Featured Product: eCollege: Setting Standards for the Modern Campus

Those of you who haven't looked at Denver-based eCollege in the last year will discover that the company's mission has crystallized. As an integrated products and service provider, eCollege focuses on a comprehensive package of services, software, and technology for large distance education and online degree programs.

eCollege works with customers who are committed to one or more course programs delivered completely via the Web, rather than focusing on campus-based courses that use the Web as a vehicle for delivering support materials.

The company tailors solutions to each customer's requirements. However, the basic eCollege package includes a campus portal system, eCollege's course management system, an online evaluation component, continuously available help desk support, and administrative support. The focus on complete integration has advantages for the user, says Bob Haimes, senior vice president of product and market management. "If you work with eCollege," says Haimes, "you get total accountability from us. Integrated means it's complete, it works, and you don't have any surprises." Plus, he says, users don't have to cut and paste products from various vendors or negotiate among them for accountability when something g'es wrong.

With the eCollege system, customers are charged according to the number of enrollments in the e-programs. The pay-as-you-grow model works for both eCollege and the institutional customer. "We only make money as the program succeeds," says Oakleigh Thorne, chairman and CEO of eCollege. "This gives us a lot of incentive to deliver the product that schools need."

The latest version of eCollege's course management system is eCollege AU+, which includes an assignment dropbox and equation builder. The dropbox is a series of baskets into which students deposit their work. Offering multiple baskets that are integrated with a gradebook allows instructors to more easily review, comment, and grade from a single location in the platform. The equation builder, developed with Design Science's WebEQ technology and integrated into the eCollege AU+ system, enables users to build and edit mathematical equations directly through the course-authoring environment with one-click access. There's no longer a need to build the equations in a different application and import them into the software.

eCollege AU+ features a unit-based design, which allows the chunking of content, activities, and assessments. The idea was to more closely follow the assignment and evaluation process that instructors actually use. AU+ includes several other unique features such as: a suite of synchronous tools called ClassLive for live group or one-on-one sessions; a series of efficiency enhancers, such as What's New, to allow an instructor to quickly see what has been done by students since last login; a calculating gradebook that provides one click access to view student work; and new functions and services to support disabled students and faculty. These exceed the Section 508 federal accessibility guidelines.

eCollege also offers content services that customers can add as needed. For instance, through eCollege's relationships with a variety of content providers, users can access course-related content in the form of XanEdu coursepacks, all with a single login, as well as published material from most academic publishers built directly into the platform. The company also sells course building, multimedia production services, and custom consulting. According to Thorne, many schools will contract initially for production services and then move to a consulting model as their own facility with the online delivery environment increases. Finally, eCollege offers free conversion services for customers who migrate their online courses to it from another vendor.

Last summer eCollege launched a new customer support program called iSupport. Described by Thorne as similar to a concierge service, iSupport provides unlimited informational advice via phone and e-mail to faculty members seven days a week. Additionally, institutions can purchase hourly blocks of design or development time that can be used by one or many faculty members.

eCollege's products and services are hosted, which allows for a high level of scalability as a program grows. It also means that upgrades in the software are handled by eCollege and everything migrates seamlessly. Clients do not have to change or reconfigure software in their own systems.

When asked about the company's strengths, both Thorne and Haimes point to eCollege's high level of reliability and performance. Last year eCollege posted an uptime rate of 99.99 percent. There were only 18 minutes of total downtime through November 2002. Says Haimes: "Many of the students who take courses using eCollege's systems are working parents who have to squeeze in their study time at odd hours. They can't afford for us to be offline when they need to study."

To better ensure that reliability, last fall the company opened a second full-scale data center near their Denver headquarters. The second data center provides complete redundancy for all of eCollege's hosted online programs in the case of a catastrophic event. It also duplicates eCollege's production systems for testing and quality assurance. Database content is synchronized every five minutes to provide full redundancy.

According to estimates, distance learning is growing at a rate of ten times that of overall enrollments in higher education. With its commitment to efficient learning software, high reliability, and customer service, eCollege is determined to play a large part in that growth.

For more information, visit www.ecollege.com.

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