NEWSLETTER: Vol. 5, No. 4, January 25, 2000
The Wisconsin Web-Based Learning System:
What's New and How to Get Involved
by Hal Schlais
Coordinator for Learning Technology Development, UW System Administration
If you're a regular reader of TTT, you already know that several UW institutions are offering all or part of certain programs completely online, some collaboratively with other UW institutions. But perhaps you're not sure how you can become involved. Maybe you've thought about technologically augmenting your traditional, on-campus course with an asynchronous component consisting of electronically accessible materials, a chat facility, threaded discussion, or other communication goodies. Perhaps you've considered teaching a course completely online, one that could be distributed to a select audience of students who might be limited by location or job constraints. Or maybe you've had a more modest thought: with all this electronic gadgetry that you've been hearing about, there must be a simple way to add a few bells and whistles to your course, like incorporating discussion groups or the electronic tutorial delivered by the publisher of your favorite text.
On the other hand, you may be one of a growing number of faculty and staff in the UW who've "been there and done that." Not only have you heard about new technologies, but with lots of hard work, you've given them a try. In any case, regardless of your level of technological savvy, it is worthwhile to know that there is a support infrastructure to let you implement, with relative ease, your desired course enhancements. Furthermore, much of it is available to you at no additional cost to you or your campus.
Traditionally, the jargon for these web-based teaching and learning environments has been "web-based learning systems." Put Wisconsin in front and you have WWBLS, which we affectionately pronounce "weebels." Not so long ago -- in November 1998 -- this system was unveiled. It represented two new philosophical ideas for providing resources to UW institutions. First and foremost, WWBLS is a large, centrally funded academic system; and secondly, it is a set of services aggregated at a few UW institutions, based on a utility concept. WWBLS consists of hosting support for several web courseware tools: Web Course in a Box, WebCT, LearningSpace, and Blackboard CourseInfo, the latest addition. WWBLS also provides instructional design and developmental support for both programs and individual faculty.
The hosting portion of the academic system was the brainchild of the Systemwide Council of Chief Information Officers. Over the past two or three years, there has been a marked increase in demand from faculty for various products supporting web-augmented courses. As you are well aware, supporting these products requires special skills and equipment. Voila! The utility model was born. Instead of replicating the services at all institutions, campus chief information officers developed an internal RFP (request for proposals) in the summer of 1998. This RFP sought to identify UW System campuses willing to support the major products being used at that time: Web Course in a Box, WebCT, and LearningSpace. UW-Milwaukee, UW-Madison, and UW-Eau Claire responded and were selected.
The next question was quite obvious. How does the UW System go about funding these tools? As it turns out, nothing evolves in a vacuum. The answer was being developed almost simultaneously by the UW Common Systems Group. This group was formed as an outgrowth of the IT planning process that the UW has engaged in over the past several years. Among the membership of the CSG are campus respresentatives such as Vice Chancellors, Institutional Business Representatives, and UW System Administration representatives. The group has the responsibility of reviewing large common System proposals for central funding. The proposal to this group that the utility hosting model be considered the first "academic system" (as opposed to the more typical, large-cost administrative systems) was approved. The CSG agreed that about $1 million was necessary to fund the Systemwide project annually. Among the major benefits of central funding is that the service is available to all "free." In effect, the costs for these new and emerging technologies have found a long overdue budget line.
Technical and hardware support are only two of the necessary components required to engage in web enhancement of course offerings. Good instructional design and course development support are even more critical. Again, as we were not operating in a vacuum, the support for course and program development has been evolving as well. The UW Board of Regents launched a major initiative and has supported the development of UW Learning Innovations (http://learn.wisconsin.edu/). Learning Innovations' primary goal is to help UW institutions develop programmatic material for online distribution. Also, the past biennial budget provided for a campus-based, course-development infrastructure based largely on physical spaces where the necessary hardware and support is to be located at each UW Institution.
It is important to note that this is not a static environment. Even before the RFP selection process was finished, another Web tool, Blackboard's CourseInfo, emerged and has been added to the mix (hosted by UW-Milwaukee). Others are on the horizon. One interesting variation on the hosting theme is the UW System is experimenting with an outsourcing hosting environment for some of the LearningSpace courses. A recent contract was awarded to Interliant Corporation in Houston to provide the physical hosting services for Lotus LearningSpace. Some 1,350 students are being served by this option, which we hope might provide a cost-saving alternative over time.
So how do you find out more about using these services? Regardless of whether you are a single faculty member enhancing just one course or you represent a multi-campus collaboration developing an entire online program, one of the best places to start is a discussion with your campus Learning Technology Development Council representative (http://www.uwsa.edu/olit/ltdc/). He or she can provide invaluable advice regarding your next steps. If you want to investigate the current web tools or contact the utility providers, consult http://www.uwsa.edu/olit/utility/.
Is "web-augmented" the only kind of technologically-enhanced learning? Of course not. Strategies are being discussed to maintain and enhance all the currently-used technologies across the System. You can rest assured that all the viable technologies will be available to you as a palette from which you can choose to most effectively enhance teaching and learning. With time and careful planning, the impediments to using those technologies will be reduced and the process will become far more efficient.