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Supporting CMS Users at Drexel University

As a new academic year begins, the Office of Information Resources and Technology at Drexel University looks forward to promoting and supporting new and existing technologies for faculty and students. While incoming students display increasing technological savvy, it is still necessary to provide support and assistance to ensure they can take full advantage of the tools the university has invested in to enhance their academic experience.

New software is available for computer aided design and for creating electronic portfolios, in addition to a new campus portal integrating all enterprise systems together under a single sign-on. Use of these products requires not only effective support, but also an aggressive information and marketing campaign as well.

One tool, which has had, and continues to have, an impressive impact on the academic experience at Drexel for both students and faculty is our course management system, WebCT.

WebCT was licensed for the entire university in 2001. It was made freely available to all faculty to use in whatever courses they would like, and an extensive support group was established to promote, encourage, and facilitate adoption. As with most new academic technologies, the early adopters were few; the adoption rate has now accelerated and the number of faculty participating has increased rapidly.

We targeted our traditional undergraduate program to use WebCT and encouraged hybrid courses as much as or more than we did totally online courses. In two years, more than 350 faculty members have been trained and are using WebCT, and over 1,000 courses have incorporated WebCT technologies into the learning process.

The Whys and Hows of CMS
There are many good reasons why schools are currently employing learning management systems (LMS) to put academic materials and entire courses online. Some institutions want to redefine themselves; others want to generate revenues by attracting non-traditional populations; yet others want to make academic material more accessible to students or use new technologies to reduce costs.

However, the most compelling and fundamental reason to put course material online is the opportunity it provides faculty members to rethink, redesign, and reengineer curricula that they have been using for, in many cases, a very long time with the traditional student population.

To be truly effective in transforming courses for the Web, faculty members must dissect and analyze the courses extensively to determine such things as:

(1) Will face-to-face classes be part of the course? If so, how many, who should teach them, and should they be lectures, labs or discussions?

(2) How can the online capabilities and features be used to enhance course material and appeal to different learning styles?

(3) How will students be engaged in course materials and guided to interact with classmates to create a dynamic and interactive learning experience for them?

(4) How will the technology be deployed as a tool for constructive and demonstrative goals, and not just as entertainment?

Analyzing and scrutinizing courses to this extent is something that many instructors are not accustomed to doing, are often not interested in doing, and in some cases are not capable of doing. It requires objectivity, patience, and honesty to evaluate a course one has taught frequently and over a long period of time. Many faculty members teaching classes repeatedly are repetitious in their approach, and teach and re-teach what they taught before in the same way they taught it before. When reengineering a course for the Web, it is necessary to examine the status quo and make critical changes.

The Role of a Training and Support Group
Here's where an effective training and support group makes all the difference. Their role is much more than just scanning images and teaching faculty how to use the LMS or how to record audio clips to insert in courses. Their role is to guide faculty through the process, critically analyzing courses, rearranging material, suggesting new course organizational and presentation approaches, and showing them how to integrate the Web technologies effectively in the new course organization to enhance content and delivery.

The group established to assist faculty through the redesign labyrinth must have a variety of skills and be able to assume different roles. Some must be good teachers themselves and be able to teach faculty how to use the LMS and related technology tools effectively in their courses. Others must understand instructional design and good pedagogy to guide the process of reorganizing content and presenting material in the most appropriate way. Others will have to be experienced with audio, video, and other multimedia so as to interject these media to demonstrate and elucidate where appropriate. Others must be able to act as mentors to faculty after initial training, to answer questions, and to provide guidance throughout the course reengineering process.

Most schools do not have the luxury of being able to support an extensive course development group, so it is necessary to attract and train staff who can specialize in a couple of areas and play several roles. It is also necessary to ensure that, as staff become experts in specific areas, they share their new skills so that cross training takes place within the group.

The ultimate goal, then, of moving course materials online is to improve the quality of the educational program by carefully rethinking and redesigning content presentation and delivery. Institutions committed to wholesale "online course development" should keep quality as the foremost goal. Everything else will follow.

Often these initiatives result in more effective use of senior faculty, reduced costs by eliminating face-to-face classes, attraction of new and different student markets, and greater student satisfaction. Notwithstanding these practical benefits, the bottom line should be that courses improve as a result of the attention they are given and students' academic experiences are enhanced.

Drexel has been so successful in its use and acceptance of WebCT as its university-supported LMS that it has entered into partnerships with other schools to both host the application and provide access to users from other campuses, as well as provide training, mentoring, and help desk support. Currently Drexel hosts WebCT for Cabrini College, Neumann College, Rosemont College, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medecine, and, most recently, Wilkes University.

These partnerships enable the smaller schools to have access to a state-of-the-art enterprise LMS, WebCT, and avail themselves of high-level training and support, both of which they might not be able to afford on their own. Moreover, these relationships offer faculty an opportunity to meet with colleagues from other schools, share ideas, and expand their own creativity. It is an extremely beneficial situation for everyone involved.

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