Founded in 1902, University of Northwestern - St. Paul (UNWSP) is a private evangelical Christian college located in the heart of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The college offers 75+ areas of undergraduate study and six master’s degree programs to approximately 3,500 students.
Background & Challenge
In 2006, University of Northwestern - St. Paul switched their Learning Management System (LMS) from Blackboard to Moodle after a year of looking at available alternatives. After this switch, they self-hosted for a number of years as was typical in the early years of Moodle. However, as usage on campus increased and Moodle became more complex, UNWSP realized that they needed more robust LMS features and help from a Moodle vendor to run their platform.
In 2009, they moved to a Moodle vendor – Moodlerooms – who they were with for a number of years. However, by 2013, UNWSP was facing some challenges with the system and there was a growing lack of satisfaction with Moodle.
After digging into the issues, it was determined that the root cause was not Moodle itself, but the hosting situation they were in. They had concerns that their current partner wouldn’t be the best fit moving forward, which is when UNWSP conducted an LMS review to evaluate other systems, price points, and functionality.
During the LMS review, UNWSP considered self-hosting again or switching systems. When they started considering other LMS solutions - including Blackboard, Canvas, Schoology, and Remote-Learner - they decided that Moodle was still a great fit for the University, but they needed a better and more service-focused hosting arrangement.
"We were happy with Moodle’s functionality and customization possibilities, how it could be expanded with different plugins and modules, but we were restricted by our current hosting company," said Joel Johnson, Director of Academic Technology & Online Learning at UNWSP. "Many of the plugins weren’t supported by this company, we had storage restraints, and the support wasn’t to a standard that we were comfortable with."
By early 2014, UNWSP was making a dedicated effort to grow and expand their online programs, and they needed a system that could scale with them, meet their current needs, and provide the flexibility to adapt to the needs of the future. UNWSP had a clear vision of what they wanted for their new and improved Moodle instance.
“We had our list of criteria – what our requirements were, what pain points we were trying to solve, what improvements or new things we were trying to see – and so as we engaged with other partners it felt like we were, in many ways, going from one set of constraints to another and that really wasn’t what we were looking for,” said Johnson, Director of Academic Technology & Online Learning at UNWSP. “We wanted to be in a situation where we would have more control over our system in a way that could grow, expand, and evolve with us.”
With eThink Education, University of Northwestern - St. Paul found what they were looking for.
Fully-Managed Moodle by eThink
After an extensive review process, UNWSP selected eThink Education to provide a fully-managed Moodle experience covering all LMS needs including implementation, hosting, troubleshooting, integrations, consulting, and more. Together, eThink and UNWSP worked together to create a roadmap for the next stage of Moodle at UNWSP and continue to do so as the university’s needs evolve.
Prior to eThink, UNWSP had to aggressively monitor, archive off the system, and regularly delete courses and content. They had to approach faculty members and ask them to clean up their courses and delete unneeded material to remain under the storage limit, which was not only bothersome to teachers but a tedious task. With eThink’s unlimited storage, this particular pain point is no longer a concern for UNWSP, freeing up faculty and administrator time.
Quality (Unlimited) Support
For UNWSP, support was the most important consideration when evaluating systems. With eThink, UNWSP found “a true partner rather than a vendor,” said Johnson.
With their previous vendor, support was slow. It was often little more than receiving links to Moodle documentation that their team could find on their own; they weren’t receiving the level of support that they needed and wanted. With eThink’s unlimited support model, UNWSP enjoys unlimited modules, storage, and customizable reporting, providing their team with the flexibility they wanted and the freedom to customize without restrictions.
“In many ways, Moodle is the most important application that we have on our campus. If Moodle is down, courses can’t run and students can’t learn. It’s really important that Moodle is not only available but it works well. Now when we have a problem, eThink helps us navigate an issue and look at all the different factors that might be contributing to it,” said Johnson.
“Honestly, I thought after the implementation – where we were getting all kinds of love and attention from eThink – that the great support might dry up a little bit so I braced myself for that but fortunately and pleasantly the support from eThink has continued to be incredibly responsive and thoughtful.”
Johnson continued: “As we keep growing and trying new things, eThink is there to help us, keep us aware of what changes are happening with Moodle as a system and in the community, and give us professional advice for what to consider, how to configure our system, and what we might want to take advantage of in new releases.”
Freedom to Customize
With eThink, UNWSP has access to the thousands of community-developed plugins in Moodle, allowing their team to configure Moodle to provide a custom solution to meet their specific needs.
“One of the beautiful things about Moodle is that there is a variety of community-developed plugins that enhances it, which we couldn’t leverage in our previous hosting arrangement,” said Joel. “eThink has allowed us to explore and take advantage of those plugins and expansion opportunities. When we are thinking about a plugin, we check in with eThink. Together, we discuss the pros and cons of putting certain plugins on our system and eThink helps us determine which ones will be a good fit.”
Confidence to Innovate (Including Creating MOOCs)
With eThink, UNWSP has access to the thousands of community-developed plugins in Moodle, allowing their team to configure Moodle to provide a custom solution to meet their specific needs. UNWSP has taken advantage of the endless possibilities in open-source Moodle, from plugins and theme customization to creating MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course).
eThink's Support Team worked hand-in-hand with UNWSP to help them develop their first MOOC, which opened on March 19, 2018. The course was called “Life of Christ” and had 1,000 participants sign up. Having a course run at this scale caused the instructional design team to rethink some of the strategies and approaches to development and delivery in Moodle.
“When developing our first MOOC, we worked with eThink to evaluate the pros and cons of different options. Creating a MOOC required us to think in a way that we hadn’t had to do with normal courses or programs that we’ve done in the past. When making a course that is accessible to the public, we had to think about how we open it to the public, different types of registrations, payment processing, and different levels of proctoring and oversight,” said Johnson.
“All of these things were new, but we’re confident now going forward largely because of eThink’s guidance, support, and even enthusiasm for us trying something new. It’s been very refreshing to have a partner like eThink to help us avoid stepping in a hole that will cause harm, but also to partner with us to try new things and encourage innovation that will meet our needs.”
Now, due to the success of the course, the development of additional MOOCs is being considered.
Better Value, Lower Cost
Last but certainly not least, price is always a factor when it comes to an LMS whether self-hosting or hosting with a vendor. With eThink, UNWSP was able to lower costs while gaining more value.
“Although we considered bringing Moodle back in-house, we just didn’t have the robust IT department expertise and when we made a comparison, dollar-to-dollar, we felt like we’d actually end up paying more to hire somebody to maintain Moodle and support it than we would have if we went with another hosting company. So from a financial perspective, we felt that we’d actually come out ahead – which we have – by moving to eThink,” said Johnson.
“Also, compared to our previous vendor, eThink has provided us with a robust solution at a much better price point – and the unlimited support model is a bonus. In terms of the value we receive with eThink and the quality of service, all I can say is that I wish we made the switch sooner!”
All in all, utilizing Moodle by eThink has given the University of Northwestern - St. Paul the freedom and confidence to customize, innovate, and scale their online programs. With eThink at-hand to help, UNWSP continues to improve the learning experience for their students, save on costs, and take advantage of the endless customization possibilities and newest technologies available to Moodle.