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Whither WebCT at UH
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by David Lassner

We have been investigating options this year for the future direction for our course management system (WebCT Campus Edition 4). You can visit last year's InfoBITS for more information about why this became necessary. The most significant factors are the announcement by our vendor that our current product is at its end-of-life and our experience over the last two contract renewals with dramatically escalating mandatory license costs.

The differences are striking from 1995 when we selected WebCT, then a University product from the University of British Columbia (UBC). In thinking about where UH is headed with e-learning support over the next 5-10 years, there are some related services, opportunities and issues that must be considered at the same time.

From an implementation perspective, the concern most commonly expressed by faculty has been over the migration process. While movement to any system will entail some effort, we are committed to automating as much of this as possible, whether we are moving to a proprietary or open source solution. There are many tools and experiences on which we will be able to draw to minimize the effort required to move. Having said that, migration to a new system also provides the opportunity for faculty to rethink how they are using online tools to support instruction.

Another implementation concern has to do with integration. WebCT began as a standalone service, but our current environment has been tightly integrated with our Student Information System and the portal. When students register for a course they are automatically enrolled in the course management system and their online course support is directly available through the portal. And direct gradebook integration means faculty can compute grades directly online and have them transferred without manual re-entry. These are now minimum integration requirements.

Usage of online learning tools has also changed over the years. While the early users were pioneers, thousands of UH distance learning and campus-based courses have now used WebCT. In addition, the course tools embedded within the portal are automatically provisioned to every course section not set up to use WebCT and are available to improve communication and interaction with students. The portal's course tools are quite limited, and the vendor has no plans to improve them. Given where we are today, it would be desirable to create a single scalable environment in which all UH courses could share the same e-learning framework and select from among the tools they want. Some might use only an online syllabus and gradebook, while others might use a full suite of tools including online discussions, calendars, announcements, assignment repositories, testing, chatrooms, wikis and integration with 3rd party learning objects. With a unified framework, each course could use whatever set of services is deemed most appropriate without jumping between disparate systems.

With increasing emphasis on the assessment of student learning outcomes, both within our campuses and at the national level, it appears that the use of electronic portfolios may become a useful tool for many more programs over the next several years. A number of UH programs are already actively using e-portfolio solutions, both proprietary and open source. Ideally, these tools would be integrated with the online learning platform so that student work in a course could be readily migrated to their e-portfolio.

Some of our faculty are interested in developing new methodologies for instruction as a focus of their research. An open, component-based institutional e-learning platform would allow these individual to conceptualize, develop and test specific new learning strategies without having to develop entire systems from scratch. A component-based approach also lets faculty choose from among different tools that do similar things, just as they do in traditional instruction. E.g., there are different approaches to testing, discussion groups and synchronous tools that individual faculty might want to "plug in" to their courses.

When considering education in the context of other kinds of collaborative activities, it becomes apparent that many of the tools in an e-learning system are also required for other teams that work together. Common tools include discussion groups, file repositories, wikis, chats, collaborative writing and calendars. Such tools are in demand for research collaborations with colleagues around UH or around the world, in service learning and community service engagements, and among university committees and task forces. We have already observed synergies with the use of the portal course/group tools, limited as they are, and to a lesser extent with our current version of WebCT. The ability to use a single integrated online environment for both e-learning and other kinds of collaboration, within UH and beyond, would provide a consistent suite of services for our community and be a powerful means of extending the virtual classroom with new kinds of activities.

As we ponder the question of open source solutions relative to proprietary software we also need to consider the hope that we are moving in a direction that will last us at least 5-10 years. We need to consider the extent to which we might buy a product as-is based on how it looks out of the box, or an environment into which we will be able to grow and which we will be able to influence to meet our needs, goals and dreams. During the recent years of dramatic upheaval in the software market, we have learned that complete commercial support and complete self-reliance each have their limits as well as advantages.

Clearly, where we are headed with our e-learning platform is not the same as where we have been. We have experienced a commercial online learning solution for a number of years, since WebCT was spun off by UBC to a corporation and more recently sold to Blackboard. While there is tremendous uncertainty about how a publicly traded corporation with a dominant market position will treat its customers, we certainly understand the realities of our own experience. However, UH has not worked with other approaches in this area.

The Sakai Collaboration and Learning Environment has emerged as one of the very interesting alternatives for us. In brief, Sakai is a community source initiative led by a group of colleges and universities around the world that have decided that they can and will work together to produce better software together than any of them could do alone.

UH has already been running an early version of Sakai for over a year as part of Kapiolani CC's e-Portfolio initiative. While early versions have been somewhat immature, Sakai clearly presents some new ways of thinking about course management systems in the academic environment. Sakai was designed from the ground up as a general-purpose collaborative environment as well as for course management. It has been designed for use by large enterprises such as UH, using a robust and scalable technical infrastructure and well-defined integration points. While still less mature than some of the proprietary solutions, higher education controls the future of Sakai. And multiple sources of commercial support are available from large and small companies.

Several faculty have begun to explore Sakai and we are now opening up a more current version of Sakai for UH faculty to get a feel for another possible approach to our e-learning future. Interested in exploring? Please visit www.hawaii.edu/its/sakai to take a look.
 
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