University of Akron and Kent State University: Schools Collaborate to Create Online Learning Initiative

Two of Ohio's largest universities are teaming to create a collaborative online learning system that will dramatically expand their teaching and research opportunities, while reducing information technology costs. A 20-minute drive apart, these universities have combined enrollments of 60,000, with more than 400 programs and 1,400 faculty members. The University of Akron (UA) and Kent State University (KSU) are using WebCT's academic enterprise system, WebCT Vista, to create a "shared services model" for online learning. This model for online learning will allow the two universities to share technology, course content, research, and faculty, which could ultimately serve other Ohio universities and the K-12 community.

Especially beneficial for large, multi-institution deployments, WebCT Vista is an eLearning platform that includes a broad range of course development and delivery, content management, and learning information management capabilities. These are all supported by an extensible, enterprise-class architecture. WebCT Vista gives institutions of higher education first-time access to aggregate student learning data at the institutional level, extending the capacity for colleges and universities to access and strategically leverage learning information beyond an individual classroom.

Stretching Resources
Currently, UA and KSU are in the process of Web-enhancing classroom courses that they have in common with interactive exercises, threaded discussion groups, chats, and virtual-classroom activities. The universities also hope to create pure distance learning courses, in which all activities take place over the Internet. The intent is to improve education and research, and to stretch scarce resources. Dr. Rosemary DuMont, Associate VP of Academic Technology Services for KSU, explains, "UA and KSU began this initiative because of concern about student success. Both universities are extremely student-focused. WebCT Vista provides research data for making decisions in the future regarding student retention." Over the next five years, UA and KSU could predictably save over one million dollars in software and hardware costs. The long-term goal is for UA and KSU to become a national eLearning provider by taking the shared services model to Internet2, a high-performance network that connects 200 universities. This could generate additional revenue and prestige for both universities.

Mike Giannone, Communications Officer at UA, says, "We will be able to develop an eLearning curriculum for any given program by splitting, rather than duplicating the effort. This collaboration will broaden students' exposure to programs they might otherwise miss, while exposing faculty to research and best practices from an expanded group of peers. It offers students at both schools more choices in the classes they take, and where and how they will take them. The two universities will also share grants, content, and the ability to analyze a combined pool of learning data collected by WebCT Vista." Dr. Paul L. Gaston, provost of KSU, exclaims, "We are excited to be able to offer an even broader range of educational opportunities to our students through this collaboration! We already share academic programs, so sharing online resources is a natural next step."

Collaborative Teaching and Research
Shared services between UA and KSU are the brain child of Dr. Thomas Gaylord, Vice President and Chief Information Officer at UA. His vision initially created the project and continues to drive it. Dr. Gaylord explains, "The greatest paradigm shift for education is occurring now—it is a wonderful enlightenment. It is time to re-define what our students are; what our faculties are; what constitutes accredibility, and so forth. Partnerships are the ‘right' thing to do. For example, why do numerous individual universities produce Algebra I online … when collaboration makes sense? The University of Akron and Kent State University will have educational advantages over other universities in the region with probably the single, most important educational technology tool for enhancing their long-range instructional vitalities in the coming years." Because of the strategic impact of eLearning on both institutions, UA President, Dr. Luis M. Pr'enza and KSU President, Dr. Carol A. Cartwright, came together, with Dr. Gaylord, Dr. DuMont, and others, to drive this collaboration. Under the direction of Dr. Gaylord and Dr. DuMont, the two universities have installed a new high-speed fiber optic line, "GigaMAN," to connect their information technology systems and act as a bridge for collaborative teaching and research. Dr. Terry L Hickey, Senior Vice President and Provost at UA, explains, "In addition to partnering with Kent State, we eventually envision offering a shared resource for other northeastern Ohio schools as well as the private sector."

Deb White, Project Manager for UA and Diana Biordi, Project Manager for KSU, along with numerous others at the two universities, are working together to implement and make the collaboration work. The two institutions are currently sharing the hardware and a phone line. The software is not yet up and running, but they plan to begin course development as early as the beginning of 2003. Mike Giannone explains, "Precisely how we'll tackle the curriculum is yet to be decided, but one popular option is to first incorporate Web components where they'll have the biggest impact. This, of course, is in the most popular freshmen '101' courses, such as general math, science, composition, social studies and psychology." The overall plan envisions offering fully Web-based distance learning courses over the next two years and moving on to develop joint degree programs.

A New Business Reality
UA and KSU typify a new business reality where competitors can use technology to collaborate for mutual benefit. According to Carol Vallone, WebCT President and CEO, "Even institutions that have long competed for the best students can find areas where collaboration makes sense economically and educationally. In this case, not only will the collaboration cut costs and increase revenues, it will, most importantly, improve the educational offerings of both institutions."

The universities are looking at joint content development opportunities, including creating a database of learning objects—discrete chunks of reusable, mixable and matchable content that course developers can organize individually for just-in-time learning or to assemble into new courses. UA and KSU hope that the universities may someday evolve into a national library of courseware from which small institutions throughout the country can borrow resources for a fraction of the cost of creating their own content. Small private liberal arts schools are expected to be the first takers.

For more information, contact Dr. Thomas Gaylord at thomas_gaylord@uakron.edu (UA) or Dr. Rosemary Du Mont (KSU) at rdumont@kent.edu.

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