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NEWSLETTER: VOL III, # 4, October 28, 1998

Hal Schlais, Coordinator for Learning Technology Development, University of Wisconsin System

The University of Wisconsin Web-Based Learning System

Ed Meachen, Associate Vice President for Learning and Information Technology at UW-System (UWS), recently announced that UWS would provide system-wide support for two years to develop a web based learning system (WBLS). Using a "utility" model with WebCT as the delivery tool, the WBLS will provide the entire UWS with access to and support for a web based learning environment physically housed at the Division of Information Technology at UW-Madison. The WBLS will be available for piloting about 25 courses in early summer '99 and be available to UW institutions for 300 or more courses and at least 15,000 students for the fall semester ’99.

What is the WBLS?

The WBLS is a set of services framed as a UW System utility. It provides support and access to each UW institution for web-based or web-augmented course delivery. These services include: system-wide licensing of web-based course development software; hardware to support that software; sophisticated 7 x 24 hardware backup; and 7 x 24 help-desk technical support. After the two-year, subsidized pilot program, it will provide this service to institutions in the UWS at a charge-for-service, which is independent of the institution.

How did the concept arise?

Over the past year or more, a number of groups and individuals from the UWS have been engaged in a good deal of discussion as to how to support the development and online delivery of web-based courses. A CIO working group in 1997 did a study that examined licensing and other issues relating to the implementation of online course development tools. Several institutions, both within and without the UW System, have researched and experimented with a variety of these online products for their applications. As well, many individuals at UWS institutions have been gaining valuable experience with these products. The Council of Chief Information Officers (CIO) have had discussions debating the merits of such packages and how to best proceed. In the summer of 1998, they recommended that it would be appropriate to describe the WBLS as a "utility", to delineate what services such a utility should provide and to issue an RFP requesting interested UW institutions to respond with a proposal.

Three institutions responded to the RFP with full-featured proposals: UW-Eau Claire, UW- Madison, and UW-Milwaukee. They based their versions of a WBLS on the online course development products LearningSpace, WebCT, and Web Course in a Box (WCB) respectively.

Why WebCT?

The decision to use WebCT as the development and delivery tool was based in part on the following rationale:

Scalability: It is expected that by the fall of 2000 the WBLS will be able to support 500+ courses and 15,000 or more students;

Usability: Several large systems and universities including the University of Georgia System, Penn State University, Virginia Tech have examined and adopted WebCT;

Favorable reviews within the UWS: UW-Green Bay and UW-Madison have each selected WebCT as their web-based delivery product;

Licensing: License agreements are quite reasonably priced;

Robustness: WebCT appears to be a fairly robust tool nearly on a par with the much more system-intense Lotus LearningSpace product;

Research and Experiential Alternatives: UW System has provided support for the initial development of WBLS over the past few years: a system–wide license for LearningSpace has been obtained; a number of pilot programs were begun around the State using LearningSpace as the course delivery tool; more recently, two institutions, UW-Eau Claire and UW-Oshkosh have received UWS support to fund to develop regional or campus based WBLS using LearningSpace; and institutions within the UWS have been experimenting with various other WBLS, the most notable of which is Web Course in a Box at UW-Milwaukee with implementations at other institutions including UW-Platteville, UW-Colleges and other institutions. The development of these online delivery products is in its infancy with new products being announced at a rapid pace. In order for the UW to retain its developmental edge, we need a research and experiential base of alternatives for different applications. For example, one product may be more appropriate for faculty development or on-campus course delivery with the web as an adjunct while another may be more appropriate for totally asynchronous delivery on the WWW.

How do UW institutions participate?

Participation is voluntary. The UW WBLS will have a copy of WebCT running on a virtual server for each campus requesting services. This service would then be available to individuals and departments from that campus for any use related to instruction whether it be totally asynchronous delivery or for use as an adjunct to an on-campus course. Institutions would be responsible for mounting the courses. A training program and guidelines are being developed to insure facile institutional participation in the WBLS.

How will faculty learn to use web-based learning technologies?

Curriculum Redesign Funding from our system budget will be used. The majority of the faculty development will occur at the institutional level, through the curricular redesign funding distributed to the institutions. To assist the campus development efforts, from centrally held funding UW System will be hiring an individual with a general charge of facilitating the development of the WBLS. Specific plans call for this person to organize regional instructional design workshops across the State and a late-spring, system-wide conference on web-based learning. An online resource on instructional design and the use of the WBLS itself is being developed as part of the pilot.

What and when do UW institutions need to pay?

There will be no charge for institutions to participate in the WBLS for the 1999/2000 academic year as costs will be underwritten by UWS. The WBLS will be operated on a cost recovery basis beginning in the fall of AY 2000. After that, courses will be mounted on a per-course, fee basis, which participating institutions will be required to support. The current estimate is $450 per course for up to 50 students, with a prorated scale for larger classes.

How does this WBLS utility differ from the services offered by UW Learning Innovations?

The current focus of UW LI is one of assisting the development of asynchronously delivered, program based projects at UW institutions. The UW WBLS will have as its focus one of supporting individual faculty or departments that may wish to enhance their instruction through the use of web-based instruction. To do this, the UW WBLS will have a copy of WebCT running on a virtual server for each campus requesting services. This service would then be available to individuals and departments from that campus for any use related to instruction whether it be totally asynchronous delivery or for use as an adjunct to an on-campus course.

What do we expect to gain from this model?

The UW WBLS is a major academic system. It will cost on the order of $350,000 per year to maintain at projected levels. This academic system, and others like it such as faculty desktop computing and faculty development, needs to be funded on a regular basis in much the same way as we fund our administrative systems. The WBLS model will allow us to gain experience in supporting such systems in the UWS. In two years (fall 2000), we expect to learn whether it is feasible or desirable to support a system-wide WBLS. We will learn if the concept of a one-stop shop, designed, delivered and operated within and for the UW System is a reasonable one. If it is, we expect that a well-defined pricing structure for ongoing operation of the WBLS will be devised and that institutions will be able to budget for purchase of services on an ongoing basis.

What’s WBLS II?

It is clear that these web-based delivery tools are in their infancy and that their capabilities will expand as Internet services improve. As a learning institution, the University of Wisconsin must have the background and experience to move to the next phase even though it is unclear as to the exact direction at this time. One of the major benefits of enlarging our experience with the genre of web-based instructional tools is to create research and development and experiential framework to successfully move on.