Redesigning the UCalgary D2L homepage

It seems like a small, unimportant thing, but the D2L homepage is probably the single most important web page for students. While they occasionally use the university website, and periodically use the portal (to sign up for courses and pay fees), D2L is where they spend a substantial chunk of their time as they work through their courses and programs. We’d launched D2L with a news-centric homepage, so that we could easily push notifications and support resources during the transition from Blackboard. It worked well for that, but became a dumping ground for accretion – links added, blurbs added, until it was a wall of text that everyone basically ignored.

So, we took a look at how students use D2L, and what they needed on the homepage. It’s their place, not The Institution’s, so it needs to be useful to students with a much higher priority than anyone else. The first thing students need is access to their courses. That used to be tucked into a small widget in the right sidebar. Now, it has the prime spot at the top of the main content area (where it should have been all along). Then, they need to be able to see what’s coming up – important dates on the calendar. Also, now right on the homepage. And they can enable it to show events from any of their courses as well (and then integrate it into their phones etc… through the iCal format). One thing that surprised us was the seemingly-trivial idea of having a weather widget on the homepage. Why on earth would that be needed? Clearly not necessary. But it can’t all be about need and necessity – sometimes it’s important to have a subtle reminder to go outside on a nice day (or a reminder to stay inside and study when it gets crappy outside).

I also made the decision to take many of the “Important Links” out – they were important to the people that wanted them there, but not necessarily to the students. We looked through the aggregated (and anonymized) web analytics to see which links had actually been used since January 1, 2015. Not many. So we made the call to remove several.

Also, we added a link to let students (and others) give feedback so we can hear complaints or suggestions and respond more quickly.

The Instructor-focused portions are not displayed to students – they don’t see the Instructor Resources or Grades Export sections because they’re not relevant. Students now get a pretty streamlined homepage (as it should have been from day 1), which should help them get to what they need, and to help keep organized throughout the semester.

It’s a collection of many small, seemingly trivial changes, but the overall redesign should make things much less painful for students.

D2L homepage, comparing old crappy version and awesome new version.
Left: the previous version, accreting things since launch in 2013. Right: Redesign with student needs given priority.

on migrating to desire2learn

So, we’re moving to Desire2Learn. Lots of things happening to get us there. Everything is being driven by a timeline leading to the decommissioning of our old LMS on May 31, 2014. Which means, when dealing with academic calendar years, and semester cycles, that we have 3 semesters to get from 0-100% adoption of D2L before we turn off the Blackboard servers.

I know. The timeline is kind of crazy. But, it’s totally doable. We’re going to have to be OK with noise and mess, and with not having all of the answers ahead of time. We’re going to be needing a lot of support from Desire2Learn (thankfully, they’re up to it), and from the UofC community as a whole.

I got tasked as the project manager for the migration, which is loaded with pros and cons. Perhaps those are better for other posts… But, it means I’m the deer stuck in the headlights, trying to figure out how to get us from A to B before A disappears.

Here’s the rough (non-contractual, will vary wildly, high-level) overview timeline:


(note that the bottom 3 boxes aren’t actually in the “timeline” but were dropped in as a result of a training brainstorming session. Top part of the diagram is a timeline, bottom part not so much. confusing? maybe.)

The first star is when we anticipate getting access to our hosted instance of D2L. The second star is when we need to turn off our Blackboard 8 servers. Everything is scheduled around getting between the two stars.

Summer 2013 (July – August) – We’re going to start with some volunteer/recruit instructors building their courses in a “sandbox” environment while our production and test environments are spun up. When the production environment is ready, we’ll move the courses over manually. During this time, we’re getting our heads around Desire2Learn. Several UofC folks are going to Desire2Learn Fusion. D2L is going to be working on campus to do the implementation consulting and initial setup. Busy couple of months…

Fall 2013 (September – December) will be a small-scale pilot deployment, with 30-50 courses. Small-scale is important, because we won’t have PeopleSoft integration yet (although we should have CAS single-sign-on integration). Fall is going to be messy, as integration is implemented, and tools are integrated. We’ll pilot workshops and training resources. We’ll hopefully iron out the key issues. And then brace for…

Winter 2014. January – April. Currently, I’m hoping to run it as an opt-in migration. Any instructor (or department or faculty) that wants to move to D2L will be able to do so. But, you don’t have to migrate yet. Blackboard 8 will still be ticking along until the end of the semester.

Spring 2014. May – June. We will have to throw the switch. Blackboard will not be available for use in courses beginning with this semester. All courses in Blackboard will be exported and archived (and freeze-dried in an offline storage vault somewhere). The Blackboard server will be mothballed, likely only turned on in response to an appeal from students, or at the request of the auditor general’s office (or some similar governmental body).

Summer 2014 – ramping up training for the fall semester, which will be the biggest semester since cutover.

Fall 2014. This is when stuff really hits fans. All of the folks that resisted early adoption now will have to use D2L. We’re going to be training and working with every instructor to get them up to speed. Hopefully, the remaining instructors were proactive and came to workshops over the summer, to prepare for the transition. Lots of workshops and community events. Good times.

So. Yeah. Crazy timeline. But there’s not really an option. The current LMS gets mothballed in 11 months. If we don’t have all 31,000 students, and all instructors and staff, moved over by then, we’ll have bigger problems than optimistic timelines…

I’m actually very optimistic to see what our community will do with D2L as a foundation of our eLearning environment. Early responses are extremely positive. We have a lot of work to do, to get fully implemented and integrated, but once it’s up and running, I’m confident our community will do some pretty cool things with it.

And – the most important part – they’ll be able to move past the tool and focus on pedagogy, teaching, and learning. The tool moves out of the spotlight, and becomes an enabling platform for the stuff we really care about.