The Rise of a New Paradigm Shift in Teaching and Learning

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This article discusses the design and implementation of a course management enterprise system, the Oncourse project, at Indiana University. The Oncourse project presented the concept and provided a technical framework for the dynamic creation of Web environments for every course section offered in the university. The conceptual definition to the full university-wide implementation of Oncourse (http://oncourse.iu.edu/) is described herein.

It was a hot July day in Ph'enix, Arizona when the directors of the Community Learning Network and the WebLab at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) discussed a revolutionary idea with their Dean of Faculties at the 1997 AAHE Summer Institute on Teaching, Learning and Technology. "We can dynamically create a Web site for every course offered at the university," said the directors. "We can write a simple computer program to migrate Student Information System data into our WebLab course management software and give every student and faculty dynamic access to their course Web sites. We can make the environment so easy to use that most faculty will not need to attend any training workshops nor will the university need to spend millions to maintain and operate the system."

The effort to develop a computer program to create a Web environment for every university course began in the fall of 1997 at the WebLab (now called CyberLab)1 Laboratory at IUPUI campus. The project was called "Oncourse."2 Although the original idea was only to design a simple "cookie making machine" to automatically produce Web sites, the WebLab Oncourse design group3 concluded with the conceptualization and design of a big picture solution for teaching and learning needs in the twenty-first century.

The big picture solution evolved into the research and development of a comprehensive teaching and learning enterprise that offers a "one stop shopping" Web solution to all online teaching and learning needs. From a technical perspective, the Oncourse Environment was designed as an "add on" program to the university legacy system and/or to the Student Information System (SIS) to dynamically create a personal homepage and a course Web site for every individual and every course section in the university. From a business perspective, the Oncourse Environment offers millions of dollars in savings by not creating and maintaining duplicate database systems, nor duplicating existing IT services already in a university, not to mention savings realized by automatic Web site creation and maintenance. From a faculty perspective, Oncourse introduces a new and useful technology with a Toolbox that can be easily learned and maintained without, for most users, the need to attend workshops or receive technical consultation.

Drawing the Conceptual Framework

The Oncourse theory of operation is based on the following conceptual frameworks. Every student and faculty member at the university owns an Oncourse Personal Profile, something like a personal homepage that is dynamically generated for every member of the university. Every university member may access his/her profile via a Web browser by visiting a Web site and entering their existing university computing ID, normally the same username and password used to check the university e-mail (See Figure 1). After a successful logon, the user will be presented with the Personal Profile page (See Figure 2). The Personal Profile includes major categories like My Courses, My Files, My Bookmarks, etc. For instance, once a student registers for a course, the course hyperlink dynamically appears on the student's Personal Profile page. Similarly, once a department identifies a course offering for an upcoming semester, the system automatically places a hyperlink on the instructor's Personal Profile page, pointing to that instructor's teaching assignments. All of this happens automatically based on the data entered and maintained by the university registrar.

Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3

 

By clicking on a course listing, the user enters into a course environment (See Figure 3). Every course environment features a template, which is consistently used for all university courses. The course templates are preloaded with many communications and collaboration tools including e-mail, chat, threaded message forum, class roster, grade book, and online testing, as well as hundreds of online resources that are available through the university library. The faculty of record, by default, is given authoring privilege and assumes responsibility for site administration. There is no need for a faculty member to know any computing language. Word processing and Web surfing experience are sufficient skills to author and maintain a course Web site. This fully automatic and dynamic environment runs 24 hours a day with near zero administrative maintenance. For instance, when a student drops a course, the Oncourse system will remove her access to the course and her name from the class roster. This will be done automatically without any maintenance required by either the university technology administrator or the course instructor.

Defining The Big Picture

Defining the big picture not only aids in the understanding of all possible functional requirements, it also assists the system architect in designing a system with a broad enough foundation to support forthcoming technological needs and features.

Dynamic creation of a Personal Profile page for every student, faculty and staff member based on the data contained in the University Information System database offers several opportunities. In addition to the features discussed in the previous section, it also offers the potential to create a "front door" or "one stop shopping" environment for all teaching and learning needs. This includes course management, online resources, communication and collaboration tools, distributed learning, news and information services, student commerce, Web publishing, administrative functions and more.

Imagine yourself as a faculty member in this Dynamic Integrated Web Environment. You will need to remember only one URL and one user account. Once you are authenticated, the system will dynamically identify all of your access rights, assigned IT services, your assigned teaching obligations, etc. The tools or the toolboxes you need to maintain your courses are all dynamically hyperlinked on your Personal Profile page. You can access your e-mail, update your Web sites, gain access to online scholarly collections from the library, publish and edit your course contents, provide access to your colleagues to observe or collaborate in your course environment, share access to your digital collection of papers, images and multimedia. All of this could be done anytime, anywhere via the Internet using a Web browser.

Students in the Oncourse environment will be able to search, review and select their classes by viewing course syllabi, course contents and faculty portfolios before deciding what course to take in the next semester. Students will be able to review institutional data regarding departments, courses and individual faculty. After students register for a course, they will be able to fully collaborate with all of their classmates and instructional teams, even to interact with other students taking the same course but in a different section or on a different campus. While logged into this learning environment from anywhere in the world, they can access those library resources permitted or licensed for use by students for that specific class. As for some non-academic Oncourse applications, for instance, students can post advertisements to sell an old dormitory refrigerator or to look for a tutor. They can even, if appropriate, place a note at the end of the semester to sell their used text books. The note will automatically be posted to the next semester's class, which will need the exact text book for the very same class. All of these features and more can easily be provided in an Oncourse Environment.

From a university administrator or staff perspective, when a new committee or taskforce is initiated, the chair of the committee can create a committee Website and enter the computing IDs for every member of the committee. The next time the committee members login to their Personal Profile page, they will find a hyperlink pointing to the committee Web site. By clicking on the link, committee members will be able to see the entire committee list, their portfolio, notes and minutes, and fully collaborate and communicate with all other committee members.

Developing The Oncourse Project

In early 1997, the WebLab group began trials with off-the-shelf software in order to identify those products that might possibly meet the big picture requirements for teaching and learning needs. Although more than a dozen software systems were identified, none could meet all the functional, pedagogical and technical requirements. Therefore, the WebLab group began in-house design and development of the Oncourse Environment. All the off-the-shelf software packages were found to have one or more of the following limitations:

  • The software was designed as a stand-alone system and was not capable of an easy integration with the university legacy system and/or SIS.
  • The software was not capable, from both a technical and cost perspective, of handling a large number of courses and student accounts.
  • The software could not leverage the existing IT services on the campus, such as the University's file server and Web server services.
  • The software could not meet the pedagogical and functional requirements for synchronous and asynchronous instruction.
  • The software was not easy to use.

Interestingly, none of the off-the-shelf software could meet the ease of use requirements. It seemed that all the software packages were designed by engineers for engineers with the assumption that the end users (mainly faculty) would spend a day or more in training workshops and consultation to master the environment.

Within the period of a year, the WebLab group undertook various phases of research and development, from the initial stage of conceptual design to the final stages of usability and stress testing, culminating in a campus-wide deployment in January of 1999.

In the conceptual design phase, the Oncourse design team began to brainstorm in an attempt to anticipate and understand the future educational needs for information technology. The conceptual design of Oncourse was based on a series of assumptions about the current and future needs for information technology as it relates to communication, collaboration, pedagogy, online resources, digital libraries and distance learning. The big picture, described above, evolved as part of this process, in addition to the development of the Oncourse "conceptual story."4

The Oncourse system design phase mainly focused on the technical architecture and technical requirement of a teaching and learning system that could handle a very large number of courses and user accounts. Other considerations were the creation of an architecture that is fully dynamic, interactive and Web-based. An enterprise system that can interface with Student Information Systems via a standard ODBC interface had the potential to grow to include the SIS system.

The Oncourse system architecture was designed with the following functional and technical requirements:

  • Usability refers to factors such as ease of use, ease of learning, mastering speed, transparency, and the overall system usefulness in teaching and learning applications.
  • Integration refers to the hardware and software characteristics of the system and the degree to which the system can be integrated and interfaced with other information legacy systems and services within an institution. This includes system capabilities to interface with the student information system, registrar database, authentication systems, e-mail and Web-server services, digital library collections and the like.
  • Multifunction refers to the system capabilities that support various in-class and distance education needs including both synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning functions.
  • Metadata is the use of a standard way of describing data, educational resources and their relationship.
  • Maintainability includes system utilities to support the needs of daily system and application maintenance. This includes software utilities to assist instructors in easily editing and updating class site contents, adding and removing users, creating and archiving contents and the like.
  • Scalability refers to hardware and software that supports an easy and cost-effective system expansion in such manners as supporting larger number of users or providing additional functions and features.
  • Affordability refers to the total hardware and software cost to acquire the system, including the amount of technical support required in operating and maintaining the system.
  • Futuristic includes system capabilities through which it will support future technological advancements and services as they become available in the market.
  • Security refers to end-user and administrative gate keeping functions to personal, institutional, and library data and contents.

 

Oncourse System Design

Microsoft SQL was selected as the database backbone for Oncourse. The system was designed for full compliance with Microsoft Internet Explorer version 3.0, Netscape 3.0 and Java Script 1.2.

Testing The Prototype

In the fall semester of 1998, the WebLab began formal beta testing of the Oncourse Environment by offering a trial opportunity to faculty at IUPUI, other Indiana University campuses and some other universities, both national and international. A simple Web form was provided for requesting a course account. By the end of the fall semester, more than 600 course accounts with more that 12,000 student accounts were created.

The IUPUI Center for Teaching and Learning (http://www.center.iupui.edu/), the campus faculty support center, offered Oncourse training workshops and walk-in assistance to Oncourse beta testers. Interestingly, only 37 faculty members attended the Oncourse workshops while more than 200 faculty put their courses on Oncourse. This attests to the ease of use of Oncourse and indicates that 80% of faculty members managed to put their courses onto Oncourse without need of a workshop or technical assistance.

During the beta testing period, student and faculty feedback came directly to the Oncourse design group and changes were made, in some cases overnight, to fix a problem or include a new feature. With this massive number of beta testers (over six hundred course authors and 12,000 students users), the Oncourse project received the best possible beta testing environment ‹ not only were the bugs identified, but the system also tested well under the stress of operation. Although the beta testers were told not to expect the system to be a "production system," the majority soon became dependent on the Oncourse environment and expected full operational services from the campus.

During the beta testing period two simultaneous usability studies5 were conducted at the Indiana University Bloomington Campus and IUPUI campus. Both used the laboratory model where students and faculty were asked to perform authoring and surfing tasks. The result of the usability studies directly fed the Oncourse design group and recommended changes were included in the Oncourse environment.

Oncourse University Wide Implementation

In the spring semester of 1999, Oncourse went into full deployment phase at IUPUI, where more than 6,000 course sections are offered every semester to more than 27,000 students. Almost all of these courses are traditional in-class classes where students are required to visit the campus twice a week for each three-credit-hour course. The IUPUI Oncourse deployment included the dynamic creation of an Oncourse environment for every course section offered on the campus, for a total of 6,041 course sections. By using the faculty and student data, every student and faculty was given automatic dynamic access to their Oncourse Web site by using their university Network ID (the same ID used to access e-mail accounts). This provided a "two click away" opportunity for every faculty member to add course content in their already existing course environment. Although there were neither public announcements nor any promotional activity, Oncourse, in a matter of days, received high recognition among the students and faculty. On Sunday, January 10, a day before the first Monday of the new spring semester, more than 150 faculty members logged into their course Web sites and added contents such as greeting messages to students, syllabi, reading assignments and so on.

In the fall of 1999, the University Information Technology Services of Indiana University (http://www.indiana.edu/~uits/) offered the Oncourse services to all eight campuses of Indiana University. This provided the capability for all faculty members to create Web environments for their courses, making IU one of the very first universities with a totally automated and dynamic course management enterprise system.

What is Next?

In spring of 1999, the WebLab group, under their new Laboratory organization named CyberLab, continued their Oncourse R&D project in the direction of the development of A New Global Environment for Learning or ANGEL. ANGEL -- the next generation of Oncourse -- will include a new conceptual environment and tools utilizing EDUCAUSE IMS technical specifications. The major features of the ANGEL project include intelligent agents, enterprise framework and distributed authentication. Furthermore, the CyberLab is forming a consortium of researchers to define and develop the conceptual and technical frameworks of the next generation of teaching and learning environment. Scholars, technology developers and educational institution are invited to join the ANGEL Consortium. More information about the ANGEL Project and ANGEL Consortium is available at CyberLab's Web site at http://CyberLab.iupui.edu/.

Conclusions

The year 1999 continues to witness many higher education institutions not yet utilizing the World Wide Web and Internet for teaching, learning and distance education. Although making Web sites for a university and producing Web pages for academic departments would provide a virtual image of a campus, the universities need to think one step further and produce a Web site or Web environment for every course they offer. This concept not only provides a comprehensive virtual course catalog, but also offers an extensive teaching and learning environment that can complement every traditional course while opening new doors and opportunities for the twenty-first century paradigm shift in teaching and learning. The list below offers ten reasons why universities and colleges should offer a Web environment for every course in the catalog. The benefits include:

1. Providing a complementary virtual communication and collaboration channel among students and instructors.

2. Increasing collaboration and communication outside of the classroom.

3. Facilitating and simplifying posting and distribution of information and resources.

4. Reducing, in certain subject fields, classroom contact hours.

5. Providing hyperlink conduits to the massive amount of information and resources available on the Internet and digital libraries.

6. Providing a gradual transition from a traditional in-class curriculum to a hybrid (in-class/distance learning) curriculum, and then to a full distance education curriculum.

7. Reducing the number of required visits to the campus and library.

8. Bringing into being a total digital collection of curriculum.

9. Making course selection and "shop around" for courses and instructors easier and searchable.

10. Offering a more effective learning experience.

 

Dr. Ali Jafari served as the project director and system architect for the design and development of the Oncourse Project. He has worked in the field of Information Technology and Multimedia since 1985 as an engineer, technology architect, professor and researcher. Since 1989 he has worked as the director of research and development and as an associate professor of Computer Technology at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). He has assisted many educational institutions with the design of distributed information technology systems and creation of technology master plans. Dr. Jafari has presented extensively in national and international conferences on human computer interface design, multimedia information systems and distance learning.

E-mail: jafari@iupui.edu
URL: http://www.iupui.edu/~jafari

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENT:

I wish to acknowledge the commitments and the very hard work of David Mills on the design, development, testing and implementation of Oncourse. Without David's "ninety hours per week" work, the Oncourse system would not be a working reality at Indiana University. David served as the lead system engineer for the Oncourse Project. Additionally, I would like to acknowledge the contribution and hard work of Mazlan Noor in various design and development aspects of Oncourse. Both David Mills and Mazlan Noor worked as research engineers at the IUPUI WebLab. Additionally, I wish to acknowledge the encouragement and support received from William Plater, the IUPUI dean of faculties and executive vice chancellor, and Amy Warner, executive director of the Community Learning Network. Without Bill and Amy's support and encouragement, the Oncourse project would have still been a proposal discussed in various university committees. And, finally, my acknowledgment to Garland Elmore, associate vice president of Indiana University for his initiative and leadership for taking Oncourse from the laboratory environment into the Indiana University system-wide deployment. And thanks to the hard work and commitment of the individuals mentioned in footnote 3.

 

  1. CyberLab (formerly WebLab) is a research and development laboratory located at the IUPUI campus. The Laboratory was created in 1996 to help the university respond to the technological opportunities presented by the Internet and World Wide Web. More information about the CyberLab is available at: http://www.cyberlab.iupui.edu
  2. More information about the Oncourse project is available at the following sites: Oncourse homepage (http://oncourse.iu.edu/) and CyberLab (http://www.cyberlab.iupui.edu/CyberLabHtml/oncourse.htm)
  3. The primary Oncourse design group consists of Ali Jafari, David Mills and Mazlan Noor, who actively participated in various aspects of both conceptual and system design. Several other members of the university participated in the development and assisted in the implementation of Oncourse: Amy Warner, Ron Alcasid, Brian Ho, Sue Cassidy, Steve Brunner, Rick Jackson, and many other technologists, faculty and administrators of both the IUPUI and Indiana University Bloomington campuses.
  4. The Oncourse conceptual story is available online at http://weblab.iupui.edu/CyberLabHtml/Frames/oncourse1.htm#CONCEPTUAL
  5. Cathrine Spiaggia conducted the Oncourse usability study on the Indiana University Bloomington campus, and Julie Sykes and Ali Jafari conducted a similar Web usability test at the IUPUI campus. The results of these studies will be appearing in separate publications.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.

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