Technology & the Community College

Pulling in Tandem

In Part Two of our special report on vendor partnering, we look at two community colleges and their unique approaches to software challenges: multiple vendor partners for an online learning materials initiative, and the vendor as scientific study partner for an online collaboration tools pilot.

Technology & the Community Finding the perfect vendor partner for any campus initiative takes more than patience and planning; it takes an open mind. In the case of the two institutions and their software initiative leaders profiled below, a careful assessment of need—coupled with a good deal of out-of-the-box thinking—led to innovative approaches to vendor partnering for project success. Got an upcoming software initiative that could use some help? Throw out preconceived ideas and look for a win-win in the technology vendor community.

Multiple Partners May Be The Answer

Jack Chambers is the executive director of organizational learning services for Florida Community College at Jacksonville where, two years ago, he and his team dreamed up the Sirius Project—the development of lowcost but highly interactive course materials to assist the large number of students involved in online education. Of FCCJ’s 46,000 students, nearly a third take courses online on a regular basis. In addition, the college has sizable contracts with the US Navy, which have the potential to add an additional 24,000 students to its rolls. The school has to date placed about 100 courses online, including every general education course it offers. Prior to the Sirius Project, each online course used standard textbooks and was developed internally.

The thrust of Sirius, however, was to develop courses that didn’t use the standard textbooks; via Sirius, the faculty would write their own. In fact, they would be challenged to develop the entire contents of the course—not just the textual content, but interactive components as well. The goals: to limit each textbook to 150 pages, price it at $60 (including shipping), and include both a CD and an online element for access to additional materials such as discussion questions and interactive tools that don’t require a lot of bandwidth for downloading. (The CD was intended to benefit students who don’t always have internet connectivity.)

“The idea,” says Chambers, “is that [Naval] students at the bottom of the ocean in a submarine can still study, because they have a CD and a book. When their tour of duty is over or they have internet access, they can catch up with discussion questions.”

A sizable undertaking. Still, as simple and straightforward as the Sirius initiative may sound now, that’s how overwhelming the details behind the venture soon became, after the project was launched. Fact is, if Chambers hadn’t persisted in his search for just the right textbook publishing partner, the whole thing might still be just an idea.

“We found out early on,” says Chambers, “that it was going to be a difficult task.” The only way to make it work, the team decided, was to form a partnership with a major educational publishing company that could provide the learning objects the courses would need. Shortly after that realization, Chambers met first with execs at Thomson, to share the vision and progress of his group’s work.

“We spent a year going back and forth, meeting with them and with their instructional designers and the people running their labs,” says Chambers. “But after a year, we just couldn’t agree on a partnership.” At the time, he says “the company simply wasn’t ready to depart from the traditional mode of publishing.”

First partner: Pearson. Next came discussions with Pearson, whose execs were interested in an instructional design course called Creating Optimal Learning Environments (CREOLE), which—with local funds and a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education — FCCJ and Virginia Tech had developed jointly over a number of years. In June 2005, a deal was struck. Through its sales reps, Pearson would market the course to the company’s major textbook customers; FCCJ would promote it in the higher ed community. The technology side of the picture was still not nailed down, however, so in September 2005, FCCJ put out an “invitation to negotiate”: a statement expressing the school’s desire to use a technology provider’s learning objects and software to help the school publish its new breed of course material. That generated a visit from McGraw-Hill Education.

McGraw-Hill comes on board. McGraw-Hill had heard about CREOLE and wanted to market it. Although that part of the Sirius Project had been committed to Pearson, the team informed the publisher it was still seeking a partner for another facet of the project: the learning objects development. McGraw-Hill came on board in June 2006. Whereas Thomson had not been ready for the new breed of course material development and “Pearson was ready to try, but only on their terms,” McGraw-Hill was “open to trying new things,” recalls Chambers. Timing, in effect, was everything, and by bringing two different partners with different agendas to the table, FCCJ was able to launch a dream project that may not have gotten off the ground otherwise.

Materials, marketing, and more. The contract with McGraw-Hill lasts two-and-a-half years, says Chambers, covers 28 courses, and is renewable up to 2012. The first four courses will be basic skills reading, basic skills English, basic skills math, and basic psychology.

The courses will be marketed on a national scale by McGraw-Hill, primarily to other community colleges that want to get started using online materials, as well as to small, private colleges that want to provide this type of training to their students. The courses can be delivered in any of three ways: fully face-toface, fully online, or in a blended mode. Sales, says Chambers, are expected to be “sizable.” The share of the revenue returned to the school will go toward student scholarships and into supporting the Sirius program, in the form of adding more instructional designers and paying faculty stipends for developing new courses. Chambers says he expects the cost of course material development to be fully covered (excluding overhead such as his salary) during the life of the current contract with McGraw-Hill, which has about two years remaining.

Jack Chambers

"Stop thinking the way you’ve been taught to think in an institution," warns FCCJ’s Jack Chambers. "Start thinking more creatively, and take more risks."

As for the faculty developing the new course materials, they can have access to anything in the digital asset library owned by McGraw-Hill, Chambers asserts. And for assets leased by McGraw-Hill, the school will pay the same fee the publisher is charged. Faculty will also be able to build some of the simpler components they want to offer in courses, such as crossword puzzles and flashcards, using SoftChalk’s LessonBuilder. As the course material is finished, Chambers explains, the school will deliver cameraready copy, then the company will print, stock, and distribute the books.

But the partnering doesn’t end there. McGraw-Hill has funded a full-time instructional designer for that first twoand- a-half-year phase of the contract. FCCJ is using McGraw-Hill’s math software, ALEKS and MathZone, and has set up another contract with the publisher, whereby the college can make those programs available to students online.

Training for the new tools. Along with the development of course materials and CREOLE, Sirius encompasses another initiative: an online program to teach faculty how to use the tools, and pedagogical methods to construct course materials. This part of Sirius has proven to be wildly successful, according to Chambers. Nearly 400 faculty members are participating in the learning process, which takes from a year-and-a-half to two years to complete. A $500 incentive is paid out to adjunct faculty who complete the training; for tenured faculty, their departments receive the honoraria. About 100 instructors have completed the courses, Chambers reports, and about a third of the fulltime faculty at the school have volunteered for the training. The training, of course, brings its own rewards: After all, it prepares faculty to tackle the development of their own course materials. Once trained, teams of four are assigned to the development of a given course, with eight courses in development at a time. Initially, the team leader receives $4,500 and each team member gets $3,500. If the team completes the entire course within four semesters—including teaching it in beta form, then modifying it based on the results of the beta—each person receives an additional $500. As added motivation, three outside academicians familiar with different areas of higher ed will form a judging panel during that phase, to rate which one of the eight courses is the most creative and best engages the student. The winning team will receive an additional $500 per person.

The initial funding for the program came from several grants handed out by FCCJ’s Strategic Planning Council, a group of 35 individuals who represent administrators, faculty, students, and other campus constituencies. The council meets quarterly and manages a budget of a million dollars a year, says Chambers; it doles out those funds to worthwhile proposals, in increments of up to $150,000.

For other schools looking to enhance their own online programs through similar course material development projects, Chambers offers these words of advice about building successful partnerships: “Stop thinking the way you’ve been taught to think in an institution,” he warns. Instead, “You have to start thinking more creatively, and take more risks. The biggest problem I see is the lack of risk taking—saying, ‘This is the way it’s been for the last 500 years and this is the way it should always be.’ If you start with that thought, then you won’t do these things, which are very high-risk.”

The Vendor as Scientific Study Partner

At GateWay Community College in Phoenix, AZ, Lisa Young is program director of water resources, and also serves as eLearning coordinator for the institution. Young evaluated a number of companies before settling on a partner vendor for an online collaboration service she envisioned setting up within her district. Even now, she says, her decision isn’t final—that is, unless results from her study of the implementation help her to conclude that it’s worthwhile.

Special challenges. Young has a unique set of students at GateWay Community College (one of 10 schools that make up Arizona’s Maricopa Community College District). They’re signed up to take her hydrology or water treatment courses, yet they frequently work in water treatment plant jobs where their shifts change on a monthly basis. That means that Young’s students may not work the same days each week. One month, a student might work a graveyard shift; the next month, it might be a daytime shift. Expecting students to show up on campus for her classes on a set day at a set time is unrealistic, the instructor admits. And though online courses might be a solution to the dilemma, Young considers most online content “highly text-driven”— insufficient for classes that involve teaching students how to use expensive software and specialized equipment. What’s more, the scheduling problems of online courses only add to her students’ frustration and her own, she says. “If they have to wait for an e-mail from me,” she confides, “that can cost them a whole day of learning.”

Online collaboration tools. As the eLearning coordinator at the college, Young decided to examine other means for providing the face-to-face instruction she felt her students deserved (or as close as she could get to face-to-face). That led her to write a funding proposal for a proof-of-concept initiative involving web conferencing tools that would enable online collaboration. The purpose of the study: to evaluate how collaboration tools can be used not for faculty and staff meetings, but for academic purposes—strictly teaching and learning. Young looked at many products, including the collaboration tools offered by Blackboard, provider of the course management system that was being used in seven of the 10 colleges in the district.

Enter Elluminate. Young settled on Elluminate Live!, from Elluminate (www. elluminate.com). What sold her was the fact that the software was designed specifically for academic use. She’s able to record her lectures (including what appears on her computer and on the whiteboard) so that students can view them on their own time. That same whiteboarding feature can be used to permit students to meet with faculty during virtual office hours. “This allows me to schedule tutoring sessions with [students], whether it’s 2 am or 11 am,” she says. “So I’m planning to use it to get more interaction with them.”

True application sharing. On the hydrology side of her teaching, what most excites her is Elluminate’s ability to give students access to specialized and quite expensive geographic information system (GIS) software that, traditionally, students have only been able to use in the school’s computer labs during business hours. Restricted access limited students’ ability to get their homework done. “With Elluminate’s application sharing, [students will] be able to show me where they’re stuck, using my version of GIS software on my computer,” says Young. “I can give them control of the software through their computer, then I can take control and show them the right way, or talk them through it while they’re still [viewing what’s happening on] my computer.”

Reaching out to the district. In her role as a member of Ocotillo, a faculty subgroup of the district’s Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction (MCLI is involved in researching and imparting information on instructional technologies to the faculty), Young had presented the collaboration idea to MCLI. In fact, it was through that organization that she arranged to purchase an Elluminate license for her school. And it was at that point that she began looking at the project from a district perspective: How could the study be structured to evaluate the collaboration efforts of other faculty members? Young then contacted each of the district’s 10 schools, asking administrators at each to provide at least one contact who would act as a liaison to help recruit faculty to expand the study. Young invited her new group of delegates to participate in training on the Elluminate software.

Lisa Young

Lisa Young found an online collaboration solution that records lecture content, plus allows for virtual student/faculty meetings 24/7.

Once the delegates were up to speed, she expanded the initiative with an open call to faculty, districtwide; her campus contacts sought out those individuals in their schools who were interested in participating in the study to find out how it could impact instruction more broadly. Young held three two-hour sessions, in person, with interested faculty throughout the district. In those workshops, she explained what Elluminate was, how it could be used, what the time commitment would be, etc. Then she invited session attendees to submit proposals detailing how they’d like to implement Elluminate in their own classrooms.

Though Young hoped to attract 10 to 15 meeting attendees, she was delighted when 70 turned up. Almost two-thirds of the attendees (over 40) later submitted proposals. At the time of this writing, Young reports that nearly 50 faculty members have participated in the study for the spring ’07 semester. She expects to schedule pilot projects in three phases: spring, summer, and fall.

Working relationship. Through the entire experience of experimenting with the software and expanding the scope of the testing across other schools, Young says, Elluminate has been an outstanding partner. “They’ve been fantastic in providing us with training, have helped us select required hardware, and they’re available to help us as needed. We’re definitely working [on this project] together.” In addition, she says, the vendor has helped her and her district peers to connect with academic users nationwide who have used Elluminate for other distinct purposes. For all of the vendor’s helpfulness, Young maintains, she also appreciates the fact that she can easily point out what she doesn’t need. “Of course, we want their support as our vendor. But I’m doing a study and, sometimes, they’re willing to help us more than we can accept. To make sure the study remains objective, at some point we have to say, ‘Thank you so much, but we need to do this part on our own.’ ”

Recommendations. Young’s advice to others seeking to make a pilot project partner of a vendor: “Be honest. Let them know what you’re trying to do, what your needs are, what your objectives are, what support you need from them in order to make it a solid scientific study, and what you don’t need from them, as well.”

:: WEBEXTRA :: Miss Part 1 of this feature? Find it online here :: Partnering to help one community college bounce back from Hurricane Katrina.

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