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U Oregon: Introducing CMS to eLearning Neophytes

The University of Oregon has been named to Yahoo's list of "Most Wired Colleges and Universities" every year since the list's inception in 1996. By 1999, one third of UO's faculty had begun to use Web pages to supplement their classes. Another third were interested in using the Web to enhance their classes, but weren't sure how to get started. The last third feared that Web-enhanced instruction was a fad or that their teaching styles could not adopt to the online environment.

The challenge for UO was to satisfy all three groups of instructors as well as more than 16,000 undergraduate and graduate students by introducing an easy-to-use e-Education software platform and offering top-notch training and support so that faculty members, students, and administrators could learn about the benefits of e-Education and how to use the platform at the same time.

A committee of departments that provide support for faculty members using instructional technology at UO meets regularly, chaired by JQ Johnson, Academic Education Coordinator. In spring 1999, this group, the "Faculty Instructional Training Group" (FITT), concluded that UO needed to implement a course management system for general faculty use. Colleen Bell, Library Instruction Coordinator, experimented with several popular packages of e-Education software.

The software platform Bell, Johnson, and their committee chose was Blackboard, primarily for its ease of use and moderate learning curve,
two factors they believed would do the most to encourage reluctant faculty. The 1999-2000 academic year was an experimental year in which the FITT Center gradually introduced 50 Blackboard courses to the university. In July 2000, having introduced Blackboard's course management system to the university community, the Library adopted Blackboard as a standard library service.

Faculty members who need training in creating a course Web site can get it at the FITT Center, another library service for the faculty. Staffed by students, the FITT Center teaches faculty members how to use Blackboard most effectively in their courses.

UO educators cited two courses where the introduction of Blackboard resulted in an improvement in student performance and students' evaluations of the class. Blackboard was added to the class, "Introduction to Psychology," a large lecture course with minimal direct interaction between professor and students. Adding Blackboard gave students the chance to learn collaboratively, and to participate more actively in the learning process. The instructor easily added a variety of materials to the course Web site, including online discussion groups, self-assessments, and other materials that would otherwise be costly or cumbersome to provide to a large class.

Another, smaller class (32 students), called "Internet Information and Culture," was taught entirely online using Blackboard. Student evaluations were positive; many students cited the variety of communication tools as the best features of the platform. Bell said the experienced suggests that students appreciate the relative "safety and anonymity" of online communication.

Johnson offered the following advice to institutions beginning to explore course management systems:

First, faculty will drive the success of the platform on campus, so be sure to include them in the decision making process. Faculty ease of use may be the most important criterion to satisfy.

Second, software features change often - although having a checklist of desired features is useful, don't base the decision entirely on features.

Third, ask what are your institution's existing resources, and how well d'es your platform of choice use them? Purchasing a software platform only to find that your existing infrastructure can't support it leads to significant downtime and user frustration.

Fourth, he cost of implementing an e-Education solution is likely to be dominated not by hardware or software license costs but by staff costs, so choose an approach that yields benefits without unacceptable increases in staffing.

Lastly, ask what kind of support d'es the software company offer, and how stable is its business model?

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