to grade book if there is rapid and constant feedback!