The cloud is transforming teaching and learning as we know it, while fast-tracking education improvement from primary school to university. It allows educators the ability to collaborate on content, share information and even asses projects.
The University of Pretoria (UP) has been a client of Blackboard, a virtual learning environment and learning management system, for the past two decades and, over the years, has integrated all other solutions of the Blackboard portfolio. Their managed-hosting deployment has been instrumental in delivering an enhanced teaching and learning experience to students and faculty. To further build on these successful outcomes, UP decided to move to a SaaS deployment to reap the benefits it provides, while ensuring that staff and students continued to leverage all the features of the original experience.
Thanks to the AWS-powered SaaS deployment, the University University has had the ability to scale the solution across their entire growing student body and has had access to the platform with no downtime. Solutions such as Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) and Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) have improved the overall learning experience at the university.
In an interview with IT News Africa, head of E-Learning at the University of Pretoria, Dolf Jordaan unpacks the role that the cloud has played in enabling e-Learning in South Africa and specifically how the cloud has impacted and enhanced teaching and learning at the university.
1. How does the Blackboard Learn application work and why did the University decide to bring this technology onboard?
The University of Pretoria (UP) has a rich history of integrating technology into teaching and learning. The University was one of the first Higher Education Institutions to implement a Learning Management System (LMS) in 1998. The LMS became a vital institutional system which students acknowledged to impact their success. In 2016, The University of Pretoria moved its public web to the AWS cloud to deliver a world-class digital presence to provide global and national users high-availability access to the UP web.
Recently the University migrated their Learning Management System (LMS) and Learning Analytics systems to the AWS cloud and today lecturers have the ability to collaborate on content, share information, lecture students, upload videos and even assess projects through Blackboard Learn mobile application. Blackboard provides innovative education technology and services that help drive student success. The online platform can be accessed from anywhere at any time and almost a third of logins derive from mobile phones It allows students universal access to teaching and learning content with no risks of system outages during critical periods of the academic year. A fundamental teaching and learning focus of UP is to provide multiple learning opportunities in a resource‐rich environment by considering the most effective “blended” learning model to support student success. Access to a stable and robust educational technology eco-system is vital to support this and other student success strategies. Its 100 per cent availability is highly valued by the users.
2. With 20 years on the Blackboard why did UP decide to move to a SaaS deployment?
The mission-critical role of the LMS to support the Institution Teaching and Learning strategies, including a data-driven student success approach necessitates a highly available and scalable system. The growth in the integration of Big Data Analytics into teaching and learning is associated with the affordances of cloud solutions such as AWS, which offers Universities the opportunity to integrate learning analytics into its LMS. The University’s Blackboard Analytics for Learn and Predictive analytics systems are hosted in the AWS cloud. Blackboard Predict is an application that generates estimates about students’ progress by using historical data about student demographics and success from the Student Information System (SIS), and activity and grade data from the Learning Management System (LMS).
3. Why was it important for the University to transition to the cloud?
The University of Pretoria moved to AWS as our cloud services provider for the LMS, and related Analytics for Learn Data system in December 2018. We saw an increase in the student as well as instructor activity in the first five months of 2019 in comparison to the first five months in 2018. Nearly 50 000 students and 2 500 instructors were active in the LMS in the first five months of 2019. The following increases were visible in the first five months of 2019:
• Student course accesses: 25 per cent
• Average logins per user: 10 per cent
• Student Session interactions: 25 per cent
• Distinct student users: 5 per cent
The move to AWS significantly contributes to supporting our institutional teaching and learning and student success strategies as it provides users with an online experience with which they are familiar.
4. How has AWS cloud enhanced learning at the University?
As a Blackboard client for more than two decades, the migration of the LMS to the AWS was one of the most professional, we had the privilege to experience. The professional support ensure that the migration was completed in less than a third of the indicated time, therefore limited user impact during the migration. Having access to 24/7/365 support including real-time communication via Bb system administrator with the AWS team has recently shown its value via system monitoring processes which informed us of the impact of national connectivity issues for our on-campus users’ access to the LMS. It demonstrates the value of the ability of systems to deliver proactive warnings, which enabled us to manage related systems impact on the users’ experience. Another recent example of the value of AWS scalability is a request to activate Natural Language querying functionality in the Analytics Data warehouse software. The implication is adding additional memory to each runtime engine server, therefore demonstrate scalability of the AWS cloud.
The University will soon launch its new institutional mobile application. The state-of-the-art application is developed by EiffelCorp as a local vendor in collaboration with Modo labs. Modo Labs is a mobile solution using the AWS cloud. The UP leverage the AWS high performance, redundancy and availability to provide users access to another world-class experience.
5. How do technological advancements in education impact institutions of higher learning?
The number one strategic goal of the University for 2017 – 2021 is to enhance access and successful student learning. A subsequent strategic teaching and learning priority is to promote student success through a data-driven approach. The integration of descriptive and predictive data systems into the teaching and learning eco-system allows the university the opportunity to assimilate the use of data into its FLY @ UP campaign. FLY stands for The Finish Line is Yours. FLY@UP adopted UPO, the University of Pretoria’s compulsory online orientation module, as its flagship programme and aligned the content and messaging of UPO with that of FLY@UP. All new first years are registered for the UPO module assigned to their faculty, which is developed by EI and administered per faculty by the FSA. UPO had a 90% completion rate in 2018.
Lecturers also integrate technology into their classroom practice. The use of clicker or audience response systems enables lecturers to measure students learning in real-time during lectures. Lecturers can analyse student responses to questions during class to adapt their instruction based on student comprehension feedback.
6. In your opinion what is the state of e-learning in Africa?
E-Learning and m-learning have the potential to improve access to education, yet there are not many Universities in Africa with access to the level of skills and hardware resources demanded to provide 24/7/365 service to their users using institutional systems for either teaching and learning or research purposes. Also, will Higher Education in Africa in the fourth industrial revolution requires access to hardware and skills to keep up with the pace of innovation. It will involve a shift in focus from maintenance and acquisition of technology to the efficient use of it within the specific domain of Higher Education. Universities will have to adapt technology strategies to ensure that they will be able to keep up to date with latest trends and innovations by integrating cloud services. From a user perspective, innovations will demand frequent access to the internet access and the reliability of cloud services. It is difficulty to foresee a future for Higher-Education in Africa without access to cloud services such as those provided by AWS cloud services.