Photo (Left) Lisa Sawtell, Director of Online Learning and Educational Technology and (Right) Jose Bernier, Associate Vice President of IT and Chief Information Office at Stetson University

Stetson University: A Beacon of Innovation


Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Jul 17, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version


To better serve its 4,330 students in central Florida, Stetson University aspired to be an innovator in online education. When Jose Bernier, chief information officer, came to Stetson, he struggled to realize his vision for innovation and excellence with multiple learning management systems in use across their four campuses. Together, Bernier and Lisa Sawtell, director of the Office of Online Learning and Educational Technology, advanced a shared vision of a single, comprehensive digital learning environment across all campuses, schools, departments, and instructional modalities- traditional, hybrid, and fully online.


To accommodate student needs across diverse curricula and satisfy growing student and faculty expectations and preferences, Stetson sought a learning environment that would enable the university to improve teaching and learning experiences, grow their online and hybrid programs, and become a leader in innovation. Bernier reflected, “We were looking for flexibility, we were looking for expandability, and we were looking for an environment where it is user-friendly for both faculty and the student. Through Blackboard, we were able to provide that solution. It’s a solution where students can concentrate on learning and faculty can concentrate on teaching – they don’t have to spend time trying to learn how to navigate a system,” noted Bernier.  After an extensive evaluation process, Stetson chose Blackboard for their comprehensive digital learning environment with Blackboard Learn, Blackboard Collaborate, the Blackboard LMS Help Desk, SafeAssign, Blackboard Open Content, and Blackboard mobile applications.  The Ultra experience, across their learning environment, provided the modern, intuitive, mobile-friendly, and connected teaching and learning experience the university required. Sawtell added, “The ‘OneStetson’ initiative and ‘One Blackboard’ fit perfectly together.  It’s in perfect alignment with our mission.”


“At its most basic level, moving to SaaS and Ultra has greatly improved the student and faculty teaching experience and it has fully improved my team’s ability to support it.”

– Lisa Sawtell, Director of the Online Learning and Educational Technology

Finding Their Own Happy Pace

With these innovations, Bernier and Sawtell have worked collaboratively to ensure a smooth transition for faculty and students. Stetson made strategic choices in their move to Software as a Service (SaaS) deployment, and the Ultra experience to manage change and proceed at their desired pace.  In late 2016, the university took the first step toward adopting the Ultra experience by moving to the SaaS deployment of Learn. With their new deployment model, Stetson chose to adopt the Ultra base navigation, but maintain their original course experience to reduce faculty apprehension.  “The upgrade to the SaaS environment and the Ultra base navigation has allowed us to be very considerate of our faculty’s needs and some were maybe hesitant about the change. It worked out well because we were able to gradually introduce this to them in different steps,” added Dawn McCain, Academic Technology Specialist.

Stetson’s faculty have embraced the more intuitive interface and workflows and report that the transition has been a breeze. Associate Professor Rajni Shankar-Brown, the Jessie Ball duPont Chair for Social Justice Education, observed, “I will openly admit that I was a little resistant at first, because with change it is another thing you have to learn and do. Especially in my line of work, I’m just so busy. But I was very pleasantly surprised by the Ultra experience, to be honest.  I’ve been able to use it in multidimensional ways to enrich my teaching, but most importantly, to impact my students’ learning. I also find the new interface to be more learner-centric.”  Stuart Michelson, professor of finance and department and chair of the School of Business Administration, concurred, “In terms of the change to the Ultra experience, I think one of the things that was most obvious to me is that the change was very easy. So many times, with a software interface change like that, there is a real learning curve to that. What I found with Ultra, is that there was almost no learning curve. I could tell it was different, but, actually, I found that it was easier to navigate and to use the different menu structure.” Bernier eloquently noted, “I guess part of human nature is that we’re all reluctant to change, but with those changes also come opportunities. The partnership with Blackboard allows us to create a learning environment where the students can focus on learning, faculty can focus on teaching.”

Connected Experience

Facilitating Engaging Learning Experiences

The Ultra experience and Stetson’s comprehensive learning environment provides the foundation for engaging learners at Stetson. The new learning environment has been universally well received by both faculty and students. McCain observed, “With the Ultra experience, it’s got that modern, sleek, warm interface. I like to call it warm because I don’t shy away from it and most of my faculty members and students don’t shy away from it. Because it is so modernized, it does look like an app, so they’re not intimidated by it. They are ready to dive in and they will even explore on their own instead of rushing to pick up the phone for support or help.” Lou Paris, professor and assistant director of the Price Entrepreneurship Program, prefers the intuitive experience, “What I like best about the Ultra experience is that it’s very organized. I can easily track back my steps. I think my students are benefiting from the Ultra experience. Now, they can go into a platform and very easily understand where things are located – Ultra is really easy to use. You don’t have to spend any time understanding the platform because it is very intuitive.” Shawnrece Campbell, associate professor of English and director of the Organizational Leadership Degree Completion Program, added, “I really love the new Blackboard, the Ultra experience.  What I like best about the Ultra experience is actually the look of it.  I’m a very visual person. To me, it looks sleek. I believe that because it’s easier for students to navigate the new Ultra experience, they (students) are participating in class more.”

Stetson University educational technology leaders could not be more pleased with the student response to Ultra. McCain explained, “Students love the Ultra experience. They’re super excited about it because it is so modern and sleek-looking, I think they can relate to it more.” Student, Jordan Tyus, agreed, “I like how user-friendly it is. I love how the Ultra experience is more user-friendly to people. I feel like my grandma would be able to use it, everything is streamlined and looks nice.” And this student response is particularly important to Setson.  As Sawtell noted, “Students come to Stetson with a high level of expectation and really dictate and drive innovation. If we don’t meet their expectations, we’re not going to be successful. The Blackboard Ultra experience is the primary driver of achieving that.”

Additionally, students and faculty alike are fully embracing the mobile-friendly responsive design of the Ultra experience across their learning environment. Bernier noted, “We can see that most of our students access the learning management system through a mobile device, either a cell phone or a tablet, and the Ultra experience really adjusts well to the mobile environment.”  And Shankar-Brown adds, “My students and I can see the benefit. They’re able to now access materials from their mobile devices more easily, so it allows for them to integrate learning into their very active and busy lifestyles in very meaningful ways.” Dejan Magoc, associate professor of Integrative Health Sciences, shared “The Ultra experience helped in a way that it saves time so it’s more efficient. It’s easy to go on the cell phone when I’m traveling, it’s easy to use it on a tablet, computer or laptop, the screen stays the same and it provides the same features.”

Student, Jordan Tyus reflected, “I recently downloaded the Blackboard app and it’s probably one of the best decisions I’ve made this year. It helps me keep track of all my assignments so I know when they’re due, and when I get a good grade or bad grade I can see what I got almost immediately.”  Student, Morgan Langerick agreed, “The app is really life-changing.” And, Professor Shankar-Brown loves the responsive design when she is on the go, “I personally have enjoyed it as somebody who travels a lot in the work that I do, I’ve really appreciated that the Ultra experience is more mobile-friendly.”

Flexible Solutions: Driving Academic Effectiveness

Stetson’s learning environment, powered by Blackboard, is open, scalable, and integrated and it enables the university to use its resources more effectively and efficiently.  “The time was right to move to SaaS because we needed to use our resources in a more efficient manner. The idea of moving to SaaS would just eliminate so many of Stetson’s resources and put the onus on keeping the system up and running… In these difficult and sometimes trying times for institutions and universities, it is really about us using our resources in the most efficient and budgetary way. At the end of the day, it is a more stable system and it’s less resource intensive,” explained Sawtell. Bernier added, “It was the right time to move into a Software as a Service environment. It doesn’t tie us into hardware and it was also a good return on investment.”  With Blackboard providing Software as a Service to Stetson for their learning environment, Stetson can focus its expert resources on teaching, learning, and innovation, in alignment with their mission.

Data-Driven Insights: Delivering Education Insight

Stetson students, faculty and leaders are using relevant, actionable data from their Blackboard learning environment to drive decisions and modify their behaviors. For example, within the Ultra base navigation for students, the learning environment provides supportive encouragement for students. These embedded analytics help students gain awareness of their activity, progress, and take action within an appropriate time frame. Kenny Neely, a junior at Stetson University shared, “A cool feature that I like about the Ultra experience is that when you’re earning a decent grade in the class, like an above-average grade, it will tell you and give you a pep talk, it will say, ‘You’re doing great in this class and can tutor somebody.’ Or it also tells you if you’re not doing so hot and then it will ask you, ‘Okay, you should ask for someone to help you in this class because you’re not doing so hot.” It keeps up with you and motivates you to perform better or it tells you, ‘Oh, you’re doing really great.’” Professor Shankar-Brown agreed that students really benefit from the Ultra experience, “I love the course-to-course overview and interaction, especially the activity stream. It gives them kind of a holistic overview of what’s going on. When they have multiple courses, they are able to get a feel for that. They can see multiple due dates for projects, so it really helps them in terms of organization. Organization is a key to being successful for an undergraduate or graduate student.”

Blackboard, Your Partner in Change

Stetson University values its partnership with Blackboard. Bernier conveyed, “When we’re selecting a partner, someone that is going to help us introduce a new solution into our environment, it is someone that is going to be there for the long run. We’re not looking for someone that is going to sell a solution and then is going to disappear. What we have achieved with Blackboard is a long-term partnership where it’s mutually beneficial to both Stetson and Blackboard. Stetson University has benefited from the partnership with Blackboard because we finally found a partner that was willing to listen.”

And Sawtell agreed, “At the end of the day, what I value most about our partnership with Blackboard is the reliability of their team when things go well, and when things don’t go well. That is something that I value because I’ve worked with vendors and they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll get back to you.’ But when I call Blackboard, they really understand that this is an important matter that needs to get attended right away. And they take care of it. I think that’s a value that isn’t often found in many businesses these days. I like that. I value that.”

Photos by: AFP – Scott A. Miller