Shared CMS Hosting Services in Ohio: Year One

There are more than 110 institutions of higher education in Ohio enrolling more than 585,000 students. Nearly all of these campuses require CMS hosting and associated system administration, faculty training, digital content repositories, and authentication to online resources. However, many of these same institutions lack the resources and staff expertise to deliver robust CMS and content repository services as a 24x7 enterprise, with sufficient server capacity and disaster recovery capabilities to maintain these resource intensive services.

If CMS hosting is left to the independent efforts of Ohio higher education institutions, it is not likely that a robust shared infrastructure across institutions will develop, but rather basic, duplicative services will be created with limited State funds. Decreasing State budgets, calls for increased inter-institutional collaboration (e.g., Ohio Governor's Commission on Higher Education and the Economy), and the increased cost of enterprise level CMS operations have created an environment ripe for partnerships in Ohio.

To encourage shared infrastructure, the Ohio Board of Regents funded ($1.3 million) a partnership among the Ohio Digital Commons for Education (ODCE), the University of Cincinnati (UC) and Kent State University (KSU) to provide statewide CMS hosting, content repository, and authentication services in Ohio.

The ODCE is a collaborative effort of the Ohio Learning Network (OLN), OhioLINK, and the Ohio Supercomputer Center (OSC). The vision of the collaborative is to create a set of integrated online education and research services that leverage the convergence of eLearning, information resources and content services, and networking for Ohio higher education institutions.

For this project, the ODCE partners decided to collaborate to offer high-quality, enterprise eLearning services at a lower cost than individual institutions would incur to host the same services locally. The project has three areas of focus: shared course management services (OLN), shared content management in a statewide content repository (OhioLINK), and single point authentication services using Shibboleth, an Internet2 open source authentication/authorization software project (OSC).

The following services will be built over the next two years:

  1. Enterprise CMS hosting. The ODCE has partnered with Kent State University to provide WebCT Vista (v.3.0) hosting and with the University of Cincinnati to host Blackboard Learning System (v.6.1). Grant funds will support hosting services, licensing, faculty and system administration training, server and technical support, and integration services for those institutions moving to one of these hosted CMS solutions.
  2. Statewide content repository. A digital content repository will extend OhioLINK's existing content distribution capabilities by providing tight integration with the hosted CMS sites. The ODCE already has begun working with WebCT and Blackboard to integrate these content sharing services into their respective CMS platforms.
  3. Federated authentication service for access to ODCE services. OSC will experiment with Shibboleth to provide a federated authentication service between CMS hosting, OhioLINK's content repository services, and existing authentication systems in use on Ohio campuses.

The infrastructure and new services created by this project will:

  • save state money by eliminating the need for redundant institutional CMS and content repository infrastructures;
  • leverage existing campus CMS infrastructure, implementation and training expertise;
  • provide new hosting options for CMS users at reduced cost;
  • allow institutions to more actively promote their learning objects, courses, and scholarly research through an Ohio-wide content repository service; and
  • streamline and simplify user sign-on and user identity through a Shibboleth federation.

The timing is right for shared services in Ohio. Education technology has become mission critical throughout higher education while simultaneously growing in cost and complexity (e.g., even "entry level" WebCT CE 6.0 will require database support). CMS, institutional content repositories, and secure authentication have become required institutional systems, joining e-mail and ERP deployments. Outsourcing, especially to a trusted state source, has become less alien to higher education, and importantly, CMS is a better candidate for shared services than legacy administrative systems (like SIS) due to its relatively recent appearance on campuses. In addition, Ohio recently lit 1,600 miles of dark fiber to connect higher education institutions and K-12 schools (see Ohio's Third Frontier Network). This high-speed backbone makes centralized CMS hosting and distributed content sharing even more attractive to Ohio educational institutions.

So how did Ohio get this up and running and how long did it take? The ODCE held exploratory CMS hosting meetings with all Ohio institutions in February '04. From that initial meeting, the ODCE, Kent State University, and the University of Cincinnati defined the deliverables, goals, and hosting costs. OLN facilitated license negotiations with the vendors, worked with the State Attorney General's office and client institutions to write service level agreements and review vendor license agreements, and created WebCT and Blackboard advisory councils to share best practices and reduce learning curve redundancies. Implementation and migration services were completed in early September '04 and hosting began for institutions' Fall 2004 semester courses.

Where is the project now? The University of Cincinnati is hosting Blackboard for Edison Community College and Marion Technical College. Kent State University is hosting WebCT Vista for Rio Grande Community College and Youngstown State University. Edison and Marion Technical already have moved a majority of their courses to UC's hosted environment and plan to migrate their remaining courses in Spring '05. Youngstown State and Rio Grande piloted WebCT Vista in Fall '04, will train more of their faculty in Winter '05, and plan to move their remaining local courses to Vista in Summer '05.

This project will pilot these services through July '06, and plans to add additional institutions in August '06. In the future, ODCE may expand these hosted services to K-20. These shared hosting services will yield significant cost savings through collaboration on server administration, consortia licensing contacts, and ultimately through sharing course content across Ohio's higher education institutions. Savings should increase over time as the project expands to include more institutions and costs are further distributed.

By leveraging and extending existing CMS skill sets and technical infrastructure at the University of Cincinnati and Kent State University to others, more Ohio higher educational institutions will be able to enjoy and take advantage of enterprise level CMS hosting, content sharing, and single point authentication. The full extent of the impact of this shared infrastructure cannot be completely predicted as the community will leverage these initiatives in unique ways for maximum impact for their own students and faculty. The ODCE collaborative was built to enable the Ohio higher education community to exploit its own creative potential.

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