Preserving Academic Independence Through Cost-Saving Collaboration

Independence is one of academe’s time-honored ideals. Universities encourage faculty to think independently with compelling ideas, however controversial and regardless of any perceived institutional points of view.

Independence can also be expensive when it comes to the technology tools that put teaching and learning online. If every department and school in a university or every college in a university system uses its own learning management infrastructure, it spells trouble for tuition-paying students and taxpayers. Such independence means separate contracts, overhead, and time investments for licensing, training, content development, implementation, and technical support.

Higher education needs a way to protect academic independence, yet eliminate wasteful redundancies in technology spending. Institutions need learning management platforms that can support multiple educational entities in a central installation, giving each department—or school within a university system—a unique look and feel. Learning management platforms should also define sophisticated role-based access to content, administrative processes, tools, and information. And where institutions as deem appropriate, platforms should provide an ability to create, store, tag, reuse, import, export, manage, and share content beyond course boundaries.

These were the ideas that Connecticut educators focused on when the state’s three largest public higher education units joined forces with the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium.

The Connecticut Community College System, the Connecticut State University System, and the University of Connecticut decided in January 2004 to select WebCT Vista as their shared academic enterprise system. A single shared license for WebCT Vista will support escalating eLearning activity across the three independent systems and their 72,000 students.
The state expects immediate savings of more than $200,000 by sharing a single software license, technology architecture, administration, training programs and, in the future, a repository for learning objects. The repository will contain Web pages, media clips, curricula, and other components. Educators will be able to use these learning objects to create courses without having to develop them from scratch.

This license-sharing agreement will yield significant cost savings through collaboration on course development, technology administration, services sharing, and licensing fees. These are the economies of scale that taxpayers and tuition payers look for and the cutting-edge technology that Connecticut students deserve. Savings will grow if the implementation expands over time, as expected, to include private institutions and other schools in the state.

WebCT Vista will enable each institution within the three units to develop a unique online identity. Yet, students moving through several institutions—for example, a community college graduate enrolling at a university—will experience a familiar basic system as they move from school to school, eliminating the need for retraining. Students will have online access to course materials, assignments and assessments, and they can to use tools such as e-mail, chat, and forums. The system allows teachers to track the number of times students post discussion items, determine whether assigned readings have been done, and communicate with students between class meetings.

WebCT Vista will now support eLearning for the three Connecticut higher education units on the same platform and enable the institutions to integrate their student information systems. Integration allows student information systems to automatically exchange registration information and grades with WebCT Vista, eliminating weeks of manual data exchange. WebCT Vista’s design makes integrating student data a relatively straightforward matter. Its multi-tier architecture is 100 percent J2EE compliant, leveraging the BEA WebLogic Enterprise Server at the application layer and the Oracle 9i Database.

WebCT Vista will also enable every school to maintain its own branding identity and autonomous control of teaching and learning. In addition, WebCT Vista offers collaborative options for creating, storing, sharing, and managing content, as well as for sophisticated role-based access to content, tools, and student learning data.

Very large eLearning undertakings like Connecticut’s give both students and taxpayers the opportunity to experience the full benefits of enterprise-scale eLearning. Having joined forces on their own volition, Connecticut’s three units of public higher education will collaborate where it makes sense while making sure to preserve full academic independence and control across systems, schools, and departments.

The benefits are imminent. The schools will deploy pilots this fall and launch in 2005.

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