University of Alberta: eLearning: From Grass Roots to Mission-Critical

eLearning began at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada with a few brave faculty members who decided to try something new. They started small: making their course syllabi, lecture notes, or class assignments available to students via the Web. Students responded positively—even seeking out particular instructors or courses that featured online components.

Today, what began as a grassroots movement by students and faculty has evolved into an institution-wide eLearning program that is closely aligned with the university's core mission and goals. The university currently offers approximately 1,500 online courses, with more than 120,000 student registrations—and expects a continued 25 percent growth for the next several years.

Building Momentum
"Early days" of eLearning at the university consisted of individual instructors or departments using various teaching and learning tools to incorporate Web-based material into their courses. As more and more faculty ventured into the world of online learning, student demand for such courses continued to grow, prompting faculty to consolidate their efforts and work toward a centralized solution.

The first step involved forming a committee to evaluate and select a centrally supported course management system for the school. The committee consisted of representatives from across the university, including faculty members, support professionals, and IT staff.

The university looked at eLearning as a competitive advantage and powerful means of working toward strategic institutional goals, such as improving the learning environment, recruiting and retaining top-notch faculty, and attracting high-achieving students. After evaluating several eLearning applications, WebCT's course management system was selected.

Smart Growth
The school began development and testing of the pilot course management system in the spring of 1998. In September, the system went live with 100 courses and 8,000 users. By the end of the 1998-1999 academic year, those figures rapidly grew to 375 courses and more than 14,000 users. Course offerings spanned the university's departments and included undergraduate, graduate, certificate, and extension programs.

Susan Stein, Distributed Learning Project Lead and WebCT Administrator for the university's Computing and Network Services (CNS), group is responsible for driving the adoption of the WebCT solution on campus. She has worked to align the department's efforts with mandates and objectives outlined in the key strategic initiatives.

"Our role in CNS is to provide end-to-end support for the university's eLearning initiatives, encompassing everything from server and software management to course planning, design, development, and delivery, as well as faculty and student training. We collaborate with a number of support groups on campus to meet the full range of instructors' and students' requirements in support of eLearning," explains Stein.

"Continuous improvement of the teaching and learning environment is critical to the university's long-term goals, and our partnerships with both WebCT and Sun Microsystems have enabled us to implement an eLearning solution that is scalable, reliable, and cost-effective in support of those goals."

Secrets to Success
The University of Alberta identified several key factors that were instrumental in ensuring the success of its eLearning initiatives. First, it's important to build support at all levels of the organization—from students and faculty, to academic computing groups, senior administrators, and the university's president. The university's CNS group was instrumental in bringing senior administrators on board with eLearning by demonstrating the mission-critical nature of the application.

Second, it's critical to provide the technology backbone and centrally managed user support services necessary to facilitate the broad adoption of eLearning across campus. As more and more faculty and students began to rely on eLearning, the school realized the paramount importance of providing a reliable, secure, high-performance eLearning environment to ensure user satisfaction. The university has worked closely with WebCT and Sun Microsystems Inc. to build a scalable, high-availability eLearning infrastructure capable of supporting the rapidly growing number of online courses and student seats.

Third, the university realized the importance of fostering faculty ownership of the eLearning program. In moving to a centralized eLearning environment, the university was never looking for a "mandated" solution—it chose a course management system that would be easy to use for novice faculty, as well as provide sophisticated teaching and learning capabilities for faculty to build more advanced courses over time.

The CNS group provides training to assist faculty with online course design and development and collaborates with faculty to develop best practices for eLearning and ways to incorporate Web-based material into their existing courses. While eLearning began with just a few innovative faculty members, that vision has scaled to more than 1,000 instructors who are leveraging eLearning at the university today.

Looking to the Future
The University of Alberta expects a continued 25 percent growth in the number of online courses and user registrations for the next several years. For the 2002-2003 academic year, the school anticipates more than 1,800 courses and approximately 150,000 student registrations.

The phenomenal growth of eLearning across the University of Alberta campus is evidence of the critical role that online learning stands to play in the evolution of the institution. Not as a standalone technology, but as an integral part of its academic strategy and processes.

In early 2002, the University of Alberta became the first institution to select WebCT Vista, an Academic Enterprise System (AES) that g'es beyond the capabilities of a course management system to support enterprise-scale eLearning deployments. The institution will benefit from an enterprisewide framework that allows it to fully leverage its content and learning assets, as well as significantly advanced capabilities for scalability and extensibility of the eLearning environment.

The University of Alberta will also participate in best practices, case studies, alpha and beta test programs, modeling and benchmarking efforts, and will serve as a reference site for other educational institutions. To date, the University of Alberta has placed 40 courses online using WebCT Vista and plans to have several hundred courses migrated over to the AES system by September 2003. Future plans include full deployment of WebCT Vista for more than 150,000 student seats.

"eLearning is truly a mission-critical service for the University of Alberta, and the next generation of WebCT will assist us with achieving several of our core institutional objectives: recruiting and satisfying new students and faculty; providing the best possible learning experience for our students' lives and careers; and creating an improved learning environment inside and outside the classroom," explains Dr. Doug Owram, Provost and Vice President (Academic).

Province-Wide Use
In addition to building online learning within the institution, the University of Alberta serves as a resource to colleges and universities regionally and worldwide. As a WebCT Institute, the university shares its observations, best practices, and expertise in eLearning with members of the Institute Network, and with the WebCT community as a whole.

As the first-ever Sun Microsystems Center of Excellence for E-Learning, the school serves as a reference site for eLearning infrastructure, providing advice and assistance on server selection and management issues to educational institutions worldwide.

The Province of Alberta also has a province-wide WebCT license, allowing all educational institutions in the region to develop and launch distributed learning programs using WebCT. Many are already doing so, with programs that include multimedia resources, such as video and audio files and animation.

To learn more about the University of Alberta's eLearning program, visit www.ualberta.ca/ webct, or contact Susan Stein, Distributed Learning Project Lead and WebCT Administrator, at susan.stein@ualberta.ca.

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