Case Study: Saint Leo University & Ucroo Digital Campus
Office of Teaching and Learning Innovation
The 2017 Horizon Report suggests that all colleges and universities are seeking a “Next-Generation Learning System.” A myriad of reasons underlay this need, but the report goes on to say that, “the overarching goal of next-generation LMS is to shift the focus of these platforms from enabling administrative tasks to deepening the act of learning.” Next-gen systems will do this through advances in highly effective and usable tools, connect-ability between people, artificial intelligence acting as agents, and meaningful data capture as well as usage in both trending (long term) and monitoring (real time). It is also important to note that the Horizon Report theorizes adoption of these systems is two to three years away.
On August 15, 2016, Saint Leo University launched Lions SHARE, the basis for a Next Generation Learning System. This system, consisting of 7 “major,” integrated platforms and dozens of “minor” applications set the stage for a SMART, adaptive, artificial intelligence, and IoT based experience by which to help students learn more effectively and teachers instruct more efficiently. All of this also includes a vast set of “hooks” by which to perform data analysis both in real time (monitoring) as well as longitudinally (trending).
The primary platform creating the connected nature of Lions SHARE is Ucroo Digital Campus. Working with Saint Leo and several other commercial / OER tools and organizations, Ucroo tightly knit together the people, resources, and experiences that Saint Leo desired for the organization.
Overview: Saint Leo University’s Lions SHARE
Saint Leo University, once a noted pioneer in eLearning, believes they are one of the first institutions of higher education to have assembled and leveraged across the entire enterprise a true, Next-Generation Learning System. Labeled, “Lions SHARE” (note the apostrophe is missing by design), this learning ecosystem creates an experience for students, faculty, and staff that is singular in nature. In other words, when students go from 1 commercial system to another, they do not realize it as the systems look and feel similar, while acting with interdependence.
At the same time, the five user-facing and four “hidden” tools combine to create some of the most valuable, real-world, highly effective functionalities ever assembled in a learning context. The white-labeled tools known to learners simply as, “SOCIAL (Ucroo Digital Campus), COURSES (D2L), WHITEBOARD (MeTL), and PRODUCTIVITY (Office365)” are supported behind the scenes by world-class, cloud-based, technological infrastructure.
But these tools do not simply give learners the ability to create, share, and evaluate better, faster, and with more innovation; the system is designed to foster hyper-connectivity. Students can engage in varied degrees of socialness, organizational connectedness, and peer to peer learning experiences throughout the system. And per the Horizon Report, Lions SHARE is not a shift from streamlining administration to deepening learning; instead the system promotes both to their maximum potential as both attributes are essential.
Likewise, the data collected and leveraged for artificial intelligence is not simply gathering what is easy to find, but what is meaningful to use. Far beyond grades, attendance, and end-of-course surveys, Lions SHARE gathers and uses information about behaviors, aptitudes, and disposition. This world-class system incorporates demographics, psychographics, satisfaction, personality, and real-time behavioral analytics to promote better learning experiences as well as driving efficiency and success.
Lions SHARE is a Next-Generation Learning Ecosystem that is ever expanding, iterating, and driving learning at Saint Leo University in ways never before seen in higher education. Importantly, the key platform connecting people, process, and programming is Ucroo Digital Campus.
Overview: Ucroo Digital Campus
Commercially launched in 2013, Ucroo Digital Campus is a contemporary portal, providing a personalized connection platform where students can quickly and easily access people, information, and systems across the university, throughout their entire student lifecycle. Ucroo began working with several of the 40 Universities in Australia and in 2017, moved operations to the United States, now with offices in both Melbourne, Victoria (Aus) and Denver, CO (USA).
Ucroo began conversations with Saint Leo University in the Spring of 2016, implementing a full-scale rollout of Ucroo as “Lions SHARE Social” by Fall, 2016. Saint Leo immediately saw a significant uptick in usage of both the portal concept as well as the tools connecting students to other processes and services (95% usage within targeted population vs 55% previous to Ucroo).
Through strategic and technological iteration and consultation, Ucroo and Saint Leo partnered to create Ucroo as the “front door” experience for all students, faculty, and staff. Effectively acting as both a front-end interface, as well as middleware by which to connect the tools, departments, and services Saint Leo desired, Ucroo replaced the portal with a much richer, modern, mobile and web based experience.
The partnership continues today.
Saint Leo saw several years of overwhelming growth due to the early adoption of online learning as a major, strategic initiative. However, by 2014, most peer and non-peer schools alike had adopted eLearning as a strategy. As a result, Saint Leo knew they were coming into a season of reduced enrollments. This created a need for greater focus on retention and persistence strategies, at least by some at the school. As a result, the exiting President brought in a Chief Innovation Officer to better address risk and success profiles, cross-departmental retention strategies, and analytics that would illuminate both problems and symptoms. The Chief Innovation Officer identified one key area as a potential way to facilitate massive aid and support to retention efforts in the form of an institutional platform for both learning and risk / success support.
Saint Leo desired a multi-tenant, omni-directional, single (perceived) user experience. The experience needed to tie together experiences, intervention points, and data around the three corners of the “Learning Triangle.” As often as possible, the tools needed to leverage API technology (allowing for far superior, richer, more holistic user data), with LTI being used as a second (less desirable) choice. Integration work would be performed by Saint Leo as possible (University Technology Services) who employ a staff which includes 4 programmers, but much of the integration work would be performed by each partner and potentially by a strategic initiative budget won by Amazon AWS.
Saint Leo University wanted to apply strong, replicated research regarding engagement, affinity, and mindset from researchers such as Dweck, Medina, McGonigal, and many more. This application would marry the strong cognitive work higher ed has pushed from the start of the University as we know it, adding in now-understood and extremely important concepts such as connection and mindfulness to improve major initiatives at the school; namely to improve enrollment, retention / persistence, and alumni affinity. To do this work as quickly as possible, Saint Leo sought out a solution that would help its people do what they did best, while allowing for new and updated processes to augment with existing work, creating a genuine “experience” for all students, faculty, and staff.
Apart from infrastructure, most of which had to be curated separately from the user experience (UX), a primary platform had to be established. This platform would replace an outdated Sharepoint portal which had been built more than a decade earlier, but had no ROI associated, nor was it leveraged by students, faculty, or staff meaningfully. The existing conglomeration of links to many tools as well as some efficiencies to email, did contain notification options, however the communication coming from and through the container was not leveraged by users. The following quote from a Saint Leo Director explains it best, “The portal does a great job at making things impossible to find and an even better job convincing the university that important messages have been read, when they have not.” The existing portal was not mobile, did not promote or diminish links other than through forced scrolling, contained obvious errors at all times, and had no way of engaging users socially.
The office of Teaching and Learning Innovation, directed by the Chief Innovation Officer, brought in Ucroo Digital Campus as the solution to all of the previously stated problems and more. Not only would Ucroo allow students to grow with the solution, ensuring “touch points” throughout the (literal) entirety of the student lifecycle, but it encouraged community, communication, mobile and web access, promotion of important links or service, notification pass through, and API rich integration options. After several months of searching and vetting, Ucroo Digital Campus appeared to be uniquely qualified to create such a platform for hyper-connection and was chosen in December of 2015 as the platform.
Teaching and Learning Innovation (TALI) members sought to implement Lions SHARE in a multi-dimensional, holistic fashion. They believed that a pocketed or partial implementation would lead to the trouble many solutions at the University faced – the silo effect. TALI workers were convinced that almost every single solution brought to bear at the university were too narrow in scope, as they impacted only one stream of student type, department, or program, and also promoted even deeper silos of data, impact, and expertise. So, when anyone at the University found a “better way” or needed to include data or information sets previously unavailable, these silos proved to be prisons of process, programming, or positioning, with no easy way to escape. So, TALI sought to push this solution across stakeholder types, across University departments, and across all modalities of learning.
Apple Inc produced research in the 1990’s and early 2000’s showing that technology takes time to create meaning and relevance. Frankly, it found that transformation from technology is rare prior to four years of usage. Figure 4 exemplifies the arc of transformation:
Figure 4 Based on findings from "Teaching in High Tech Environments: Classroom Management Revisited” First-Fourth Year Findings (Apple Inc - Report 10)
To this end, the student initiatives would be targeted at new, previously un-oriented students vs existing, seasoned students, some of whom had already found other pathways to socialness or engagement. In other words, TALI “leaned into” the four year, transformation concept, applying training and usage techniques to students who would not know any differently. Lions SHARE (and by proxy, the SOCIAL engagement platform of Ucroo) was actively promoted during Freshman / New Student Orientation, in the First Year Experience course, and with all enrollment and admissions workshops. These students did not receive information about the existing portal, with all appropriate links now appearing in Ucroo and even promoting links to students based on persona (e.g. – Freshmen would see First Year Experience links whereas Seniors would not, etc). With this strategy in place, it would take 4 years before (effectively) all undergraduate students were actively using Lions SHARE and Ucroo (SOCIAL) as the default system of Saint Leo University. While the platform was available to all, and through grass-roots adoption, did become a highly used system, the rate of usage by Freshman was 97% of users per week. Based on studies of individual technologies from the portal to the LMS, this was 40-42% more consistent usage. But over the natural, four-year transformation, the student body would norm the platform.
While students were trained or oriented to the platform, based on surveys and behavioral analysis that Ucroo required very little instruction due to the intuitive nature of the system, Student-Ambassadors were also utilized in a people-connection capacity. Three student workers through the TALI office, in addition to one Super Admin helped connect other students to offices, departments, services, and various stakeholders through the use of keyword monitoring (provided as part of the Ucroo platform), and through “trolling” of the All-Student activity feed. Individual Group Admins, created during implementation (e.g. – the University staff Group Administrator of the Athletic Department or the financial aid office Group Administrator) also leveraged “keyword monitoring” to assist students with questions or issues that had previously been a barrier, such as how to pay a parking ticket or how to find a research librarian, etc. But effectively the platform resourcing requirements from a Super Admin perspective were quite low. Across TALI it is estimated that aside from the 10 hours per student work (per week) needed to help bolster usage of the system, the platform itself required approximately .25 FTE of two full-time employees. This is based on the need to administer project management, change management, and communication management across the main-campus, 44 centers, and for the 1/3 of students who are fully online.
The members of the TALI did not believe a full implementation would be successful without buy-in and (ideally) adoption / usage by faculty. This included full-time faculty who, like most higher education professors, struggle to find time for new technology, nor do they have the disposition for any technology that appears to be used for its own sake. Likewise, this tool was to be inclusive of the large adjunct population. (Saint Leo University had a ratio of 9 adjuncts to 1 full-time faculty, as of 2016.)
So, in addition to some formal training as well as just-in-time assets (largely video), various Groups were created in Ucroo to encourage non-student experiences. Despite being a teaching university, Saint Leo faculty have a research component to promotion and tenure. So, a Research group was created, seeing (by some) for the first time, interdisciplinary discussions and presentation of findings. This promotion of departmental and personal research proved a strong “hook” for some. Likewise, a formal “Teach Better” group was made available to instructors. But likely the most used Group was (is) a natural component of Ucroo Digital Campus – the Subject Group. In this area, students and faculty alike can discuss a course (content, process, textbooks, etc) without the walls of sections. In other words, all Math 110 students along with every professor teaching Math 110 (both full-time and adjunct) can discuss the inner workings of the course. While not used for every course, several departments found this function to act as a strong marketing play, allowing students to talk with professors about courses they had not intended to take, but after healthy conversations decided to.
The modular nature of the Ucroo implementation was helpful as it pertained to staff. There were departments who did not have an executive sponsor (an executive VP) that wanted to spend time or resources on using the platform to dovetail with existing initiatives or processes. So, those modules were either left “off” or simply left to the crowd-sourced nature of students, who would take on the charge of helping other students with whatever that office or department was responsible for.
But for those departments that did participate, leveraging the new modes and channels by which to engage students, the implementation team did everything possible to assist. Using similar techniques to the faculty rollout, formal training as well as just-in-time experiences were created. These were performed face to face (including at center locations), online, via video conferencing, synchronously, asynchronously, etc. Staff (particularly at centers) found the platform to be an excellent way to create a walled-garden experience that also allowed for quick, effective communication.
Of note, one group of staff were in the Communications department. Initially skeptical of “yet another system” to manage, they were not interested initially. The TALI office performed an experiment prior to launch. An email was sent to out with a click-through link which demanded action. The email was of the highest priority (sent from the VPAA) yet saw only 19% of respondents appropriately click. However, after Lions SHARE was up and running (initially with fewer commercial integrations than in the architecture above, using only the LMS, D2L, and Microsoft), a similar message was sent. This message used email with the addition of a “pinned” announcement, plus push notifications (both mobile and web) from the system. This new communication saw a 67% click-thru. Immediately the Communication office began asking for training.
Finally, regular “showcase” events were held by the TALI department, illustrating to the various offices and organizations at Saint Leo what projects were being worked on. This included Lions SHARE and also included capabilities and options for usage. When it came to SOCIAL (Ucroo), these presentations proved invaluable as there were always new staff who did not know of the power or efficiencies driven by the platform.
Two significant problems caused the implementation of Lions SHARE (in general) as well as SOCIAL (Ucroo specifically) to be less than what it could be. First, the nature of many universities (Saint Leo included), is to be siloed. Senior Vice-Presidents and Directors rarely work in an interdisciplinary fashion. So, without genuine collaboration between the Vice-Presidents or Presidential / CIO / Provost mandate, the implementation of a silo-bridging tool which might span an entire university is not easy. The ability to “modularize” the Ucroo offering definitely helped implementation as specific groups were never given permission to put resources or time against the platform. However, the irony of silos as a barrier to a silo-busting tool were made apparent in the third year of implementation. In year three, one of the departments created an RFP, seeking a toolset that would do what SOCIAL was already designed to do. The 10-15% of functionality the tool did not have could be customized at a fraction of the cost and with no recurring licensing. However, as the executive sponsor of that particular stream of the University did not know what Ucroo Digital Campus was capable of, they sought a second solution. (Luckily, this effort was curtailed and discussions are happening at the writing of this document.)
The second issue was on the implementation team. Leaving the existing portal turned on through year three was likely unnecessary. From a statistical perspective, giving older students the option of using bad technology meant a continued low-usage rate for those platforms and systems. Once the existing portal was removed, analytics like bounce-rate and unique-weekly-users saw a significant uptick. In other words, the team over-valued the issue of change and it was likely to the detriment of the students and the school.
A serious look at every Lions SHARE component is part of the project plan, per tool. In the short life-span of the learning ecosystem, some resources are already being sunsetted (or are close to it). However, the adoption of Ucroo as the “front door” to the system (in addition to a middleware component) has proved to be powerful. Not only have initial findings shown a correlation to retention and persistence metrics (term to term registration), but the capabilities for staff to help students in new, desirable, highly efficient ways has proven quite positive. The addition of the Alumni module (vs the existing Alumni Group creation) is of great interest to the university.
In 2017, Saint Leo University had a massive blow of bad luck with three major hurricanes impacting not only the main campus, but centers in the Keys, Houston, and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the affected students fled their cities / states and have no intention of returning. As a result, there is an enrollment crisis which is significantly impacting the bottom line of the school. (Although it was quite powerful to be able to communicate with students via multiple channels throughout the storms.) But it is good to know that the infrastructure decisions around Lions SHARE and SOCIAL (Ucroo) will help create a more connected, higher persistence experience for students, faculty, and staff as we move forward and recover from these natural disasters.
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