Outlining the challenge
ESI Leadership wanted to identify the best way to move forward with the digital transformation of their existing degree programs into interactive online courses any student could take domestically or abroad. A new online learning environment would allow their group of trades focused colleges the ability to begin a new expansion process across the nation and abroad and roll out new renewable energy focused trades programs ranging from solar, wind, and offshore engineering.
With the help of key leaders within the company we pitched the product to the Founder and CEO. Our key motives that supported the transition to online degree programs were as followed:
- Allowing students to complete degree and certification programs online and on their own time without the need to relocate to one of our campuses.
- Creating an interactive digital classroom environment between students and teachers that fosters a culture of open communication and feedback.
- Allow for greater collaboration and a sense of community between students enrolled within the same program no matter where they are physically located.
- Provide greater context to course materials and concepts by designing new labs and learning modules that displays information in picture/video formats.
The build process
I was first put to the task of outlining the technical requirements needed to build out a Learning Management System in house. With this came the task of identifying updates that would be required in our existing network infrastructure to support a cloud based system architecture.
Coming from an education of Computer Science gained me a seat at the executive drawing board when it came to making decisions on the vendors, contracts, and technical investments needed to facilitate the overhaul of program materials to build out robust accredited online degree programs.
This was before the time of polished click and drag/no code LMS’s (Learning Management Systems). I used my knowledge of database architecture to define the requirements we would need to develop such an application and how it would communicate to our existing network infrastructure. Together with the System Admins and IT staff we were able design a new cloud based storage solution with Microsoft Azure Cloud Server.
Next, I hit the ground running with the wireframing and architecture of the system pathways that would be needed to create a seamless experience for both the program instructors, as well as the students progressing through their course materials. This included different locations for sign-on with unique dashboards for both types of users. I managed the team who took our design framework and developed it into a ready-to-launch software, managing the project along the way, and maintaining course when challenges surfaced.
Executive leadership was highly engaged throughout the development process, and I was the direct point of contact for any questions relating to the status of timelines, quality, foresaw risks, budgets, and features. The President and CEO was an older gentleman. He was extremely well versed in business strategy and economic policy; often foreseeing obstacles many years in advance due to his extensive experience. So from a high-level, he knew the trajectory and location of where we needed to be as an organization, just not the directions of how to get there. I became adept in my ability to walk through technical requirements, and concisely summarize various foreseen obstacles. I would often have to out “mind-maneuver” him in strategic discussions, which earned his trust in my ability to take charge of the program and look at the long-term benefits (as well as implications) of each decision we make.
The next step in the course of implementing the online course modules was training. With the grace of the Director of Admissions, I was able to work with the entire admissions department (at all levels, from entry level associates to managers and directors) to evangelize the benefits of this new system, how it might impact their jobs, and offered the ability to provide additional feedback that potentially helped our program further succeed. I orchestrated team learning sessions, hosted virtual and in-person meetings throughout our network of colleges, and campus locations. I always tried to place an emphasis on how this new system will make their lives easier, and ultimately, make our students happier.
From concept to product
Once the staff was trained and the online learning management system was integrated with our current CRM (which we ultimately had to update), it was set to launch. In terms of project estimates, we were able to ship and deliver this platform under budget and within the specified timeframe. While managing the development and implementation of this program, I was concurrently running several other projects for the organization, relating to their customer/student facing website (link to article), lead generation tactics (link to article), and building out marketing automation workflows (link to article).
Looking back some four years later (as of this writing in 2020), I’ve identified a few key insights from working on the project. Asking questions like “what did I learn” or “what could we have done differently” reveal a few things worth sharing.
What did I learn?
I certainly learned a lot from the process, and one thing let to another when applying transformation across ESI’s digital products and marketing assets. Coming in to the project, I had built responsive web applications before, but not quite to the scale of a project like ESI’s LMS.
To accomplish the project effectively, I knew I’d need to lean on expertise beyond my own, so I spent time digging into a few key resources prior to engaging in the build process. The one’s I drew the most influence from were:
- Ethan Marcotte’s book Responsive Web Design
- Nicole Sullivan’s Object Oriented CSS ideology
- Jonatha Snook’s Scalable and Modular Architecture for CSS
Still, despite my experience, and thorough research and preparation, few things can fully prepare you for the realities of real use. The project gave me many opportunities to encounter use cases that simply weren’t covered in prior art, and project requirements that pushed me to explore new territory (such as a 2FA authentication security measure, responsive dynamic widgets, and SSO integration).
The ESI LMS project was an incredible experience in implementing a modular customizable learning platform for a family of trades focused colleges.
Today, there are a large number of drag and drop LMS solutions as well as many different templates creating in Vue.js, many of which were not available to me in 2016.
If you are implementing a responsive LMS today, do some research to discover the best tools for your project, look to voices in the industry and listen for new trends and best practices to adopt, and identify the constraints that will help guide decisions based on your project requirements.
Balance technical perfection with practical sufficiency, and find the sweet spot between solving the problem and engineering a perfect solution.