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2007 Campus Technology Innovators: Online Education

2007 Campus Technology Innovators

Innovator: University of Vermont College of Medicine

An online environment for everyone: students, teachers, and more

The University of Vermont College of Medicine might be the nation's seventh oldest medical school, but educators and administrators there took a massive technological leap when they implemented a new, integrated curriculum in 2003. The initiative called for an integrated approach to education that incorporated online and offline instruction. Where other medical schools had sought depth in multimedia or simulation, Vermont strove for ubiquity in all aspects of the online educational experience: every course, clinical site, lecture, and exam.

Online Education

Dubbed the College of Medicine Education Tools, or COMET, the new tech initiative was a Herculean undertaking; an implementation that began in 2002 with the installation of Blackboard 6 and a content management system. Technologists designed the system so that it could support up to 120 teaching faculty per course, and so that enrollments could flow from the college's student information and human resources systems. All faculty members now have access to all courses, and exams pull items from the entire curriculum.

In order to facilitate secure access to course materials and exams, College of Medicine officials incorporated technology products from other vendors that work seamlessly with the Blackboard interface. Two of these—Securexam from Software Secure and the suite from Learning Objects—fit this bill. With help from Competitive Computing (a strategic tech consulting firm serving public and private sector organizations in the Northeast), the school was able to tie everything together neatly and unobtrusively for the users.

"Our advice would be to not let the technology get in the way of the teaching or learning," says Jill Jemison, the college's instructional technology director. "The best technology choice is the one that integrates most seamlessly into the culture of your institution, not into the infrastructure."

Since the launch, benefits of the system have been many.COMET has brought technology to the fingertips of busy clinical and research faculty and created an electronic connection between rural community doctors and the college's academic medical center. Students also have been pleased to engage in the learning process online. Today they can refer to previous material for review, and use online collaboration tools to hold virtual study sessions. What's more, all exams now contain color images, video, and sound—all of which moves students closer to real-life medical experience.

Online Education

strove for ubiquity in the
entire online educational
experience: every course,
clinical site, lecture,
and exam.

Of course, innovation does not come without hiccups. The first time the college used COMET to deliver high-stakes exams to both classes, everything crashed: As the first-year students were finishing their exams, the second-year students were studying for theirs, and overloaded the system. As a result of the crash, some first-year students lost their exams; administrators panicked and offered the second-year students paper tests. Surprisingly, the students refused. "We'll wait," they said. "They trusted the technology," Jemison notes.

Moving forward, the college's next steps include expanding COMET to further deepen the student experience. Officials have piloted podcasts and course-based wikis this year, and will implement them across the curriculum next year. The college also will increase the system's integration with library resources to benefit both students and community faculty members. Finally, IT leaders will study how this year's graduating class uses COMET as residents, and how the system works to support lifelong learning via the addition of ePortfolios.

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