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
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
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 (www.taste.merlot.org)
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 (www.imsproject.org)
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 (www.uwsa.edu/olit/ltdc)
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 (http://online-mba.cobe.uww.edu),
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
of newt, boil and bubble