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Upgrade for paperless e-learning environment

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Posted: Wednesday, October 5, 2011 12:00 am

The future of e-learning on campus is going back to the Blackboard.

SacCT, the online learning management system for more than five years at Sacramento State, is upgrading to Blackboard's new Learn 9.1 within the next year, said Larry Gilbert, the university's chief information officer.

More than 2,200 courses using the current system will be reshaped by Blackboard Learn 9.1 (SacCT 9.1) which successfully passed installation and testing phases last summer, Gilbert said.

"Students and faculty are expressing a need for Web 2.0 features like interactivity and mobility," he said. "It's important that we upgrade our (system) to support those needs."

In 2005, Blackboard, Inc. acquired WebCT, which is the current platform for SacCT.

Bb Learn 9.1 is known for having a cleaner, easier-to-use interface with more features for handling instructional materials and wikis, Gilbert said.

Although dollar savings for students are hard to quantify, students should see a marked increase in both ease of use and features set under Bb 9.1, Gilbert said.

"Sac State incurs no additional software costs during the transitional time period," Gilbert said.

Staff and resources currently used to support SacCT will remain to develop and support Bb 9.1, he said. However, additional expenses may be likely for temporary support for the number of courses that will be transitioned by next spring.

Academic Technology and Creative Services focuses on faculty support while Information Resources and Technology concentrates on student support through its service desk.

Both departments are working with Blackboard to prepare training materials and support programs, Gilbert said.

Both IRT and Academic Affairs have committed to support costs from current funding, Gilbert said, while Blackboard has agreed to provide support for faculty transition of courses at no additional cost.

One of the main reasons for the transition to Bb 9.1 is its broader range of add-ons compared to WebCT, Gilbert said. Current add-ons include Respondus, a quiz generator, and its lock-down browser - used for secure online testing.

Sac State will consult with San Diego State and Fresno State, and has worked with Chico State about its own transition to Bb 9.1, Gilbert said.

"The biggest savings will come when we are on the same (system) used by 10 other CSU campuses," Gilbert said. "We expect that sharing of Bb 9.1 support resources will save the campus tens of thousands of dollars annually."

This semester, some course sections were selected across several disciplines to pilot the software program.

Multimedia communication professor Diego Bonilla said he thinks the transition is good as a whole for faculty, but is aware of research in computer-user interfaces that would justify why some colleagues do not want to change.

"Our classes have increased in size and some of my colleagues resist the change, mostly because they are busy," Bonilla said. "That is the largest issue that needs to be addressed."

Likewise, people complain about changes to Facebook or Microsoft Office products, he said, because adjusting to new technology is easy for the software designers, but the users are on a new learning curve.

"(E-learning) is not the one solution that fits all," Bonilla said. "Different courses need different levels of in-person meeting time."

Junior marketing major April Fenall said e-learning courses are most challenging when professors use SacCT in addition to their personal website. MySacState services like financial aid accounting, class schedules and registration create distractions, Fenall said.

"SacCT is only as good as the professor. If the professor doesn't put up links that complement the text book and lecture, I have been limited to just those," she said.

"Overall, I find (SacCT) useful for taking quizzes and finding all information for the class in one place."

Fenall said professors need to overcome the organizational and transparency issues of teaching online.

"The professors still print out a syllabus," she said. "I prefer when they have the student print out necessary information."

There has been a noticeable transition in students and e-learning environments over time, Bonilla said. Over the last four years, he has been using i-meet, a virtual class environment, for his hybrid courses.

"My students are more computer literate all the time," Bonilla said. "I think this affects positively their ability to migrate some of their learning activities online."

Bonilla teaches Introduction to Digital Media completely online and said it has been a huge success, and uses SacCT as a gateway to his classes.

"Parts of the class work like a TV game show, where groups split up, vote among themselves who has the best homework and at the end we review those to find the best one from the group," Bonilla said. "This creates engagement in the course."

Fenall said she would succeed in a strictly online class, but "not in fully understanding material."

She said the tone and visual aesthetics are lost in translation in a more technologically oriented class due to an absence of personality, vocals, facial expressions and gestures students respond and adapt to when in-person with the professor.

"I would feel as though I were deaf, when I'm not," Fenall said. "If students don't understand a concept, the professor knows by show of hands, facial expressions and sounds."

For the last two years, Bonilla has taught online synchronously, or in real time, he said.

"The students and I see each other simultaneously with synchronized cameras. My home (computer) screen is shared with all in attendance," he said.

More content is delivered online than with traditional courses, he said, because of the subjects he teaches: multimedia, computer-mediated and new media communication. The latter class researches what happens to all of communication studies when the Internet is injected into them.

Bonilla said the Internet has brought three changes to the educational environment - collaboration, extraordinary access to knowledge and "tele-presence," or the prevalence of audiovisual communications with people in remote locations.

He said tele-presence will bring a revolutionary change in education.

"This change will come when we break the traditional educational molds that guide our universities," Bonilla said.

Poul Larsen can be reached at news@statehornet.com

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