Sharing E-Learning Services: Former Rivals Improve Education While Stretching Dollars

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Thomas Gaylord, Vice President and CIO, The University of Akron, and Don Tolliver, Vice President and CIO, Kent State University

Technology makes strange bedfellows. Archrivals on the football field and steely competitors for Ohio's best students, we at The University of Akron (UA) and Kent State University (KSU) are joining forces to share an e-learning infrastructure. Currently, we are in the process of "Web-enhancing" classroom courses with interactive exercises, threaded discussion groups, chat and virtual classroom activities. We will also create pure distance learning courses in which all activities take place over the Internet. The intent is to improve education and research, as well as to stretch scarce resources.

Relations between universities are rarely so interconnected; by happenstance and design, state university systems are competitive. Although competition can spur excellence, it can also lead to a broadscale duplication of effort, personnel, services and resources. In the early 1990s, we started looking for ways to recoup these wasted resources. Our "shared services" model for online learning will let us share technology, some course content, research and faculty. We could ultimately serve other Ohio universities and the K-12 community this way, or even become a national e-learning provider.

UA and KSU are northeast Ohio's two largest universities. A 20-minute drive apart, they have a combined enrollment of 60,000 students with more than 400 programs and 1,400 faculty members. We made our first major foray into collaboration in 1994 when we formalized a fully integrated joint doctoral program in nursing. One of only four in the country, the program responds to the public's need for higher health and nursing care standards at a time of predictable shortages of staff, faculty and researchers in nursing.

Since then, we have developed other joint programs and have sought savings through technology collaboration in at least three other ways:

  1. We put four courses in the joint nursing program completelyonline.
  2. We christened a new high-speed fiber-optic line, "GigaMAN," to connect our information technology systems and to act as a bridge for collaborative teaching and research. GigaMAN is a direct, dedicated connection that d'esn't touch the Internet. It provides more direct bandwidth between the two institutions than general Internet connections do - 1.25 Gbps, or 22 times the speed of a standard dial-up connection. The link lets our universities explore shared enterprise applications and costly network backup services.
  3. We agreed to adopt a new generation of e-learning technology, the WebCT Vista academic enterprise system. From everything we had researched about this enterprise-class e-learning system, we believed that it could give us the foundation we needed for sharing large-scale e-learning programs between the universities and with others.

Designed for large, multi-institution deployments, WebCT Vista includes course development and delivery capabilities, content management features and learning information management tools supported by an extensible enterprise architecture. The system can automatically register students for classes through a live link to the schools' student administration systems.

We worked on course development in the WebCT Vista environment during the first half of 2003. Precisely how we'll select courses to develop is yet to be decided, but one popular option is to first incorporate Web components into courses that have two characteristics: large class size and common course content. One option that will be explored is sharing certain fundamental courses or course content for freshman English or Math 101 between the two universities. According to higher education icon Ernest L. Boyer, there's "a mismatch, a disturbing one, between faculty expectations and the academic preparation of entering students. ... Many young people who go to college lack basic skills in reading, writing and computation - essential prerequisites for success. ... Faculty are not prepared, nor do they desire, to teach remediation courses." Although we have always addressed this problem squarely, the online experience, with its highly interactive learning environment and immediate feedback, can go far to help.

In any case, the plan anticipates offering fully Web-based distance learning courses over the next two years. As with the nursing doctoral program, technology will make it easier and more convenient for educators to lend, borrow, extend and share learning infrastructure, content, instructional resources and research.

A 'National Library' of Courseware

We are also looking at joint content development opportunities, including creating a database of learning objects - discrete chunks of reusable, mixable and matchable content that course developers can deploy individually for just-in-time learning or assemble into new courses. These reusable objects will contain common course components across a curriculum that will allow faculty to quickly create their online courses.

We hope our universities will someday evolve into a library of courseware from which smaller institutions can share, thus saving the cost of creating their own content. Smaller private liberal arts schools are expected to be the first takers.

Because of the strategic impact of e-learning on both institutions, KSU President Carol A. Cartwright and UA President Luis M. Pr'enza came together personally to drive the collaboration. Under their direction, we developed a contract for shared e-learning services on a major scale. UA is hosting and supporting the software and KSU is offering its organizational skills to the academic structuring of the joint initiative. The universities are splitting all costs and personnel equally since all decisions affect both schools in the partnership.

The collaboration will broaden students' access to programs and provide them with new approaches to learning. It will offer students at both schools different choices in the classes they take, as well as where and how they will take them. It will also expose faculty to research and best practices from an expanded group of peers, as well as encourage collaboration on grant development, content development and the analysis of a combined pool of learning data collected by WebCT Vista.

Saving Money Through Shared Services

Over the next five years, sharing services has the potential to save us more than $1 million in costs associated with software, hardware, infrastructure, personnel and support costs. For example, the arrangement will encourage course developers to work collaboratively instead of separately on e-learning programs. We will be able to develop an e-learning curriculum for selected programs by splitting rather than duplicating the effort.

Because of the integration and automation WebCT Vista provides, we also will be able to redeploy clerical staff. WebCT Vista allows the schools to manage some student records jointly with their individual enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and registrar systems. UA anticipates shifting at least 40 clerical staffers into different jobs because all their paper handling and data entry will be automated.

In addition, we also expect to increase our retention. What d'es online learning have to do with retaining students? We have found that online learning helps retention because it makes learning more convenient. It enables students to fit distance learning courses into their busy schedules and eliminates time-consuming travel. It also provides the benefit of learning to occur at a student's own pace.

Becoming a Shared Service Provider

The shared goal between the two universities is to become a content provider in the K-16 environment and to support distance learning efforts across a variety of learning modalities. This effort builds on both universities' traditional focuses on student success. Essential to that success is widespread integration of these collaborative activities into patterns and communities of practice.

The universities plan to develop and sustain this effort, helping it expand throughout Ohio and beyond. We typify a new business reality where competitors can use technology to collaborate for mutual benefit, according to Carol Vallone, WebCT president and CEO. "Even institutions that have long competed for the best students can find areas where collaboration makes sense economically and educationally."

So far, our cooperation has surpassed all expectations. That's probably because everyone - from the directors of learning technology through the university presidents - wanted to make the endeavor work, and WebCT Vista has given us the means to break through the barriers between them.

In addition, since higher education costs will never go down, the only way to provide a superior education in the coming years will be by pooling resources - it's too expensive to go it alone anymore. We at UA and KSU are providing a glimpse into the future. It's only a matter of time before other schools follow.

Reference

Boyer, E. 1987. College: The Undergraduate Experience in America (The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching). HarperCollins: New York.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.

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