Education Technology Consortium: Academic and Technocrat Collaboration

Imagine a scenario where faculty members could directly influence building a platform that delivered online courses to students and where they were not intimidated by technology, but living the mantra they most frequently utter: “Technology is merely the means for delivering online courses. It should not be an obstacle to teaching the course.”

That scenario has become a working principle of the Education Technology Consortium, which for the past five years has been an incubator for educational technology produced with the active guidance of power users in the academic commuinity.

The consortium began as a partnership of community colleges in southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, and southern New Jersey for the purpose of broadcasting video courses over WHYY, the local PBS affiliate. Gradually, four-year colleges and universities joined the group, partly to tap into the course delivery services and partly to capitalize on the educational technology being developed within the group.

The catalyst for product development was a partnership between the consortium and WebStudy Inc., a local software developer that produced a course management system platform. Through their association with the consortium, the members gained both an entree into the online world and a series of enhancements to the platform as they became available.

The new consortium clicked. From its inception, WebStudy was positioned as an “application service provider.” Incorporated into its mission was a philosophy of support and platform enhancement that includes provider input at every stage. One of the most basic illustrations of this approach were monthly user meetings attended by both distance learning administrators and faculty of colleges within the consortium. At the meetings, hosted by Curt Corbi, WebStudy’s chief technology officer, college officials were invited to offer suggestions to enhance the platform and were kept apprised of the results of the beta testing of previous recommendations.

With the collaboration of faculty members, administrators, and Web developers, WebStudy was able to avoid a “one size fits all” approach to product development. In addition, other projects and enhancements grew from the user meetings, including faculty initiatives to publish training materials in print and CD formats for both faculty and student users.

Beta testing is spread among the consortium members to give as many colleges as possible a sense of platform ownership. Through this process, the latest version of WebStudy (Version 5.1) contains 31 new features, all of which were originally suggested by consortium members. Areas of the platform upgraded through this process include the e-mail system, the grade book, and the testing, calendar, and assignment page features.

In an interview, Corbi described the relationship between WebStudy and the colleges: “WebStudy’s evolution from its inaugural release in 1996 to the current release has been heavily influenced by frequent, well-orchestrated interaction and feedback from the consortium of colleges and universities using it. Monthly meetings attended by academia, WebStudy, and WHYY…produce a ‘secret sauce’ that brings product loyalty to a new level.

“Functionality suggested by professors and students, technology innovations offered by WHYY, and skills in human interface design offered by WebStudy’s designers and programmers have been combined to create a tool that is intuitive and powerful—allowing quick course creation and ease of course delivery.”

Temple University Professor Donald Heller, who teaches an online course on “Communication in Organizations,” said the platform “offers a range of services that enhance the online experience for the students, including the live chat and forum sections. From a faculty member point of view, it is rewarding to be able to enrich student learning and participation with the course online tools offered by WebStudy.”

Gisela Gil, a teaching assistant at Temple’s School of Communications and Theater, has helped faculty members and students work with course management tools adopted by the university.

Says Gil: “In general, students seem to find WebStudy more versatile and ‘warmer’ than other platforms they have used. With WebStudy’s latest version, students are better able to figure out its functions by themselves.”

She added that WebStudy’s “voice mail” was a promising feature: “The possibility of recording 10 minute messages provides a great opportunity for rescuing the instructor’s role as a storyteller in online learning environments.”

The struggles inherent in the collaboration have challenged not only the academics, but the commerical partners. Gisele Larose, president of WebStudy, said the experience of collaborative development conveys “what it is like to live in an academic world. The corporate world can appear like another planet sometimes.... It takes a willingness to get in the customers’ world to succeed at building relationships and serving your customer.”

Education Technology Consortium Members

Camden County College
Community College of Philadelphia
Delaware County College
Temple University
University of the Sciences in Philadelphia
Ursinus College
Widner University
WHYY
WebStudy Inc.

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