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Volume 9, Number 2: October 30, 2002

Preparing for Change:
UW and the Quest for a New e-Learning System

by Tammy Kempfert,
TTT Editor


Ask almost anyone in the know about instructional technology on our campuses, and you'll be told that course management systems (or courseware) have become "mission critical" to the University of Wisconsin System.

Nationally, one-fifth of all college courses now reportedly use courseware, such as Blackboard and WebCT, for both campus-based and distance education (Olson). In Wisconsin, estimates on some campuses put instructional use of web-based materials at 45 percent of courses offered. According to Hal Schlais, an e-learning consultant to the UW System, online programs offered by our institutions depend almost entirely on web tools for their instructional delivery. Instructors of traditional face-to-face courses have also begun to take widespread advantage of courseware functions for posting content online, as well as using communication tools, online assessments, and electronic gradebooks. And, as the UW System Board of Regents has noted, "Wisconsin residents and students increasingly expect the University to provide online opportunities as part of its core mission" (EGOLL).

As our need for these products grows, the marketplace steadily changes. Leading courseware developers continue to promise new and improved versions of their products, which will allow instructors to organize online learning environments more simply and effectively than ever before. New terminology reflects the shift in potential uses. According to Schlais, "It's broader than course management now; really, it's about learning and content management. It involves a change in the way we create content and how we manage that content--the emerging paradigm being on assembling reusable content rather than on courses."

But the added potential of the more complex products comes at a steep price. In fact, both BlackBoard and WebCT recently announced enormous increases in their pricing structures, boosting licensing costs for the newer products by as much as fivefold over the last year. Entry-level versions no longer meet evolving institutional needs; moreover, these versions will not likely be vendor-supported in the near future.

Since 1998, UW System has provided to all of its institutions a set of web courseware products and support through a "utility" service hosted by DoIT at UW-Madison and by, a UW System service located on the UW-Milwaukee campus. Financial support for these services has so far come from the UW Common Systems Fund; each fiscal year, $1,000,000 is provided to DoIT and to host WebCT and Blackboard, respectively. However, this million-dollar pot of money no longer covers the cost of hosting the systems. (To learn more about the history of web hosting services at the UW, read Hal Schlais's article at With state budgets in crisis everywhere, universities across the nation are reassessing the merits of the courseware they use, and re-determining their financial commitment to the products.

What do all of these factors--skyrocketing costs, ever-evolving products, and our increased reliance on them--mean to our institutions? To respond to this question, Associate Vice President Ed Meachen of UW System's Office of Learning and Information Technology (OLIT) appointed a task force on course management systems. The twelve-member task force, representing an array of campuses and perspectives, is charged with finding a single product, or suite of products, that could serve the entire System. Kathy Pletcher, Associate Provost for Information Services at UW-Green Bay, chairs the group. She says, "The marketplace is changing, so one of our goals is to research what's out there, find out what products could meet our needs now and in the future, and determine what it will cost."

One important consideration the task force faces is product compliance with national and international standards (as outlined in SCORM, the Sharable Object Content Reference Model of the DoD's Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative, the IMS Project, the IEEE, the Aviation Industry Computer-Based Training Committee, and other international standards bodies). Selecting a system that adheres to industry standards would allow instructors to develop their own content in a variety of applications, or borrow it from other sources, and then move it into their course websites with ease. Hal Schlais, who also serves on the task force, explains: "For example, I can send an email to someone on any campus--and even though I don't know which email system they use, I know that they'll receive it and be able to read it. That's because of standards. I can plug my computer into any electrical outlet on the campus, and it will operate properly. That's also because of standards."

Another major concern for the task force has been product stability. In the five years since course management systems first appeared on the market, almost all of the early products have disappeared. TopClass, FirstClass, and Prometheus, for example, have all come and gone within UW System. Some vendors simply went out of business; others were bought up by competitors. The remaining products are similar in name only, as versions continue to change radically. And each change requires a migration of course content to the new product.

UW-Milwaukee task force member Bob Kaleta stresses that a decision to move to a new system has not been reached, meaning faculty may not have to think about moving their content at this time. However, he wants them to know that "if we have to move to a new system ... we are concerned about the conversion of faculty content and want to minimize the impact on faculty."

Lorna Wong, a task force member from UW-Whitewater, says, "If a CMS does it right and conforms to standards, this should not be a concern to the faculty, as the CMS would also take care of content management issues. Looking for a standards compliant product is a main goal of the task force." Schlais says that another way faculty and staff can maintain control of course content is to think of it in terms of "chunks" of high-quality instructional materials. In the newer systems, learning chunks can be mixed, matched, and moved from one system to another easily. Approaching content in this way not only addresses individual goals within a course design methodology, it also saves time and money. Instructors no longer need to redevelop effective content.

Pletcher says interoperability between systems is a significant concern. "Faculty have spent the last several years developing content within a particular system. We need to understand what it will take to migrate those materials to a new system and what sort of assistance faculty will need," she says. Interoperability also means that courseware will smoothly integrate with campus student administration systems, for functions like record keeping and degree granting. What the UW is really looking at for the future, Schlais says, is an enterprise system that supports this interoperability.

Thus far, the task force has devised a formal Request for Information (RFI) from vendors and development partners interested in doing business with the UW. At the same time, Glenda Morgan of OLIT began conducting interviews on each campus to determine how faculty currently use courseware. Morgan's findings, along with the 30 RFI responses the task force received, informed the development of a Request for Proposals--a shopping list of desired learning system features, from vendors who might eventually provide our institutions with a single e-learning system--which was released in August. The task force reviewed those proposals earlier this month and settled on four finalists: Blackboard, Inc., Desire2Learn, Granada Learning Ltd., and WebCT.

As they have progressed, Pletcher says, the task force has remained attentive to faculty concerns. "The people doing this review are their colleagues," she says. "They come from a variety of campuses … and we're all concerned with maintaining a high degree of integrity in this process." Later this year, the task force will sponsor demonstrations of the four products, inviting interested faculty and staff to provide feedback; they will use this feedback to evaluate the products and make a final recommendation to Meachen. (View the schedule for faculty and student demonstations of the software.) Task force member Pam Scheibel, UW-Madison, adds, "Faculty and students are forefront in the decisions being made. Each member of the committee has in mind that the product or set of products will meet the needs of faculty and students."

Besides participating in the demonstrations, those interested in staying informed of task force progress can visit its website at Schlais also encourages people to get in touch with their campus Learning Technology Development Council representatives--and, of course, to stay tuned to TTT for future updates.


Executive Group for Online Learning (EGOLL), UW System Administration. University of Wisconsin Online Vision, Mission Statement, Principles and Action Plan. 12 July 2001.

Olsen, F. "Getting Ready for a New Generation of Course Management Systems." The Chronicle of Higher Education, 21 December 2001, A25. Available online at

Course Management System Task Force

Kathy Pletcher, Associate Provost for Information Services, UW-Green Bay (Chair)
Dave Dumke, Administrative Computing, UW-Stevens Point
Dirk Herr-Hoyman, DoIT, UW-Madison
Margie Ingram, LTDC, UW-Stout
Bob Kaleta, Faculty and LTDC, UW-Milwaukee
Pamela Scheibel, Faculty, UW-Madison
David Wirth, UW Extension, Learning Innovations
Lorna Wong, LTDC, UW-Whitewater
Hal Schais, OLIT, UW System Administration
Judy Brown, OLIT, UW System Administration
Glenda Morgan, OLIT, UW System Administration
Lori Voss, Procurement Office, UW System Administration

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