Photo (From Left to Right) Jack Suess, vice president of information technology and chief information officer. John Fritz, associate vice president of information technology, and Kevin Joseph, director of business intelligence. University of Maryland Baltimore

The Secret to Life-Long Learning: Taking Ownership of One’s Own Learning


Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Sep 19, 2017 – Click here for the Spanish version

When individuals take control of their own learning, the amount of knowledge acquired can increase significantly due to a general awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their ability to self-assess. According to a study conducted by Oxford University and the Oxford Learning Institute, when students take control of their own learning, they become lifelong learners.

In 2017, The University of Maryland Baltimore County received the Blackboard Catalyst Award for Leading Change, due to a tool they created that shows a strong correlation between student grades and Blackboard Learn use.

In 2007, UMBC Associate Vice President, John Fritz, started looking at the impact that Blackboard Learn was having on its students. John believed Blackboard Learn could help students and faculty but didn’t know how to show its impact on student learning. And so, he made it his mission to find out.

John started looking at how much time students spent on the LMS and their grades, with the help of  Blackboard Analytics. Using an analytics system developed in-house, John found that students with failing grades used Blackboard Learn 40% less than students who received a higher grade or passed.

With these findings, John decided to build a tool called Check My Activity. This application allows students to check their grades, compare their results against the rest of the class, and see the percentage of time other students were logged onto the LMS. Although John hasn’t been able to confirm exactly why students continue using the tool, one of his theories is that it might be sparking some healthy peer competition. When students compare their grades against others, different things can happen:

1. They see they were above class average: They realize they studied the subject matter correctly and understood it well. This makes them feel good and pushes them to continue doing well. 

2. They see they are in the average percentile, which might not spark too much of a reaction, or they see how close they were to being in the top or bottom percentiles. It helps them understand that they should probably work a little harder to stand out.  

3. They see that they are in at the bottom of the class which makes them feel like they “lost.” This pushes them to be better and work harder in the future. They also see that the students at the top spent more time on the LMS, which makes them wonder how they can begin taking control of their own learning. 

Taking control of one’s own learning can mean for students to actively connect to the LMS because they want to learn more, it means finding out what is coming up on the curriculum, what subject is coming up next, or to find out if the teacher has posted any new readings or assignments. This way, students are actively engaged and interested in their academic well-being by being better prepared.

John further explains that it is in the teacher’s power to create courses that students want to log into and continuously find out what is new and going on, and also give them the tools that make taking control of their own learning easier. Here is where course design can be of importance, because all the teaching and learning elements have to make sense, and teachers should take advantage of the tools they have available to them in order to make education more enjoyable and dynamic. John is also working with faculty on how to make better use of all the tools available through Blackboard Learn, in order to make their courses more dynamic.

According to John, research literature shows there are three main ways in which faculty uses any Learning Management System (LMS) like Blackboard Learn:

1. Content collection: Syllabus and course content are uploaded by the course instructor and students log into the LMS once to download the content.

2. Communication: Blackboard Learn is used as a communication tool through discussion boards, announcements, and other general communication purposes. As a result, students can meet up and stay connected.

3. Online assessments: This is the least used tactic but the most powerful, according to John. This occurs when teachers post practice quizzes and exams to help students get ready for exams. It allows students to self-assess and understand where they need more work. Moreover, collecting student work electronically allows for adaptive release of content, which means the teacher can tell students that unless they pass a quiz, they won’t be able to turn in future assignments for credit. This makes students push themselves and do the work in order to move forward in the course. With this type of class format, students have a reason to go into the LMS and be proactive in their learning. When students learn to take a real interest and be proactive, their relationship to learning can change significantly and have a lasting impact for the rest of their lives.

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After having the Check My Activity tool available to students, the university extended access to faculty as well. The tool shows teachers how actively their course is used by students compared to other courses in the same department. This has also sparked some competition between faculty who are now working towards making their courses more dynamic, aiming to get students more interested, and as result, improve their grades.

UMBC and Blackboard’s collaboration on the development of Check My Activity is what sparked Blackboard’s interest in creating something as useful and with additional resources. Blackboard Analytics was launched in 2012, giving teachers the ability to go deeper into student data and course performance.

This collaboration and the creation of both Check My Activity and Blackboard Analytics, which allow teachers to realize the correlation between LMS use and student grades, is what earned UMBC the Blackboard Catalyst Award for Leading Change, awarded for educational innovation and development of high impact educational strategies and practices or technologies that have a measurable effect on learning outcomes, student performance or academic progression.

Socrates once said, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”  Taking control of one’s own learning can lead to life-long learning – that is the kindling of a flame.

The use of technology in education can help today’s students achieve the strength and desire to become life-long learners.

Photos by: Marlayna Demond for UMBC