Drew Mirque, Manager of Academic Systems at Simmons University

Simmons University: Empowering Women Through Education

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The following story is an update of an article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on May. 17, 2016. Click here for the Spanish version.

To be the global expert in educating women for their own empowerment and leadership: this vision couldn’t be more contemporary, yet it belongs to an institution founded more than 100 years ago. Since 1899, the University has been offering a pioneering liberal arts education for undergraduate women, integrated with professional work experience.

Today, the institution also offers a wide range of graduate programs, including the only MBA program designed specifically for women. Simmons currently enrolls 7,800 graduate and undergraduate students in their Boston campus and online programs. Every year, the institution is featured on widely-acclaimed lists of the best universities in America, such as The Princeton Review.

Education for Social Change

The university’s focus on women’s education began with founder John Simmons’ belief that women should be able to earn independent livelihoods and lead meaningful lives. To achieve this goal, Simmons University considers education technology to be a powerful way to improve the learning experience and to promote social change.

Online education is one of the university’s key endeavors, as diverse teams work together to support academic technology efforts. Some staff work on the academic systems software and infrastructure, while others assist instructors in the classroom. There is also a Help Desk for students and instructors in need of assistance with their technology, classroom hardware and/or software issues.

Additionally, there is the Enterprises Applications Unit, where Manager of Academic Systems Drew Mirque provides the teaching and learning community with various forms of training, user support, and technical administration for a number of learning or academic technology software, including Simmons’ digital learning environment, based on Blackboard’s Open LMS product.

With more than 20 years of experience in e-learning, Mirque faces daily challenges to improve the quality of online education at the institution.

“My job is to not only ensure that all applications are accessible, updated, and widely available, but also support and train users in the appropriate use of the various technologies. That includes meeting with instructors and encouraging their familiarity with the various academic systems as well as authoring help documentation and participating in various face-to-face sessions such as faculty orientations,” says Mirque.

Supporting Student and Faculty Success

Simmons became a university in September 2018. “Simmons not only changed the name from College to University, but more importantly, we underwent a radical academic redesign, going from five schools to four colleges. The academic redesign to four colleges allows each college to underscore signature Simmons strengths, combining distinct disciplinary preparation with interdisciplinary emphases, inter-professional approaches, and attention to rapidly evolving fields of study and practice,” Mirque explains.

Undergraduate and graduate students throughout the university use Blackboard Open LMS, which Mirque administers and supports.

“The whole university uses the platform, but in different ways. The School of Nursing and Health Sciences, for example, is highly dependent on the platform for its assessment tool and the discussion forums. Nursing instructors also record lectures there and deliver them using the Tegrity plugin, so that all students can access critical lecture material online and at their convenience,” says Mirque.

The Journal is another tool recently added to the digital learning environment, and both the School of Management and the School of Nursing and Health Sciences have begun using it. Mirque is currently working with the schools on using the Journal plugin as instructors wanted students to keep a journal of weekly reflections, or to share weekly project updates, but didn’t want students to be able to see what their peers wrote. The Journal plugin has been the perfect fit for this need.

For Mirque, having an LMS that provides all the features of synchronous interaction is key. “Having the ability to integrate add-ons such as Tegrity, Adobe Connect, Turnitin and GoToMeeting directly into a classroom is crucial, providing the full circle of interaction and assessment. Discussion forums, Groupings, online quizzes & assignments, blogs, journals, all factor critically in delivering quality education.”

Mirque’s work in helping faculty and students understand and use these various academic technologies can be challenging. “The students have high expectations because now, thanks to technology, they have access to knowledge all the time. Therefore, one of the challenges we face is keeping up-to-date with the pace and style of ‘learning’ and adapting the LMS platform to meet those changes every semester. I don’t only think about how I can educate myself about the changes, but also of how to inform other teachers about them. Training for them is an everyday challenge.”

The Manager of Academic Systems envisions a Faculty Success Center where various components of the departments at Simmons work in a collaborative way to ensure faculty is supported at every corner of their tenure.

Mirque affirms that he would recommend Blackboard solutions to other institutions. “The ability to integrate directly into the LMS without onerous technical overhead is critical for a small support team, as we are,” he says.

What makes Simmons’ online programs unique

  • An intimate academic experience
  • Options that allow a balance of work, study, and personal commitments
  • Well-supported cohort models where applicable
  • Emphasis on inclusive leadership, social justice, and civic engagement

Photography: AFP Gretchen Ertl