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2011 Campus Technology Innovators | Teaching and Learning

Santa Barbara City College

The Human Presence Learning Environment is a sophisticated Moodle customization that engages students via multiple social components, including streaming media, voice boards, presence indicators, microblogs, and interactive class assessments.

Project: The Human Presence Learning Environment

Project lead: Douglas Hersh, dean of educational programs

Vendors/technologies used:
Elluminate (Blackboard)
Wimba (Blackboard)

When Douglas Hersh was named dean of educational programs at Santa Barbara City College (CA) in 2007, he had just finished writing his doctoral dissertation on what's missing from distance education and how to fix it. But he never thought he'd have the opportunity to put his ideas into practice so soon.

Convinced that the lack of personal interaction online is behind low student satisfaction and class-completion rates, Hersh persuaded colleagues to join him on a journey to remake the school's learning management system. Rolled out in 2009, the school's Human Presence Learning Environment is a sophisticated customization of the open source Moodle LMS. It introduces a social component by including streaming media, voice boards, presence indicators, microblogs, and interactive class assessments.

Hersh believes too many distance-learning efforts have downplayed the importance of the social aspect of learning. "What turns students off most is a bad interface," he says. Among the adjectives he applies to the typical LMS are cold, impersonal, alienating, static, and text-driven. "If students get frustrated and apathetic in the first few meetings of a course, they are toast, because the cohort has passed them by and they drop out." In planning the Human Presence Learning Environment, he hypothesized that greater levels of engagement with instructors and other students would lead to a higher level of success.

It took Hersh a year to convince colleagues to transition away from Blackboard and to develop a governance structure for the new open source system. He even made a film for campus stakeholders about his vision of the future of education and the role of technology. He credits SBCC Superintendent/President Andreea Serban, Executive Vice President Jack Friedlander, and David Wong, director of the Faculty Resource Center, with providing the executive leadership to make the transition happen campuswide.

"We have created an expectation that all instructors are regularly in touch with each student," Hersh says.

On the technology front, Hersh and Jason Walker, SBCC's director of educational applications, worked with Remote-Learner, a consulting firm that specializes in Moodle customization, to incorporate as many free and low-cost web-based communication applications as possible, including Skype, Elluminate, Wimba, Twitter, YouTube, and EduStream. Instructors use Skype for office-hour chats with students, a new requirement for online courses. They use collaboration tool Elluminate (now part of Blackboard) for synchronous presentations, which are recorded for those unable to attend. The system also features a voice board, similar to a discussion thread that uses voice messages instead of typing. And the Twitter feed can be used by faculty to remind students of an upcoming quiz, for example. In addition, a presence indicator allows students to see who else is online so they can engage in a chat.

Webcams and Flip cams are used to record video presentations. "The streaming video is important," Hersh says. "The students can see the whites of their instructors' eyes, their laughs, their nonverbal communication." Once enrolled in a course, students watch a brief video developed by the instructor that outlines the week's goals; read the notes for that week; engage in the voice board; and take online quizzes.

SBCC's Faculty Resource Center works with instructors to pepper their courses with videos, interactive quizzes, and other learning activities. It also built a course-regeneration tool that allows faculty members to "roll over" their prior semester courses and make modifications.

Hersh closely tracks student satisfaction, completion, and success rates: His research has found that students prefer the new environment, and tend to remain enrolled in courses longer and perform better. In 2009, student engagement and satisfaction with the Human Presence Learning Environment were 9.3 percent higher than with any other LMS in use at SBCC, and class-completion rates were 5.1 percent higher. Academic success, a measure of students completing their courses with a grade of "C" or better, was 9.4 percent higher.

Although the open source system is less expensive than a commercial product, Hersh stresses that "this is not about saving money. We are reinvesting the money we spent on Blackboard on instructor stipends for training and other tools. It is about giving faculty the freedom to teach the way they teach as mentors and establish that human connection with students."

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Innovation and Government Technology.

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