A Small Liberal Arts School Becomes a Testing Ground for the ‘Facebook...

Digital Learning

A Small Liberal Arts School Becomes a Testing Ground for the ‘Facebook of Learning Management Systems’

By Marguerite McNeal     Oct 25, 2016

A Small Liberal Arts School Becomes a Testing Ground for the ‘Facebook of Learning Management Systems’

The night before Vivianne Nufio gives a presentation about “The Slaughter Yard,” a short story from Argentine poet Esteban Echeverría, she posts questions for her peers on her class website page. She asks what students think the author means in line 45, and how the story compares to others they’ve read. Nufio is giving them a heads up: the next day they’ll discuss these questions and more in class.

Nufio, a senior and Spanish major at Denison University, is one of hundreds of students testing out a new way to manage courses and communication at the small liberal arts institution outside Columbus, Ohio. The university is the first to adopt a tool called Notebowl to replace its legacy learning management system (LMS).

“We’re a small liberal arts institution,” says Donnie Sendelbach, director of educational technology services at Denison, which has 2,200 students. “We usually end up with products a corporation designs and sells or something that a public research university developed but for public research environment.”

With the Notebowl implementation, Denison is working closely with the company to tailor the platform to its needs, specifically managing all of the administrative work that goes into teaching, learning and campus life at the institution.

Founded in 2011, Notebowl calls itself a next-generation learning management system. The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company provides a central platform where students can find and share information for all of their courses and extracurriculars.

Andrew Chaifetz, founder and CEO of Notebowl, tells EdSurge the platform is like Facebook: Students see a news feed, pages for each of their classes, and channels for other activities including clubs and study groups. By contrast, “a legacy LMS is like a file system on a computer,” Chaifetz says. “It’s not easy to navigate or get a central view of everything there.”

Notebowl works like this: Students sign in and see a main page that features a general news feed with campus updates and curated posts from faculty and peers. They also have a calendar view with synced information for all of their courses and due dates for assignments.

From their home site, students can click on pages for each of their classes and groups. These specific pages have a “bulletin” for news and updates, as well as sections for assignments, a gradebook and a roster so students can contact peers in their classes.

Each course page features a news bulletin that looks similar to a Facebook or LinkedIn newsfeed. Image Credit: Notebowl

Veerendra P. Lele, department chair and associate professor in the department of anthropology and sociology at Denison, is piloting Notebowl in three classes: an advising section for first-year students and two social theory courses. Each section has between 10 and 20 students, and Lele says the platform works well for classes of this size. That’s in contrast to his experience with legacy LMSs. “I used maybe 10 percent of what you could do in Blackboard. And I felt like it was for bigger universities. The features seemed more suited for classrooms of 200 students.”

Most of the action in Notebowl so far has happened in the bulletin section, Lele says. He and his students post news, readings, videos and questions there and comment on them. “We have a history of the conversation,” he says. Over the weekend students were posting questions about their upcoming midterm. Lele says he could answer one student’s question there and avoid having to repeat his response through individual emails.

Unlike many LMSs, which have built their own proprietary features, Notebowl includes integrations with other apps, especially ones from Google. Within the platform, professors can open a Google Hangout to hold office hours via video, for example. Notebowl also uses Google Analytics to track student behavior—how often they log into classes, which features they use—across the platform.

Chaifetz says his company is working on other integrations, such as including Google Docs within the system so faculty can comment and track changes in student assignments and link the documents directly to grades.

The Denison rollout is a work in progress. Sendelbach says her team has almost daily correspondence with Notebowl, and the company has made a few changes based on early feedback. For example, when students post questions anonymously, their peers can’t see their identity but faculty can. Denison faculty were worried that students wouldn’t realize this, so Notebowl added a notification to make the point clear.

Faculty have also been requesting to add letter grades—rather than only points—to the gradebook. Lele says he’d like to be able to chat individually with students. For now if one student posts a question, he responds to the whole class and has to email students if he wants to have a private follow-up conversation.

Nufio, the senior Spanish major, says she’s used to having more customized pages in Blackboard and wishes the course pages in Notebowl could have a little more personality. “Add a different background to it so it’s not It’s just that black and white template,” she says.

This feedback is what Chaifetz and his team are looking for. Denison’s will continue the pilot phase through the spring semester and have Notebowl fully implemented for all courses in time for the 2017-2018 academic year.

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