This case study is an excerpt from the WGU Labs College Innovation Network Evaluation & Impact Report (June 2022). You can read the full report here.
Piedmont Community College is a public, two-year institution. PCC strives to be the leading contributor to the economic, educational, and cultural vitality of its communities by providing high-quality programs that ensure student success. The College employs 300 full-time and part-time faculty & staff, and serves 5,000 students across two campuses. In addition to 80 associate’s, diploma, and certificate programs, PCC offers more than 20 distance education programs for credit and workforce development.
In fall 2021, PCC piloted Harmonize — a discussion and collaboration tool — through WGU Labs. The College Innovation Network (CIN), a program founded by WGU Labs, analyzed the results of the pilot partnership to study how Harmonize impacts student engagement. The College Innovation Network (CIN) at WGU Labs is a network of higher education institutions committed to addressing the core challenge of promoting belonging and engagement by leveraging technology to build highly engaged learning communities.
Online discussion forums are some of the most common ways in which students interact with one another in courses. The goal of LMS discussion forums is to increase course engagement to promote better learning outcomes.
As cited in the WGU Labs report, research shows that active and engaged learning leads to better outcomes in courses and reduces equity-related performance gaps; additional research indicates that participation in discussion forums is related to better course outcomes in traditional courses and in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
Although LMS discussion forums are a standard way for students to interact with course content, these forums are typically text-based and can be challenging to extract deep engagement from students. They are also difficult for professors to track and grade student participation.
To address the limitations of traditional LMS discussion forums, PCC implemented Harmonize in select courses to determine impact. Integrated with Blackboard, Harmonize allowed for multimedia peer interactions to promote dynamic discussion and boost student engagement.
With Harmonize, students could easily embed web content via URLs, integrate visuals such as images and videos into their posts, poll classmates on ideas, annotate multimedia content, and create audio replies to posts. The platform was used on mobile devices as well, increasingly important as students are on the go and may not always have access to a computer.
Grading was also more seamless from the instructor’s point of view when compared to traditional LMS discussion forums. Harmonize’s unique Milestones feature was added within discussion posts to keep students on track. They were prompted to engage with content by responding to their peers, and auto-grading features reduced time spent on grading. By making participation exciting for students, and easy to evaluate for professors, Harmonize boosted engagement and learning outcomes for students.
To assess the impact of this pilot, CIN analyzed the distribution of student course grades for a sample of three courses that used Harmonize for some discussions and compared that with other discussions in the same course that only used LMS discussions. WGU Labs also shared two interview case studies with Piedmont faculty to highlight the creative ways in which faculty used Harmonize to enhance student learning in their courses.
Overall, the data indicated that Harmonize demonstrated “strong promise for boosting course engagement and learning outcomes, both in the classroom and asynchronously outside the classroom.”