Archive for Online Learning

Don’t Just Throw It Out There: 4 Questions to Ask Yourself When Planning Your Upgrade from Wimba to Blackboard Collaborate

I recently was asked to write a guest blog post for Blackboard Collaborate

Amy Thornton worked in the instructional technology department of the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) for more than a decade where she administered numerous Blackboard technologies and spearheaded its upgrade from Wimba Classroom to Blackboard Collaborate web conferencing.  Amy is now at Columbus State University (GA), but because numerous schools throughout the world are currently going through this same upgrade process, we want to share Amy’s 4 questions to ask yourself when planning your upgrade.

1. How many Wimba users are there at your institution?

The answer to this question can affect how you will roll out your upgrade whether in cohorts, pilot or to everyone at once.  You must also consider your resources in terms of availability for training, support, and documentation.  You don’t want your staff to be overwhelmed by the workload of supporting this transition along with any other duties they may have.

2. What is your school’s upgrade strategy?

If you are like us, you have too much to get done and not enough people or time to do it.  It’s the world of higher ed!  Unless you have more staff than you know what to do with it (if you do…can I borrow a few), it is important to take into consideration what is on their plate.  I’m sure this is not the only thing they will be working on.  You will need time to update documentation, construct the messaging of promoting the move, work with any 3rd parties to address any issues (e.g., helpdesk – internal or external), testing of the new technology inside and outside the LMS.  Depending on your answer to the first question, does a phased approach make sense rather than rolling it out all at once?  Doing a pilot first can give your staff some additional time to work on documentation, learn the new technology, get feedback from your pilot group, and work through any potential issues.  When doing a pilot though, it also means you will be supporting two different products (technologies) at once, which can put added strain on your staff.

3. How will you communicate the upgrade to your school?

There are many ways to distribute information on a university campus.  Each campus has a different culture, so you know what works on your campus.  If distributing the information via e-mail, remember to start early and keep the information brief and relevant.  Folks are most likely to skim their e-mails especially if they are long, so ensure that you only include must-know information and chunk the information.  Chunking is not only useful for course design!  Provide your faculty with the language they need to give to their students, so the same consistent message is getting out there, or at least you are doing everything you can to ensure this.  Some editors are out of your control.

When making a move to a new platform, especially one that is quite a shift, it is important to keep the messaging positive.  Promote the features your users will gain by making the move.  Assure them that you (your staff) will be there every step of the way to provide support and even “hold their hand” if necessary.  This is also a great time to promote the use of a virtual classroom to those who never used Wimba.  One very important decision to make before beginning your promotion campaign, decide on what terminology will be used to describe the new platform (e.g., web conferencing, virtual classroom, Blackboard Collaborate, etc.).  Consistent messaging is a must.

4. What resources are available to you?

When making the move, take advantage of any and all resources at your disposal.  If you have a helpdesk whether internal or external, make sure and keep them in the loop so they can help field those 1st tier support calls as this might help in updating your documentation, knowledgebase, and/or messaging.  Don’t forget Blackboard Collaborate provides virtual workshops which can help get you over the hump when trying to train a large user base.  It offers the flexibility to allow your faculty to login from anywhere.

The most important thing to remember is to stay calm.  You don’t have to have all the answers from the beginning.  For those off the wall questions, that’s when you turn to your Blackboard Collaborate folks and beg for help!

To learn more about upgrading, visit our upgrade page at:

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The Secret Sauce to Personalization for Non-Traditional Students

I recently was asked to write another guest blog post for Hobsons along with my colleague Amanda Cascio…

In today’s world of Amazon, eBay, and Groupon, consumers readily comparison shop online retailers to search for what they want at bargain prices. Meanwhile, those same customers are notified of additional items to purchase based on previous visits and transactions.

Shopping is now all about the personal experience.

Personalization is the e-commerce industry’s secret sauce to success and for good reason.  With customizable filters, online personal shoppers, live chatting, and autofill personal and financial information at checkout, customer experience speaks volumes when consumers are on the hunt for the best bets for their money.

Higher Education Digital Marketing

It’s no different in higher education.  Students have an array of choices when it comes to deciding where they want to apply – whether a 2-year or 4-year, profit or non-profit, Ivy League or state, or technical or academic institution.

With all of these choices, how do you convince them that your institution is the right one?

In online education, specifically for non-traditional students, creating a personal experience takes on a whole new meaning.  Our students aren’t sitting in the dining hall on campus, they’re juggling a full-time job, family, and schoolwork at a Starbucks somewhere on the other side of the country.

So, how can we make them feel like part of our campus community?

One way to accomplish this is by reaching them where they are, online. Non-traditional students use various forms of communication to stay connected with their respected institutions.  Some like to text, while others like to tweet, and still others prefer good ol’ email.  So, why can’t we give them what they want?

To achieve a “win” online, you must provide the most personal experience possible.  How? Isn’t it feasible to let prospective and current students choose how they wish to receive communications from us?  Yes it is!

At The University of Southern Mississippi, we plan to do just that! By using our education CRM and another tool that aggregates communications, we intend to empower users to self-select how they communicate with us (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, text message, e-mail, LinkedIn). Moreover, we are also planning to personalize and offer convenient experiences by juxtaposing this initiative with Eagle Learning Online, our online learning network.  This will give our prospective students two-way communication channels that are accessible 24/7.

Video is another way to personalize student experience. By providing as much “face” time as possible with current students, faculty, and alumni, we produced recruitment videos for our programs and then embedded them into communications campaigns and social media. Our prospects now have the opportunity to dive into information from faculty and students who are actually completing their degree in a field they are interested in pursuing themselves.

Of course, social media plays a huge role in today’s personalization process.  Yet, with all the Facebook pages and Pinterest boards out there, how do you navigate the noise to create engaging, meaningful experiences that work with a non-traditional student’s schedule?

Social media contests have been around for a while now and why? Because they work, but only when they’re done right.  Before launching a contest, ask yourself:

  • Does this contest make sense for my school?
  • Is it aligned with our social media strategy and communications/marketing goals?
  • How will it relate to my students?
  • Does it offer value to them? How about the institution?
  • Is it more than just about winning a free iPad or gift card?

A great example for us higher ed people (feel free to steal) is a “Tweet us a picture” contest. For instance, ask prospects and current students to tweet a photo of their favorite learning space or even a candid of their reaction when they first made it on the dean’s list. This example not only allows you to engage with students based on their interests but also delivers data on how your online students learn best.

Here are a few examples of successful social media contests from the corporate world:

Personalized communication plans allow you to provide non-traditional students with information that is pertinent to their specific program of interest, learning styles, and initiates discussions about campus services most relevant to them.  This can include: program specific scholarship information, financial aid, transcript reviews, degree and technology requirements, class schedules, campus resource lists, and a warm and fuzzy personal message from program faculty.  We at USM’s Eagle Learning Online like to think our tagline says it best when providing a personalized experience for non-traditional students, “Your Life, Plus College.”

Personalization, it’s all about the secret sauce.  Shh . . . it’s a secret!

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Increased Engagement and Communication Through the Use of ConnectYard

I attended the Creating Futures Through Technology at the beginning of March in Biloxi, Mississippi.  This a local conference that is geared towards the use of technology in higher education in Mississippi.  This year, I presented along with my colleague Dr. Cindy Handley on our use of ConnectYard at USM.

Increased Communication and Engagement Through the Use of ConnectYard from ahornton

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Is Your CRM Making You More Efficient?

I was recently asked to be a guest blogger for Hobsons, so I am reposting that blog entry here…

How We Do CRM Implementation at Southern Miss

When thinking about how to effectively implement your customer relationship management (CRM) solution, it is important to review what your overall goals and objectives are for by asking these key questions

  • What type of student body do we want to attract and create?
  • How will implementation improve engagement and promote student success?
  • How will CRM shape our current communication strategy?
  • How will we analyze and measure the success of this implementation?

Lessons Learned: CRM Implementation 101

A mistake we made at The University of Southern Mississippi in our implementation was that we didn’t develop a comprehensive plan before moving forward.  This created issues when the number of our programs and prospective students grew faster than we could handle.

We also learned that it is just as important to consider your resources as it is your goals.  In theory, it’s nice to think it is possible to facilitate all the functionality within a CRM from the very beginning. Realistically, its best to give some preliminary thought into how this can be achieved.

A quick rule of thumb: it’s better to use a few functions within your CRM well rather than use all of the functions poorly. 

Your goals come into play here when trying to decide which functions are most appropriate to start off.  Begin by evaluating all of the functionality available within your CRM and line those functions up with your goals and objectives. Create a quick matrix like this one to get started.

The next step in your implementation process should be to develop a three to five year strategic plan to map out how you will achieve these goals and how functionality will be incorporated to do this.  Keep in mind that an effective strategic plan is a dynamic, living document open to collaboration.

Once you have your strategic plan in place, it is important to ensure that the CRM is making your processes more efficient, not just adding to your daily task list.  At Southern Miss, we use our CRM to manage the marketing and recruitment efforts for our fully online programs. Since 2009, our CRM use has grown tremendously.  We started with a single inquiry form for one program and have since grown to over thirty inquiry forms and thirty online programs.

Additionally, because of limited resources everything we do has to be scalable.  Using communication plans and workflow alerts, we have developed strategies that allow the CRM to work for us.

In short, having a CRM is a necessary tool when developing a successful marketing and recruitment strategy; just make sure you’re running the CRM and it’s not running you.

What have you learned from your higher education CRM implementation? What advice would you give to those preparing for implementation?

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Hobsons U – Driving Your Marketing to Increase Enrollment in Online Programs

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Hobsons University Conference in Nashville, TN for the first time.  The customer relationship management (CRM) we use, Intelliworks, was recently acquired by Hobsons, so attending their annual conference gave us a chance to learn what is available in additional products, resources, and upgrades.  The conference sessions gave us great opportunities to learn about some new ideas that we can implement to improve our marketing and recruitment efforts.  I met some great people from whom I learned a lot that work at other higher education institutions.  The conference was very well organized and the content of the sessions was great!  The only negative is that I came away with so many new ideas I don’t know how I will find the time to implement them all 🙂

At the conference, along with my colleague Amanda Cascio, we gave a presentation on, “Driving Your Marketing to Increase Enrollment in Online Programs.”  We discussed creative marketing approaches we used to increase enrollment for our online programs, including marketing and recruitment as a new service, implementation of a customer relationship management tool (CRM), development of program specific marketing and recruitment plans, and establishing and promoting our brand.

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Engagement, Persistence, and Retention: How USM use ConnectYard to Successfully Enhance these Key Factors

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the 2012 Blackboard World Conference in New Orleans, LA.  Blackboard World is always a huge conference with a lot of information.  Like years past, there were a lot of useful sessions and time well spent collaborating and meeting new folks from other schools learning about their experiences and key take aways.  There were several things I thought they could have done better, but the big negatives were the food and location.   Considering we were in a city known for their great food, what they provided at the conference was a disappointment.  And, although I love New Orleans, having to shuttle back and forth to the convention center from my hotel was a pain and the few times I had to walk the 2 miles to get to the other end of the convention center wasn’t pleasant, although admittedly the exercise was good for me 🙂 Overall, though I’m glad I was able to attend.

On the first day of the conference, along with my colleagues Sheri Rawls and Cindy Handley, we presented with ConnectYard.  We have been using ConnectYard for about a year to enhance the communication within our online courses.  ConnectYard provides the ability to set up alternate communication channels within Blackboard so students and faculty can self-select how they would like to receive discussion postings and announcements from their courses. They can select channels such as Facebook, Twitter, cell phone text messaging, or e-mail.  Feedback from our students and faculty has been overwhelmingly positive.  They like the customization of the service and that it allows them to access their messages from anywhere on their mobile devices.  We are currently pursuing other use cases for ConnectYard, such as for marketing and recruitment for our online programs and university wide communications among departments and online students.  To view our presentation, see below.

How USM Uses ConnectYard to Successfully Enhance Engagement, Persistence, and Retention Efforts from ahornton

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Technology in Training…Where Do I Start?

This a presentation I gave to the Jackson group of the Mississippi Chapter of American Society for Training and Development about using Technology in Training.  In the presentation, we discussed using Webinars to conduct virtual training, e-learning, and using clickers in training.

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