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Managing Students Virtually

Coordinating a geographically dispersed student body that learns primarily online is just one of the key challenges that modern institutions of higher education are facing. With more education taking place online--and in some cases, all of that education happening on the Web--colleges are being forced to rethink their classroom and student management strategies.

At Capella University, a recently upgraded Web portal serves as the center point for the virtual school's student and course management activities. The new system replaces a portal platform that was delivered through the school's PeopleSoft Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software.

That platform handled basic, transactional processes like tuition payments, course registration and interactions with the ERP, but it "wasn't designed to be a Web experience," said Jason Scherschligt, Capella's online user experience manager.

Providing a 'World Class Online Experience'
That missing link was becoming a problem for the all-online university. "Our entire university experience has to be delivered successfully over the Web," Scherschligt explained. "Before the upgrade, we weren't providing the world class online experience for anything beyond course interaction."

Before investing in any new technology, Scherschligt said his team came up with four basic areas that the new student portal would have to address. Those areas included formal academic learning; administrative tools; rich support resources like tutoring help and technical support; and access to faculty members and other college students.

Scherschligt said all of those elements were considered during the research phase, which was enabled by a technical consulting firm that performed an unbiased evaluation of several portal options. Important points like flexibility, architecture, interface, text and multimedia elements, and user base vitality were also factored in.

In mid-2010, after a yearlong pilot program, Capella rolled out the new iteration of its iGuide portal. During the pilot phase, Scherschligt said, the university solicited feedback on the new system from its faculty and students and then used that input to tweak and adjust the portal to meet those needs.

"We discovered that some of the things that keep our [students] coming back quarter after quarter--and saying good things about Capella to their friends--could be tackled by making portal platform improvements," Scherschligt explained. "So we took the time to figure out how much value every portal feature would deliver to our users."

Integrating Course Management and Administration
Based on Liferay's portal technology, the new system is currently used by more than 40,000 students, faculty, and staff across the university's five locations. The portal manages various aspects of a student's education, with one of the more popular features being the course dashboard. Personalized for every learner, the dashboard displays real-time academic activity from Capella's Blackboard LMS course room directly onto the portal's home page.

Using the portal, administrators can also create groups, some of which are topical, while others are based on programs and interest groups. Using a drag-and-drop feature, academic advisors develop degree completion plans in an interactive, online environment and customize courses of study for each individual learner.

Smoothing the Rough Spots
When making the switch to the new portal, Scherschligt said, the university experienced some pushback from students, most of whom are adults who already have full schedules with work, family, and life. "Our demographic isn't the traditional college student who you see in the movie Animal House," said Scherschligt. "These are busy, working adults who want their masters and advanced degrees and who don't have the time to attend a traditional university."

Introducing new systems to such learners without much disruption is always a tough balancing act for Capella's IT team, which integrated a new login system for the portal and addressed user issues like technical support on the new course dashboard system.

To ensure the least amount of disruption, Scherschligt said the new portal was phased in over time, beginning with a "test out the new system" option that was available on the previous setup. "Eventually, we did away with that option and just went with the new portal," said Scherschligt. "The goal was to make sure the students didn't wake up one day, log in, and feel completely lost."

Since implementing the new portal, Capella has conducted several user surveys, most of which generated positive feedback on the portal. In fact, he said most students readily agree that the new setup is a significant improvement over its predecessor.

Even better, said Scherschligt, is the fact that many students are now exposed to resources that they weren't previously aware of, including an online writing center that didn't get much use previously. "By organizing the portal in way that students can access quickly," he said, "we've been able to garner more participation and interest in some of the resources that weren't used much."

Right now, Capella is updating its course room, and plans to roll out the new version of it within the next few months. Also on Scherschligt's agenda are the addition of new networking tools and mobile optimization, the latter of which will help connect students while away from their desktops or laptops. "We spent three years putting a university campus on the Internet," said Scherschligt, "and now we're going to try to put one in our students' pockets."

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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