Oct 31 2006

IT Practice & Pedagogy II

The benefits of a new e-learning application include integrated teaching, knowledge sharing and community building.

A new learning management system at the University of Maryland bolsters knowledge sharing and community building.

The University of Maryland, College Park, like many other institutions of higher education, has come to embrace e-learning as a way of life. When students arrived on campus for the fall 2006 semester, they discovered that the university had invested in the most up-to-date electronic learning application it could find – one that the university's Office of Information Technology (OIT) says will vastly improve teaching and collaboration.

The University of Maryland, which has an enrollment of more than 35,000 undergraduate and graduate students and is one of the nation's leading public research institutions, is rolling out a campuswide family of integrated applications for teaching, community building and knowledge sharing.

The learning management system, Blackboard Academic Suite, will give the university its first single, campuswide e-learning platform, according to Jeffrey Huskamp, vice president and CIO at the University of Maryland.

Prior to the implementation, the university had been using a combination of different e-learning applications for about five years. The new system will cost approximately $408,000 in its first year of deployment, including initial licensing fees, consulting and training costs. According to Huskamp, it's money well spent.

The e-learning system, says Huskamp, “provides an environment in which any student or teacher can view instructional content, collaborate with educators, evaluate academic performance, and access learning resources anytime from anywhere in order to achieve their educational objectives.”

Time to Change

The e-learning applications the University of Maryland had been using were no longer fully meeting its needs, says Huskamp. When he arrived at the university two years ago, he began to question why the school was not using a state-of-the-art system.

Two committees were formed: a technical evaluation committee, including members of the university's colleges and schools as well as OIT, and a faculty committee, in an effort to upgrade the system. The committees set requirements based on the school's goals and evaluated multiple vendor proposals.

With the new e-learning system, faculty and students will have a more sophisticated way to access course information, conduct research projects and share findings with others via a standardized system that features a large content repository.

Faculty and students can access the learning management system on desktop and portable computers via any Web browser. With the growing number of mobile devices used on campus, Huskamp says, it's more likely that students and professors will use the program in classrooms, libraries, dormitories and other places.

The university began training faculty members to use the new application during the summer of 2006, and will continue training programs through the fall. Huskamp says students accustomed to working with e-learning applications will intuitively be able to use the new application.

The university is taking a phased approach to converting course materials to the new system, Huskamp says. Most courses should be converted to the new suite by the end of the spring 2007 semester, he says. One of the older systems will run in parallel with the replacement system until the conversion is complete, but all brand-new courses will be created in the new system.

Huskamp says the system is being provided to the university on a hosted basis. After the first year of use, the university might consider running the system in-house on its own servers.

Challenges and Benefits

The biggest challenge in the conversion process is determining how some content from the older systems should be migrated to the new platform. “It's going to be a learning experience, particularly for the larger courses where there's complex content,” Huskamp says.

But the work will pay off in the form of a more effective and uniform e-learning and collaboration tool. “Now we'll have one system on campus for everyone. No longer will students have to take some courses in one system and others in another,” Huskamp says.

One of the biggest problems with the older applications was that they were sometimes difficult to use, says Roberta Lavine, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures.

“Any time you wanted to share materials you had to duplicate everything because there was no file sharing per se,” Lavine says. “That took a lot of time and effort, and people would say it's too much of a hassle. It defeated one of the big purposes of having a system like this, which is to create community.”

The new system, “gives us a new way to talk about different kinds of materials,” Lavine says. “Now people can more easily comment on the file they're using, edit content in groups and share tips. It makes the relationship between people using the application much better.”

Among the key benefits of the system is that it enables class instructors to distribute quick and convenient communications to one student or to an entire class via announcements, e-mail and messaging features. Another benefit is that the application supports a variety of learning styles, individualized programs, and customized release of content and activities.

“People have preferences in the way they learn, whether it's visually, orally or through hands-on activity,” Lavine says. The new system accommodates “all these learning styles” she notes. “It has something for everyone. You have flexibility in the kinds of projects you can support.”

Besides providing better learning capabilities for students, the new system enables faculty and research staff to communicate and collaborate more effectively. The application provides content management and collaboration features that allow instructors to more easily create and integrate content into the curriculum, distribute content to colleagues and use learning materials created by others.

“We're very excited about using this tool to share content for multiple classes and work among faculty members to collaborate on material,” Lavine says.

One of the keys to the successful implementation of the new e-learning application at University of Maryland has been the ongoing help of OIT, according to Lavine. “If we didn't have the support of OIT or the training in how to use the system, the upgrade would not be as effective,” she says.

Huskamp adds that it was critical to have the involvement of faculty and academic representatives in helping to set goals and in selecting a vendor for the new system. “This is not an isolated [project],” he says. “It needs to be part of the overall strategy of the university. This system touches almost every student here.”

Bob Violino is a freelance technology writer based in Massapequa Park, N.Y.

Before You Buy

• Involve key stakeholders, such as professors, department heads and appropriate people in the administration, in setting goals for the system and evaluating vendor offerings.

• Check that the new e-learning system is compatible with your existing e-learning platforms and that the IT infrastructure can support the new product.

• Establish training programs to bring faculty and staff up to speed on how to use the new system, preferably before rolling out the application campuswide.

• Get adequate support from the IT department so faculty and student users can obtain the most out of the new e-learning application.

• Conduct periodic reviews of the system to make sure that it's meeting the goals set by the institution.