Sunday, April 10, 2005

Why We Need a Course Management System - Part 2

The last several years have been instructive on what is possible to support and what is difficult to support at the campus level regarding instructional technology. For example, last summer the Campus Gradebook service ended and that was after the service had been extended one semester beyond what was originally planned. The service had a loyal user base. And that was to a large degree because it served as an electronic roster service (it emailed notifications of adds and drops on a daily basis) at a time when there was no real alternative for instructors. Further, it had a sensible hierarchical structure both in terms of the columns (HW1, HW2, HW Total, etc.) and in terms of the rows (Section 1, Section 2, Pooled, etc.) and it managed TAs sensibly. One should ask: if it functioned reasonably for the instructors, why was it eliminated?

There are of course many reasons: the technology was old, making it compatible with the new Banner Student Information System probably wasn't worth the cost, and it appeared that the campus was moving forward with an enterprise course management system (what we now call Illinois Compass powered by WebCT Vista) and there would be a large duplication in service, so why have both? All good reasons to be sure but none is the primary reason. One can imagine a parallel universe where Campus Gradebook survived, where it was re-developed and made compatible with current standards to integrate with current course management environments rather than serve as a stand alone, and where it became part of a "best of breed" strategy that the campus pursued in support of instruction. Why is it that we don't live in that parallel universe but rather reside in the one we do occupy, where we've decided to emphasize Illinois Compass?

The answer, in a nutshell, is commitment. Campus Gradebook was supported by a partnership between then CCSO (the academic computing organization before the current incarnation called CITES) and then OIR (the teaching and learning unit that is now the Center for Teaching Excellence). The partnership worked reasonably well at the staff level, but at the administrative level the service was lumped in and competed for resources with the other services these units supported. To my knowledge there was no administrator who championed the Campus Gradebook service. It was metaphorically like a functioning body cut off from its head. And when the first hint of budget cuts came, that was a logical service to cut. This is not to pick on Campus Gradebook. It is not the only service in this category. But it was the biggest one that had an impact on instruction. (CITES also cut its Usenet News service, but at the time use for instruction was fairly narrow.)

How then does one produce a service for which there is substantial administrative commitment? This is an important question to be asking especially in these tough budget times. Let's start with broad usage. Then add that the people who control the funds have to champion the service. Then a host of deans and department heads have to have the service on their radar. These people must view it as supporting the instruction mission. Finally, there needs to be a staff of many (not just one or two) who are vigorously supporting the service. These requirements to generate commitment are stern. They strongly favor an integrated solution, such as a course management system, that does many functions in one bundle. The requirements argue strongly against a diversity of best of breed softwares that together produce a set of offerings. Under the best of breed approach, one or two of the offerings would get picked off during tough budget times. Then what's left is a less compelling set.

This is an argument that faculty won't like. Faculty want to think about educational technology as primarly being designed to fit the teaching need. Doing that requires a flexibility toward new developments in the field and how those map into what we are trying to achieve with the teaching. Indeed, there are many efforts on campus coming out of the departments and colleges that don't rely on the campus solution, precisely to fit those to the local needs. They do better than what the campus can offer in terms of flexibility. But in terms of commitment, they are worse. They often rely on a single individual, either a professor with and endowed chair who commits those resources to sustaining the effort or a staff person who puts in yeoman's effort to make the project a success. This people are heroes and their heroism should be applauded. But heroism in not a substitute for a good business model, especially in the long term.

In these tough times financially, the instructors need to know where they can hang their hats. The course management system satisfies that need.

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