The Interactive Campus: Administrative and Course Management System Vendors Take Up the Challenge

Administrative and Course Management System Vendors Take Up the Challenge

Emerging media and highly interactive technologies raise the bar for the development efforts vendors must make to remain current in a growing eLearning environment. Possibilities for improved user interaction with both academic information and administrative data, plus expectations for more integrated systems, contribute to a blurring of the lines between administrative and course management systems. Several types of companies involved with eLearning products or infrastructure work in the eLearning space, and product categories are not as clear-cut as they once were.
The eLearning landscape is changing in response to interest in portals, Web-based or Web-enabled systems, and a gradual but general evolution in academic institutions towards life-long learning. What kinds of interactive technologies interest vendors most, and what technology directions and market influences are they considering as they plan for the future? To find out, Syllabus polled technology leaders at key companies.

Blackboard chairman Matthew Pittinsky says, "The biggest challenge when looking into the future is discerning between interesting technologies that are eye candy, and those that are really going to impact student outcomes." Pittinsky cites three defining technology directions that will impact his company's future development: immersion, standards, and specialization.
Immersion technologies will be unlike anything we now commonly use for teaching and learning. The PowerPoint presentations and streaming video of today are just the tip of the iceberg of interactive learning, Pittinsky explains. Virtual biology labs and avatars are representative of the kinds of immersion technology we can expect to use in the future, given increased bandwidth. And the online videogame industry is pioneering applications that could eventually be used to make education at a distance more socially powerful.
Standards will continue to pave the way for collaboration and sharing of content, so that institutions can discover and incorporate the best, high-end learning materials from others into their learning management systems. Standards will also influence how programs will be formed across institutions and the ways in which faculty collaborate. Learners will bring portable data with them as they move among programs and institutions. Learner profiles will contain data about their educational history and learning preferences, allowing for personalization of course materials and programs—this will put the learner in charge of the educational process.
Specialization will create discipline-based tools and pedagogical approaches, while institutions standardize on one course management system that will offer gradebooks, discussion boards, and other more generalized tools. Once a standard course management system has been installed, institutions will license or build a wide variety of additions that tailor a particular eLearning environment to the instructional approach that makes the most sense for the professor and the subject area. Pittinsky points to Blackboard's Building Blocks initiative, which includes open APIs and a free SDK that has been put into use by institutions such as Princeton University and Carnegie Mellon to develop extensions to Blackboard.
"Adult life-long learning is adding an entire new category of enrollments to higher education," says Pittinsky. These enrollments have different preferences, and this is causing a shift in the way institutions think about the types of programs they develop, they frequency of those programs, and the mix of live classroom instruction and online learning modes. "It's the demand side, and the catalyst for institutions to move to adopt new learning technologies. It will fundamentally change the way we think about degree programs."

eCollege CTO Mark Resmer says the typical student served by his company is a life-long learner. "For eCollege, the life-long learner is really the life blood of the company," says Resmer. eCollege is a distance education technology provider, and most of the company's planning focuses on distance learning as the learning context, differentiated from the on-campus environment where course management systems may merely supplement classroom instruction.
Resmer points out that bandwidth is a challenge in exploiting new, highly interactive media. The industry as a whole is driven by bandwidth. Often students are still using 56Kbps modems at home, limiting the potential for interactivity until broadband becomes more ubiquitous. eCollege has recently introduced a new technique called http compression in an effort to address this ‘last mile' problem. The time it takes to render pages is decreased by orders of magnitude, simply and cheaply.
The expense of creating highly interactive and pedagogically rich content is another challenge. To help facilitate production, eCollege has incorporated both synchronous and asynchronous learning into the courses. Creating synchronous events is less complex than structuring asynchronous ones, but students have a strong desire for asynchronous learning. The ability to capture certain kinds of synchronous events and then use them in an asynchronous context will go a long way towards solving this problem. eCollege also has a large, active course development and instructional design unit as a resource for faculty. Over time, faculty may realize the true potential of the technology and take on more of the development themselves.
Another area of interest is the new media capabilities of commodity PCs, along with Web services technologies. With the advent of Windows Media built into the operating system, and the possibility of leveraging new tools on the desktop in the learning offerings, courses can be less dependent on what is delivered purely over the Web. Hybrids can be created that are accessed over the Web but take advantage of locally hosted client applications. Web services technologies will create flexible deployment for those kinds of applications and will open the door for collaboration, customization, and ultimately, personalization.
One interactive technology application that eCollege finds intriguing, says Resmer, is in the area of online labs. Virtual labs go beyond simulation- they allow the student to do real work. The lab is integrated into the student's learning environment, providing virtual access to a physical resource.
eCollege also stresses Section 508 compliance, so that learning experiences are designed to be accessible to users who may have a wide range of disabilities. "eCollege is fully 508 compliant," says Resmer. "The challenge is to maintain that compliance as content becomes richer and more interactive."

WebCT CTO Chris Vento explains that enterprise academic software infrastructure is key to his company's strategy. "It's important to build an enterprise academic application infrastructure as a flexible platform, not only so that we can provide the technologies that WebCT builds, but more importantly, to leverage the variety of technologies that are already available, or that will become available externally." WebCT will offer a platform that will provide this type of integration, whether the technologies are built by WebCT or available from outside sources. The platform will take advantage of Web services and XML messaging to allow different systems- such as WebCT and other learning platforms, communications systems, media servers, and VoIP servers—to interoperate much more easily. For example, on the administrative side, XML-based messaging will allow interoperability with calendaring, collaboration, content management, and mail systems. WebCT is just beginning to provide interoperability via XML messaging or Web services. "It's a great way for systems to interoperate without having to have perfectly aligned architectures- something that is never going to happen," adds Vento.
WebCT will focus on technologies that map to learning in useful and functional ways, says Vento. Interactive messaging, instant messaging, and peer-to-peer communications technologies will extend the reach of the learning experience. There is also a set of applications that may best be delivered via a mobile device—course calendars, assignment listings, or any communications or messaging related to a course will be enhanced as mobile offerings. Role-based access and student data points now allow students and advisors to tailor a learning experience for the student. In the future, additional profile and learning context information will enable further personalization, e.g., a tailored curriculum can be made available to a student based on a profile correlated with various other administrative data.
WebCT is working toward a distributed content management learning object framework that allows the sharing of all types of content objects. WebCT Vista, released this past April, is a scalable enterprise technology framework with significant content management capability built in. Rich sources of learning object content, both local or external, can be managed and integrated into multiple learning contexts. "WebCT Vista is an enterprise-level platform that drives highly scaled, distributed learning implementations. It provides the integration capabilities with these extended technologies that allow us to broaden the functional base both internally and by working with partners and other external technology vendors," says Vento. "It is a critical step toward moving forward and offering new, interactive technologies that are varied and useful in the learning context."

Element K has its roots in content development and instructional design rather than in content management systems or administrative systems. Although the company communicates that its 20-year heritage and primary focus is in teaching, instruction, and workforce training, it has built a substantial learning management system and provides a number of different eLearning products. Element K's director of product management, David Snider, explains that because the company is exclusively an ASP, its strategy is based on the assumption that all its eLearning products will be delivered over the Internet. The company's product development efforts therefore focus on improving the customer's experience on the Internet—optimizing bandwidth and designing instruction specifically for use on the Internet.
The company has shaped its instructional design strategy to take advantage of new interactive media. "With our current instructional design model, called SPARK, we've combined the very best of instructional design with experience design," Snider states. One of the first courses done in the SPARK model can be seen in a product developed with Harvard Business School Publishing, called The Harvard Interactive Manager Series. Snider says, "Aside from being very rich in interactive media, we use streaming video, branching scenarios, inline projects, and assessments. An important aspect of the SPARK model is that, included with these interactive elements, there are numerous choices of learning modes that the student can make dynamically, based on learning style and what is appropriate for the exercise at hand."
VLabs ("Virtual Labs") serve as another example of how Element K incorporates different types of interactive elements into instructional design. For the study of Information Technology, it can be a challenge to get access to live equipment on which to learn to solve real problems. In addition to simulations, Element K uses real equipment which is "scrubbed" and then set up in a particular configuration for use in the problem scenario.
Snider adds that since the company is a content developer, it is also in a unique position to offer services to customers who wish to develop their own interactive content for the Internet.

Jenzabar CEO Bob Maginn relates the vision upon which the company was founded: to enhance higher education through the introduction of an online community and online learning technologies via the Internet, and to integrate administrative data and functions. The company soon grew to include both a portal gateway and a course management platform. "The Jenzabar strategy evolved into what we call I3: Internet, Intelligence, and Integration," says Maginn. "In order to draw people into using technology, they have to find it to be useful in their daily lives—powerful and meaningful in advancing whatever goals they are trying to accomplish."
Maginn cites an example pertaining to how the I3 strategy supports interactivity. "You have to have all three elements," says Maginn, "You have to have the Internet and accessibility, you have to have Intelligence in the system, and you have to have Integration with what is already built into the enterprise software and database layer on campus." A junior wanting to find out what courses to take in order to work toward graduation might use a handheld device to interact with schedules, calendars, and program information, and then register for selected courses. This is an intelligent, integrated system: in order to provide the proper information to the student, the system has to access a database to find out which courses the student has already taken; it must find the requirements in terms of the courses the student must take to complete a given major, and in what sequence; it has to know the schedule of what classes will actually be offered and available; and it needs access to a calendar to push the information onto to make sure there are no conflicts. When the student is ready to register, the system must also facilitate that process. This scenario also requires having an Internet gateway, and mobile computing environment.
This integrated, interactive environment can be extended to other constituent groups, such as faculty, staff, and administration. Jenzabar offers Constituent Relationship Management engines that take advantage of its I3 strategy to enable complex interactions—the example above is just the beginning.

SCT senior vice president Anne Keough Keehn explains that the 34-year-old company, once considered primarily an administrative systems vendor, is now looking to provide an entire e-education infrastructure to unify teaching, learning, and administration. "Much of the transformation of higher education has taken place on the learning side," says Keehn. "The way administrative systems have to evolve is to determine what will help administer teaching and learning. We believe that an e-education infrastructure is needed to leverage both the course management system and administrative system to provide more user-centric experiences to the different constituencies, including faculty, students, alumni…the entire community."
The types of interactive applications now being developed by SCT center around self-service and anywhere access. In the broader view, this may be considered Web enterprise management. As an example of a specific application, Keehn cites the newly launched E-Recruiter Pocket PC- an interactive tool for college admissions recruiters, accessed via a handheld device- and she states that similar applications will be developed for students and other user groups.
One key technology area is content management. Rich multimedia content, robust streaming video, and other interactive media assets can be leveraged in a content management system. Sharing and learning asset management will be counted among the elements of a total e-education infrastructure.
The problem of integration is also key. The ability to serve up not only course information, but also administrative information in an integrated system will be a user expectation and an area for continuing development. Interoperability of the tools and interactive technologies across campus is part of this integration and will include common calendar, e-mail, and course management systems.
For future development, additional areas to watch include collaboration and community-building technologies. Keehn notes that technologies developed by the gaming industry along with real-time, persistent connections for interactive multi-user environments may ultimately contribute in these areas. "This can also be seen from an administrative standpoint." Keehn points out. "As people are interacting more and more online, it's important to consider how best to provide that capability and create communities of interest online."

Campus Pipeline defines itself as an infrastructure player. David Murray, CTO, and Darin Gilson, COO, share their views on implementing new interactive technologies on campus. "We are excited and anxious to see these emerging technologies and to find out how they are going to take hold in the education market, but first and foremost, our focus is on building the infrastructure from which the technologies can be deployed," says Gilson, "And that is the chasm that needs crossing right now in higher education- making sure that the infrastructure is suitable for the broad deployment and development of new technologies. " A tremendous amount of activity has already been made possible by Internet-based architectures, and that will continue at an accelerated pace into the future. But Campus Pipeline sees its role as helping schools build the foundations and the infrastructure upon which they can build their digital campus.
Infrastructure might not seem very tangible at first to many constituents, who will be concerned with their immediate needs for specific applications. "But the purpose is for all of the different applications to be deployed and delivered in a manageable fashion," says Gilson. "If you start at the application level, without having that common foundation in infrastructure, you are going to create a ‘soup sandwich,' and obviously that is what needs to be avoided."
One technology area that is of particular interest is security. "People are grappling with security issues- not just surrounding the initial login, but across all different applications," noted Murray. How credentials are managed, what the points of vulnerability are, and how to determine the right tradeoff between security and convenience are among the top concerns.
Whereas the technology decision is critically important, the decision is as much about the function of the technology as about the technology itself. "Getting technology in place and implemented is the easy part—what is more difficult is to have that technology accepted as part of the fabric of the institution, seeing that all the constituents understand how they can take advantage of it, and finally to find that it is truly delivering for the mission of the institution," says Gilson. "It is remarkable to see the difference in results of technology implementation between schools that take a mission-oriented approach versus schools that take a very technology-centric approach. The returns are vastly greater to those who have a broad vision of what the technology can accomplish if deployed correctly."

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