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Open Source CMS Drives Academic Initiatives in Cal State System

Charged with providing logistical, process, and developmental support for the massive California State University system, the Center for Distributed Learning (CDL) is a big advocate of technology usage, both in and out of the classroom.

In keeping with its mission to identify learning-related problems, and then apply technology to support effective instruction, CDL has added the WebGUI content management system to its stable of technology tools. Built to give average users the ability to build and maintain complex Web sites, WebGUI is modular, pluggable, platform-independent, and designed to keep the management of content in the hands of those who create content, rather than take up the time of busy IT staff.

Founded in 1997 in response to the California State University's Integrated Technology Strategy, CDL supports faculty and students on 23 campuses statewide through the development and dissemination of tools and strategies that employ the Web and related technologies. The team at CDL provides educational tools and resources through the Internet, and in doing so reaches across the time and location constraints of traditional classroom instruction.

Already well versed in Web-related technology, CDL was searching for a dynamic, open-source content management system that would support its custom applications, while allowing its designers free reign. Other criteria included a program that contained a survey module that could be customized to meet CDL's needs.

The center began researching open source content management systems in 2004, and chose to implement Plain Black Corporation's WebGUI 6.0. WebGUI (pronounced web-gooey) is downloaded thousands of times per month and used as an Intranet application framework at Global 1000 companies, governments, non-profits, schools, and universities.

"It was the most flexible and user-friendly system application framework that we could find," said CDL Systems Analyst Susan Baur. "By now I'm sure that a lot of content management systems can do what WebGUI was doing in 2004, but at the time it was pretty cutting-edge stuff."

Using the content management system, CDL customizes its own online quizzing modules and then use those modules to build online practice tests for students, who access the modules via the center's Web site. Other WebGUI features that CDL uses on its Web site include discussion boards, data forms and SQL Reports. The center also writes its own macros, builds custom applications and utilizes WebGUI's templating system, which allows it to make global changes to its Web site.

According to Baur, the team at CDL developed an online quiz using a basic WebGUI survey function. "We then enhanced it to allow for more user feedback than a standard survey would provide," she explained, adding that CDL relies on discussion boards both to present information and to gather feedback. "We use them extensively as comment systems."

Kathleen Willbanks, CDL senior project manager, said the WebGUI system--and the projects it supports--has been well received by students, teachers, and other users of the center's Web site. "People are always impressed with the fact that individual campuses can go into the system and update their own information, instead of having to call someone to do it," Willbanks explained. "With 23 campuses, there's a lot of data floating around to monitor and update."

The system also allows for simple searches that in the past could have taken days or weeks to complete. For example, Willbanks said, the university recently learned of a physics grant opportunity that required a partner from that discipline. Instead of handling the project manually or through word of mouth, "campuses were able to go into the system, enter their information, and conduct a search on 'physics' to find someone to partner with," said Willbanks.

CDL's WebGUI use paid off recently when the center was recognized with a WOW Award from the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET). The award recognizes outstanding innovation, quality improvement, or other achievements in using educational technology tools or techniques to educate (or support educating) students.

Calling WebGUI the center's "primary platform on which to develop myriad different projects," Baur said CDL will continue maximizing its use of the content management system. "The fact that we can create quick turnaround Web sites that are still fairly customized makes it especially valuable," said Bauer, "not to mention that WebGUI provides benefits for everyone--from the programmers to the designers to the content experts to the users."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].

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