Learning Content Management at Seneca College

Spread throughout the greater Toronto area, Seneca College (http://www.senecac.on.ca/) has five major campuses and several smaller ones. With a combined student body that now exceeds 90,000, Seneca has been in a long-term growth mode in the use of technology to support teaching and learning. As their eEducation infrastructure has expanded, Seneca encountered two major challenges related to effective management of learning content and course materials.

The first challenge involved managing the update and distribution of content and course materials used in Seneca courses. Typical of other large institutions, Seneca offers numerous introductory level courses with multiple sections every semester. If each instructor independently manages course content, when the inevitable mid-semester content change is required, updating the course materials across multiple sections becomes time consuming and a process fraught with error. A centralized management and version control of the common course materials is required to increase the efficiency of such a complex system.

The other challenge involved creating appropriate mechanisms for users on campus, particularly faculty, to share content with each other. Providing department-specific repositories so members of a department can make materials accessible to their colleagues is one goal, but sharing at the departmental level is just a first step for Seneca. In fact, the campuses see department-level sharing as part of a more sophisticated, long term plan for leveraging re-usable learning objects (RLOs) in a system-wide content repository.

Seneca had experimented with different approaches to this for some time. Their Centre for New Technologies in Teaching and Learning created an application called SLOPE (Shared Learning Object Portal Environment), a prototype repository that allowed faculty to submit and re-use digital learning materials. The experience with SLOPE helped Seneca identify hurdles related to effectively rolling out a learning object repository. They concluded that faculty are more likely to use a learning object repository that is easy to use and access. The campus came to believe a successful content repository has to be implemented within an application environment the faculty already knows, such as their course management system.

To address learning content management needs Seneca chose the Blackboard Content System to complement their Blackboard Learning System and Blackboard Portal System. "With the Blackboard Content System," says Joanna Hunt, Seneca’s application systems administrator responsible for Blackboard, "it became so much easier. Now we post a document or learning object once and all course sections simply link to it." For example, when a syllabus has to change mid-semester, that change is made in just one document, not 15 or 20 times, once for each section. Being able to store course materials in a single location also makes better use of digital storage space.

Content sharing with the Blackboard Content System was initiated in a Spring 2004 pilot program with the Biochemistry and Nursing departments. Instructors posted their content to shared course folders and gave their department colleagues access to it. The Blackboard Content System also tracks changes to individual resources, so faculty sharing resources with each other are able to maintain multiple versions of a single resource, further facilitating collaboration.

Future Development

The initial pilot program was so successful that Seneca has decided to roll out content sharing via the Blackboard Content System campus-wide in September.

To help inspire continuing creative activity among instructors, Academic eLearning Liaison Valerie Lopes and teammates will be working with faculty members during upcoming professional development workshops and sessions. The "My.Seneca Stars" program will seek out people who are using unique and creative techniques and encourage them to share those ideas, projects and learning objects with colleagues.

It’s worth noting that both Lopes and Hunt practice what they preach. In addition to her role as eLearning Liaison, Lopes teaches Business Communications and uses the Blackboard Content System to share and test ideas. Leading a team of content experts and student developers, Hunt and Lopes just completed a major project to provide My.Seneca help content. They used the Blackboard Content System to manage both the project and the content, using built-in collaboration and security features that supported multiple authors while controlling which parts of the project each person could access.

Seneca will begin building its new repository soon, based on the Learning Objects Catalog feature in Release 2.0 of the Blackboard Content System. Seneca has deep experience with using Building Blocks, Blackboard’s open architecture, to extend the Blackboard platform with custom developed features and applications. They plan to use the Blackboard Content System APIs to add functionality and create meta-tags on the fly.

According to Santo Nucifora, Seneca’s manager of systems development and innovations, the goal is ultimately to create wizards that will ask the instructor simple questions and automatically create the metadata tags based upon their answers. Instructors shouldn’t even realize that they are creating metadata. Seneca’s long-term vision is to allow faculty at other schools to search the Seneca repository and access its learning objects.

For more information on Seneca College’s use of the Blackboard Content System, please contact Valerie Lopes, professor, eLearning liaison, at valerie.lopes@senecac.on.ca.

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