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Volume 8, Number 5: February 20, 2002

Heavenly Concoctions:
Developing Technology Recipes for Instructional Success

by Hal Schlais,
UW System Office of Learning and Information Technology


In the quantum mechanics of web-based course delivery tools, there seems to be a number of parallel universes emerging--and, for the purposes of this article, parallel metaphors. I'm not sure whether to best describe the following ideas in astrological, cosmological, or gastronomical terms. But I believe it would serve us well to get our recipes, contents, and cooking utensils organized to take advantage of coming events. However, our future might only be discerned by consulting the zodiac.

E-cosmology: The Unsteady State of Course Management Systems

The swirling universe of web-based course management tools divides itself into several galaxies, each seemingly separated by vast reaches of empty and uncrossable space. Here in the University of Wisconsin System, the "Big Bang" for course management systems (CMS) occurred in the fall of 1999, when we decided to fund a variety of web-based CMS as a "utility." Today, instructors probably recognize these systems as BlackBoard, Prometheus, and WebCT--and to them they seem "free."

However, just two-and-a-half years ago, the names of our "utility" CMS tools were Web Course in a Box, Learning Space, and WebCT. We had barely gotten the enterprise underway when Blackboard appeared at the outer reaches and subsumed Web Course in a Box. More recently Learning Space disappeared into the utility black hole--and Prometheus, having barely cleared the temporal horizon, was purchased by Blackboard. WebCT remains on the horizon for the present, shining brightly. This all portends that in a year or so, barring super novas, we can expect to have essentially two commercial choices for delivering course content on the web. Arguments rage between the expansionists and contractionists. Steady state is not an option.

E-astrology: When CMS and Function-Specific Academic Software Align

As CMS become more costly, we will need to rethink how we as a system support them. It was clear early on that these course tools, which are more universal than most discipline-specific academic software, would necessitate new strategies. CMS are really "academic systems" and require technical, financial, and other academic-specific support on a scale previously reserved for administrative systems like People Soft and Oracle. Current support comes centrally, from a system-wide fund called the common systems fund.

The central funding mechanism is an important strategic choice, because it allows institutions to adopt these tools independent of strapped and already allocated departmental and college Supplies and Expenses budgets. However, the licenses alone for the newer and more powerful versions of the software will increase at least five times with the new version. (It only seems like astronomical growth. It is really exponential.) The new versions will require a much more robust, and therefore expensive, computing environment in which to run. And as the online course management tools have become "mission critical" to our learning enterprise, we will need to consider the most robust model that centrally supports course management systems.

Is moving to a single vendor an end-all solution? Obviously not, not even if we put the most important considerations (pedagogical issues) aside. No matter which vendor, the software will frustratingly morph into something new, following the now-familiar pattern of continual version changes. Are we then totally at the vendors' mercy regarding how we accomplish teaching and learning? I think not, as my crystal ball shows yet another stellar object in CMS conjunction: function specific software that will interact with our administrative systems and any CMS.

For example, these might include our favorite gradebook, an assessment package that is specific to doing math and physics or a near-perfect threaded discussion that beats anything offered by the CMS we currently use. The gradebook would be able to exchange student enrollment data with our student information system and the CMS; the assessment tool would put grades into the CMS (hence, into the Student Information System); and we could archive the threaded discussions for future use and research.

The tools themselves may come and go, but the systems they interoperate with will comply with internationally established standards for the interchange of course and data content.

E-gastronomy: Easy as Ramen Noodles?

Our recipe for instructional success, then, begins with a selection of online course components (ingredients) that are independent of current CMS and that are assembled for inclusion into whatever the CMS container du jour is. Simply put, the strategy is to create a procedure as easy as fixing Ramen Noodles--Just Add Water (JAW) and serve. How these content objects are created, and why they would be able to move between CMS galaxies at Warp factor 9.8 (mixing metaphors here) by just adding water is a topic for further discussion. But suffice it to say, the System warp engines are nearly on line. MERLOT ( is a good place to find some ingredients; assuring professional authenticity, it offers peer-reviewed contributions from some 13 different disciplines. Organizations like the IMS ( ensure docking compatibility when we get there.

Of course, this still leaves the chefs. How do instructors develop gourmet recipes with ingredients that are rapidly becoming much more usable and available? Answer: The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence has been successful. Instructors should know they are not alone in the quest; their campus folks are working on it.

The Learning Technology Development Council ( is launching a review of Course Management Systems to determine how we use them and what we want from them. Also, a series of conferences will soon be held to discuss JAWs and the curricular and instructional design issues related to it. Be on the lookout for a conference May 22-24 at UW- Whitewater, the brain-child of Bob Schramm (, and the upcoming LTDC summer conference (July 1-2) on the instructional design issues involved in using learning objects. Finally, the 18th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison will take place August 14-16, 2002.

Let's see now…. Eye of newt, boil and bubble…



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