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A Push for Collaborative Workspaces

A CIO has introduced his college to a virtual environment where most communications and collaboration take place online, creating a digital working and learning hub while cutting back on paper waste in the process.

Many institutions dream about becoming paperless and virtual, but only a few have truly achieved this paradise. After all, higher education has historically been mired in paper, and getting away from the age-old processes that generate those paper trails can be difficult at best.

American International College of Springfield, MA, thinks it's found a solution. They have not yet quite achieved virtual paradise, but they are well on the way. For the last four years, the school has been using a virtual campus approach that finds staff members, faculty, and students using collaborative workspaces, online calendars, and electronic communications--all in one spot.

Introduced by Bill Seretta, at the time an acting CIO who has since moved into the position on a full-time basis, the system replaced a previous setup comprising two e-mail systems--one for staff and faculty and one for students. "That wasn't working very well," said Seretta, who introduced a replacement system as part of an IT overhaul that was taking place in other departments across campus.

Seretta picked FirstClass to serve as the school's unified messaging and collaboration solution. Accustomed to paper and more traditional means of communication, many staff members and faculty were reluctant to embrace the new system. Seretta didn't give in. "We went from zero to 90 percent adoption within three months, so there was no time for hand wringing or debate," said Seretta. "We simply said no more paper, unless it involved internal documents that require signatures."

That mandate resulted in a roughly 85 percent reduction in paper usage for internal memos, newsletters and campus communications since 2006. It also ruffled some feathers on campus, mainly from staff members and professors who were resistant to change.

"The unknown scares people; it's just human nature," said Seretta, who obtained buy-in for his plan from the school's new president before introducing the initiative to the rest of the campus. Doing so allowed him to refer to the president when complaints came in. "I simple told them that I was doing what I was asked to do," said Seretta, "and sent them up the line to the president."

It didn't take long for the detractors to get onboard with the virtual campus setup. "Within a few months, if the system burped I would get frantic calls from people who couldn't get on the system," said Seretta, who used a "drag them in by the nose and don't let them look back or stop" philosophy to gain that quick adoption. "We knew that stopping was the worst thing they could do."

American International College's virtual campus has evolved since 2006 to include a revamped desktop interface and online access to course information and materials. The system also includes remote site programs that can be used from any location, and that reflect only the most pertinent information for the user. A student working on her master's degree from a remote location, for example, can log into the virtual campus and view a desktop that contains only the most relevant information (such as a bulletin board where posts reflect what's going on in that student's region).

"We've personalized the system and made it useful at the individual level," said Seretta, "knowing that if we didn't do that, no one would use it." The virtual campus also includes e-mail, collaborative workspaces, discussion areas (for both faculty and students), chat rooms, IM, and other features. Not all of the functions have gone over well, he said, noting that some were added, and then removed, owing to non-use.

"We add new things as we go along, and try not to overwhelm anyone by adding too much at once," said Seretta. Users, including the professor who wanted to use the virtual campus as a place to post lecture notes, suggested some of the additions.

The fact that all users have a unique desktop makes it easy for the school's IT team to fulfill such requests, and to gain acceptance of the system. "Once everyone understood the nature of these 'private spaces,'" said Seretta, "the way they thought about information and sharing changed dramatically."

Seretta said his staff spent the last year "cleaning up" the 4-year-old system, which since inception had become cluttered with too much old information and outdated functions. "Much like closets, these systems have to be purged every year, or they become ineffective and unfocused," said Seretta.

The latest addition is a "My Courses" container, in which a virtual classroom is created for each class a student is taking or a faculty member is teaching. This automated process, linked to the student information system, creates the virtual classroom for each course offered and places it on the correct virtual campus desktop for each student and faculty member. Faculty can use space for out-of-class discussions, as a homework drop box, and for course resources and notes. Seretta said he expects about a 25 percent adoption rate for this feature this semester.

Looking back at American International College's aggressive push to develop a virtual campus, Seretta said the fact that the institution never wavered from its commitment was a critical success factor. "When you make major, systemic changes in the educational environment, you really have to know what you're doing and you need to have the pieces in place," said Seretta. "If you don't, the project will fail."

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