Volume 9, Number 7: April 9, 2003
by Tammy Kempfert,
UW System completed negotiations last week with Desire2Learn, a Canadian company whose product will replace WebCT and Blackboard as the campuses' common e-Learning system. The selection of the Desire2Learn platform comes after a year-long process aimed at procuring a single product or suite of products that meet the UW's evolving web-based learning needs.
Kathy Pletcher, Associate Provost for Information Services at UW-Green Bay, led a 12-member task force charged with researching the marketplace, issuing a Request for Proposals, ranking the responses, and ultimately making a recommendation to Associate Vice President Ed Meachen. By November of last year, the task force had narrowed the field of contenders, from 16 companies to four. Both WebCT and Blackboard emerged as finalists, along with two lesser known companies, Desire2Learn and Granada Learning.
Pletcher says, "The driving force behind this initiative was not dissatisfaction with the current course management systems ... The driving force was the escalating cost of supporting two CMS platforms in a time of severe budget constraints." In fact, most faculty remain satisfied with WebCT and Blackboard, both of which are currently supported by the UW System. However, among the faculty, staff, and administrators who reviewed the four finalists, Desire2Learn received the highest scores in all categories.
Evaluators praised Desire2Learn for its convenience and functionality, qualities which Desire2Learn President and CEO John Baker clearly takes pride in. He says his company has worked hard to make its products easy to use, while at the same time offering the features faculty need. "We've avoided following the model of the industry leaders," he says. "Rather, we've been listening to the leaders in the academic community. And we've always considered the University of Wisconsin a leader in online education." Task force member Lorna Wong, UW-Whitewater, believes Desire2Learn will work closely with UW System to advance its vision for web-based course delivery. "I was especially impressed with the business philosophy of the company and their apparent dedication to higher education as their mission," she says.
Wong also notes the usefulness of Desire2Learn's content repository feature. "Depending on how it is implemented, the construction, re-use, and sharing of course content among faculty within a campus and among UW campuses can be achieved at a level not possible with our current CMS implementations," she says. For faculty and instructional staff, a standards-based system such as Desire2Learn simplifies the work of creating and storing content. For the UW System as a whole, adherence to industry standards means that content can be easily migrated from one application to another, an appealing attribute in an unsteady market where CMS companies have been bought, sold, and put out of business. For his part, Baker has pledged to continue working with national and international standards bodies to ensure that Desire2Learn continues to meet these guidelines. And, he says, he has no plans to sell his company.
As well, Desire2Learn received high marks for its customer service record, based on the solid recommendations of its clients. A team from UW System recently returned from a site visit to the Desire2Learn headquarters in Kitchener, Ontario, and the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario. Administering the largest distance education program in Ontario, Guelph has used Desire2Learn for the past four years to deliver its Masters of Business Administration courses, continuing education courses, and other programs. After inspecting these programs in person, the site visit team left Ontario reassured that they had made the right choice.
Baker says his company has put most of its resources into research and development. "Our success," he says, "has always been built on word of mouth as opposed to our going out there and marketing ourselves." He adds that Desire2Learn has "never been about making money ... our passion has been for building a learning environment that both faculty and students can enjoy. At the same time, we've worked very hard at reducing the administrative overhead so that even administrators can enjoy the experience."
With the finalized negotiations will come an implementation plan. A project manager and implementation team will be named to facilitate the conversion of course materials from WebCT and Blackboard to Desire2Learn, with full implementation scheduled for the summer of 2004. Lorna Wong says that the task force continues to keep in mind faculty's qualms regarding the migration of their materials. She says, "UW System is renewing licenses on both WebCT and Blackboard for the 2003-2004 academic year. Once an implementation team is formed, it will take advantage of this and work with the vendor, the hosting utility, the campus LTDC and site-admin personnel to draw out a practical timeline for each campus to ensure for a smooth transition." John Baker has also promised his company's full support.
For more information on the RFP and implementation processes, read TTT's complete interview with Task Force Chair Kathy Pletcher.