Two weeks ago, I was asked to attend to attend the annual Desire2Learn (D2L) Fusion conference, partly to scope out their accessibility initiatives, but also to get some impressions of their product and corporate culture. My main comparison of course is my previous experience, including their pre-Blackboard ANGEL conferences, but I have also had some experience with Blackboard and WebCT.
The short summary is that I was very favorably impressed on a number of levels for reasons I will share below. Any company is hoping to put their best foot forward at these events, but I was surprised to see how much the D2L folks understand the needs of higher education, including our jaded cynicism.
Commitment to Pedagogy
A theme running through the conference was a fairly significant commitment to supporting modern pedagogies. Not only is D2L investing resources into portfolio tools, analytics, social media and mobile learning, but they are also committed to helping us understand the tools. For instance, the staff used the portfolio tool to share files and sponsored a portfolio contest, plus they developed a mobile app for the conference which gave attendees experience using it.
Unlike other conferences, almost half the sessions were conducted by the staff to help train attendees in the various D2L tools and many were hands on. I thought that was very helpful for institutions and instructors new to the LMS. The other half showcased best practices and advanced tweaks in a good way as well, and many of these were conducted by various institutions.
They also had an excellent keynote from science writer Johan Lehrer who had some interesting information on neurology and the cognition of the “a-ha” moment. Any conference with a good keynote is a good conference for me.
Commitment to Accessibility
A pressing concern for the CMS team has been accessibility, so I was interested to hear what the D2L folks had to say. Again, I was pleasantly surprised to see how much the corporate culture had embraced the issue. For instance, they were willing to demo a course in a screen reader and encouraged us in the session to take a test spin…with a blindfold. They also gave a good session of how to review and adjust content with the ever popular HTML editor.
The company also brought in experts such as Karen McCall to provide sessions on accessifying Office documents (still the source of the majority of our content in resident instruction).
For the record, I know Blackboard is also committed to accessibility and that both companies have NFB (National Federation of the Blind) certification. But I appreciate that D2L is using the accessibility challenge as a way to understand and improve the experience overall and not just as a way to meet legal guidelines.
Answering Pesky Questions
One thing that any vendor working with higher education should know is that there are a lot of people available to ask pesky detailed questions…often in public. I have been one of them from time to time. But the D2L staff was ready, even with the difficult transition questions. The presenters were generally able to provide specific details and were candid when something wasn’t as perfect as one could hope for.
This was a lot more believable than some vendor presentations who presented everything as a turnkey solution. They often weren’t.
I also learned a bit about their support structure and was interested to learn that schools worked with project specialists who specialized in finding solutions for different educational scenarios. They sounded somewhat like instructional designers to me, and that’s a handy expertise for an LMS company to have. I don’t know how this would play out for Penn State, but it would be different from ANGEL interactions, which are generally positive, but do not necessarily include a whole lot of instructional design type discussion.
Unfortunatley, it’s hard for me to comment on the tool very much, but I do know the interface won’t be like ANGEL. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad interface, but unfamiliarity is something to consider when planning a transition. You may be able to do the same things or more, but not necessarily in the same way.
For instance, there are lots of ways you can tweak D2L, much as you can tweak Drupal into a multitude of experiences. Tweaking though does require a willingness to dig into the technology. This is great for online course shops, but it’s important that any tool still remain accessible to a harried resident instructor. On the other hand D2L will have integration with Adobe Connect and other products. That would be very interesting in of itself.
I have to admit that I wouldn’t mind seeing D2L come to campus. It’s made me excited about the LMS and that’s something I haven’t felt or seen in a long time.