Photo Marco D’Alessio, Learning Architect at Laureate International Universities.

How Blackboard Learn Can Help Develop a New Classroom Design to Increase Student Retention


The following story is an update of an article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on May 22, 2017. Click here for the Spanish version.

Designing a new classroom model can be a real challenge. With Blackboard Learn, however, Laureate International Universities have been able to do so over the past two years, bringing the new classroom design to all online students.

Laureate International Universities (LIU) is formed by a network of 60 campus-based and online universities in over 15 countries around the globe. Laureate is considered the largest network of degree-granting higher education institutions in the world1, with more than one million students worldwide enrolled in undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

One of Laureate’s affiliates is the University of Roehampton-London, which has been a part of a unique project since 2016. The initiative is a new customized classroom design developed by Laureate, with the intention of providing Roehampton a way to increase student satisfaction and retention rates. Along with that, the university also set the goal of implementing Blackboard’s learning environment across the institution.

The project has been live since the early summer of 2016 and is currently in a continued development stage. “Over the last two years, we have been very busy updating the curriculum, as well as the design of our programs,” says Marco D’Alessio, learning architect at Laureate International Universities. “Laureate has been working with several partner institutions and has supported the effort to bring the classroom design to all our online students,” he adds.

One design element that has been introduced is the “video card,” a responsive aggregator of video lessons that limits the amount of scrolling, and gives a precise overview of all required video learning materials for each unit.

Blackboard Learn Offers Expertise in Designing and Delivering Content

D’Alessio is now working with Laureate instructors to help them write courses for their online learning institutions. “My current role entails advising on best practices and strategies for effective learning, creating multimedia content, facilitating and overseeing the design of innovative learning experiences, as well as managing relationships with multiple stakeholders, such as Subject Matter Experts and external vendors,” he explains.

D’Alessio highlights the benefits of using the Blackboard Learn platform in the initiative. “We leverage the product to provide the most user-friendly learning experience to students, combined with manageable teaching and grading procedures for our faculty,” he says. “Blackboard is the standard platform to manage learning solutions in higher education and is definitely recommended for institutions who need a comprehensive packet of features, as well as expertise in designing and delivering content,” he affirms.

4 Key Areas to Implement Laureate’s New Classroom Design

1. The role of HTML5 in responsive design

The new design in HTML5 is fully responsive and allows students to engage in learning activities from multiple devices. It has been adopted concurrently with a new learning model specifically designed to engage students with activities that increase collaboration and foster critical-thinking and research skills. HTML5 became critical for Laureate in 2016, when they decided to make the transition, as it is quick and practical and does not require additional plugins or other components, making it very easy to design responsive content.

One of the main reasons for student course drop out is due to the platform’s steep learning curve. D’Alessio’s team has received very positive feedback from students because they can use their smartphone or tablet devices to access course content. Most of them agreed that it was a much better user experience and that it is much easier to locate resources and information about activities, deadlines, grades, and feedback. Additionally, navigation is smoother, allowing students to focus on the content, as opposed to the platform. Most of the student body is comprised of working adults and the majority of them have never studied online, so these improvements have helped reduce attrition rates.

2. How custom building blocks extend Blackboard functionalities for flexibility

“Without custom building blocks we would not have the functionalities we need, so they are extremely important,” D’Alessio explains. For instance, this particular project could not have been rolled out without two features: The Deep Linking Tool and the Date Management Tool.

The Deep Linking Tool allows standard web pages to contain a link that automatically detects the class a student is enrolled in and re-directs to that class only. It is extremely helpful because it allows D’Alessio’s team to produce content that can be rolled out very quickly, without having to spend a lot of time and money on it.

The Date Management Tool, on the other hand, gives classroom designers the possibility to set all student deadlines at once, without having to change all dates manually. Even before the courses are created, course designers can change the start date of 60 courses at once with one single script and all of the other deadlines are automatically updated. For instance, a project deadline that is set for week 10 will be kept 10 weeks after the new start date. That can spare Laureate and other institutions time with administrative tasks while reducing mistakes. Additionally, features such as the To-do List and Calendar can now be deployed, and students are able to get notifications whenever an assignment or activity is due.

3. How to engage a worldwide student population with classroom design

Laureate’s partnership with the University of Roehampton-London focuses on international students that live outside of the UK but want a higher education degree from the country, due to the high-quality education they will receive, which can be applied globally in any context. This means engagement must be high for these students to complete their studies. According to D’Alessio, engagement is fostered by guaranteeing various elements in the interaction between students and faculty members within the platform.

This interaction also has to correspond with the new learning model that Laureate is implementing, which aims to increase collaboration and research. Through this collaboration, classroom design makes the activities relate to the classroom content so that, for example, three out of five units in a module include discussions and students are required to participate in an online forum where they answer the posted question and comment on each other’s answers. Their responses don’t necessarily arrive at a single solution, but rather serve as a prompt for a debate or discussion piece—It is an open-ended discussion that must end eventually, but that could continue in theory. In this way, students can share their experience, as many of them have plenty of working experience at this point. There are also environments where they can share their expertise such as in the discussion boards, synchronous sessions in Blackboard Collaborate, or in InspireNet, an internal social networking platform that enables students to connect with one another.

Research is also very important. Throughout their program, students learn to compile an annotated bibliography or a literature review that allows them to research their own topics, and then present their ideas to expand on the solution. The institution also counts with an online library with a vast amount of resources that students are encouraged to use.

Additionally, depending on the program, the university offers portfolio components with Pathbrite integration, which allows for self-reflection so that students can summarize what they have learned and also produce works that can be shared with the public, or even with a potential employer.

4. How to deploy the learning model

The classroom design process began with a discussion among the entire team about how the learning modules should change. Once the learning model was defined, D’Alessio got a template set up in Blackboard Learn that would allow him to deploy the necessary features. After that, the focus was shifted to completing the content redesign. The content redesign not only changed the overall layout but was also updated by subject matter experts. It’s a lengthy process – not only are they changing the graphical themes of the courses, but they are also improving the content and updating it with newer resources, required readings, and changing some learning assessment components based on faculty feedback to make it more intuitive.

At LIU, there are five pillars that define a great program:

  • The user experience
  • Academic relevance
  • Modern content and format
  • Engagement in social activities
  • Building a lifelong learning community

D’Alessio always tries to keep these components in sight, but his main focus currently resides on two main pillars: content and the user experience.

More about Laureate International Universities

Laureate’s students are part of a diverse international community that spans the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Every institution that is part of their network operates as its own unique brand, guided by local leadership, and is actively engaged in its community.

Laureate institutions offer undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degree programs, among others, in diverse fields such as business and management, medical and health sciences, engineering, information technology, architecture, education, law, communications, and hospitality management.


1 (n.d.). Retrieved from

Photo: AFP Jan-Joseph Stok