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Course Management: Ready for Prime Time

With leading technology behind it, a new generation of course management systems is poised to take the stage.
University Business, May 2005

Take this quiz:

A) Continually escalating in cost

B) Continual demand for upgrades and increased functionality

C) Lackluster faculty adoption

D) All of the above

If you chose D--all of the above--you're in good company.

There's little argument about the proposition that course management systems, or learning management systems, have become mandatory applications at institutions of higher education these days.

"These systems are ubiquitous, and they're mission critical," says Ron Yanosky research director in the higher education group at Gartner, Inc. "They used to be the icing on the cake, now they're the cake."

But when the industry began to transform about two years ago from a venture capital-supported, market-share grabbing model to one that demanded that the remaining players actually make money, many IHEs were hit with licensing bills four or five times their previous costs, he says. And as the number of courses and students demanding 24/7 access explodes, many schools are faced with upgrading to enterprise architectures that are considerably more expensive than the earlier iterations. Added to the debate is the recent availability of "free" open-source learning management systems, which promise eventual lower costs and increased innovation. Finally, there is the reality that even in the most advanced institutions only about 50 percent of faculty members are on board with the technology.

"We're on the threshold of a generational change in these systems," Yanosky says. "The question is what happens next."

What happens next is likely to be the convergence of digital libraries, course management systems, content management, and e-portfolios for students. In addition, many schools adept at hosting their own enterprise-class CMS have taken on the task of hosting for smaller schools. The number of schools opting to have their solutions hosted by vendors is also growing.

"About 35 to 40 percent have some sort of outsourcing for course management," says Shawn McCarthy, senior analyst for government and education IT at Eduventures. "That's a very slowly growing trend."

The bulk of that outsourcing is held, not surprisingly, by Blackboard and WebCT, who have a combined 80 percent of the learning management system market. Other significant players include eCollege, Jenzabar, Desire to Learn, and Sakai, the open-source project coming out of the University of Michigan, Stanford, Indiana University, and MIT.

It's clear that all of the vendors in the space have become used to answering concerns about escalating system costs. Matthew Pittinsky, CIO at Blackboard, points primarily to the incredible technological advances in the product in the last five years. Comparing an entry-level course management program with a modern full-featured learning management system is "kind of like PeopleSoft Financials being compared to QuickBooks," he says.

"The only way you can look at improving education is relative to something else, it ultimately is about what's the biggest bang for your buck," Pittinsky says.

University Business asked Blackboard, WebCT, Jenzabar, and Sakai to put forth their best-case implementation and we explored those cases from an ROI perspective. (Note: eCollege declined to participate because the company wasn't comfortable providing pricing information about its products.)

For many IHEs, the decision to upgrade from an initial course management system to an enterprise system with both increased functionality and the ability to accommodate a large number of users simultaneously is inevitable. The question is just when you'll reach that point.

For Marshall University the decision to move toward an enterprise architecture came several years ago as part of a 2001 strategic plan that had critical support from the president on down.

"As we did our new strategic plan we asked, 'What do we need to do in this decade to really bring the use of academic technology into the real world?'" says Allen R. Taylor, director of IT research, planning and standards in the office of the CIO.

The answer to that was a migration from WebCT's Campus Edition (CE) to its enterprise architecture product, Vista, aiming to realize several major benefits.

"The architecture really had a limitation as far as how complex the product could get, as well as how many users could be online at one time," says Taylor, adding that the Campus Edition is monolithic, running on one computer, whereas the Vista edition has redundancy.

Marshall, which began as one of WebCT's first clients in 1996, now has about 50 percent of its faculty actively using the application and about 75 percent of students with at least one course active in Vista, Taylor says. This translates to 79 totally online courses, 202 asynchronous courses, and 417 blended courses using the platform.

Upgrading to Vista cost the University about $1 million in new money last year, with another $1 million allocated for this year. Part of the burden of software and hardware costs was absorbed by the state of West Virginia, though, in an arrangement that now has Marshall hosting WebCT services for two smaller colleges on a cost recovery basis. Taylor calculates that at current utilization levels the school spent $8.60 per student per credit on the upgrade, not including help desk or faculty training expenses. WebCT estimates that ongoing licensing costs are $5 per student per course.

Marshall has also institutionalized its desire to have faculty use the application. The IHE created a policy that includes use of "distance learning" tools as part of faculty performance evaluation and lets faculty earn extra pay for teaching fully online courses on top of their regular course load.

Marshall believes this is critical to its success.

"An enterprise course management system certainly provides efficiencies with integration and standardization, but unless it provides the tools the faculty need and want, and unless the faculty have a policy framework and compensation plan with proper incentives, it may not work," he says.

On the horizon: Marshall is planning to further integrate its SunGard/SCT Banner 6.1 and Luminus Platform III in order to merge WebCT's gradebook application with the schools registrar system.

Taylor also predicts that the cost per student per credit will decrease to about $5, as the school strives for 100 percent community adoption by fall.

Developments at WebCT: The company has about 200 customers on its Vista platform, compared with 1,500 to 1,800 running the campus edition, says CTO Chris Vento. Sensitive to the high cost of migrating from CE to Vista, WebCT will start to release modules that will allow the gradual transition from the campus platform to enterprise architecture. So far two components of Vista--the learning content management subsystem and the community manager--have been modularized, with others on the way, Vento says.

When Fred Siff became vice president and CIO at University of Cincinnati about six years ago he formed a blue-ribbon faculty committee charged with making a recommendation on how the IHE should move from its homegrown course management system to a commercial product. After a year of looking at options, they said nothing should be done.

"I was really disappointed," Siff says. "But the second year they came back and said, `I think we should use Blackboard."

The school began piloting Blackboard in 2000, but limited adoption to 50 users. The waiting list grew, but the next year only another 50 were added, then another 100.

"We sort of built up demand and respect for it," Siff says.

Finally, in 2003-4, the system was expanded to 3,000 courses per quarter.

"Our goal was a penetration rate, if you picture the United Way thermometer we wanted it all the way to 100 percent," says Siff. "The faculty senate, which doesn't like anything forced on them, passed a resolution saying they encouraged all faculty to put all course materials on Blackboard two years ago."

Currently, faculty adoption stands at about 55 percent, up from 50 percent last year, and about 85 percent of students have at least one class on Blackboard.

The IT department is driving faculty adoption by enabling features that faculty members won't want to do without. One is an application that links student ID pictures with class rosters for faculty use. Another connects the Blackboard grade book to the registrar so faculty doesn't have to submit separate grade sheets. Siff is also giving out 15 faculty grants to create innovative uses of the system.

Student adoption is high, and is increasing thanks to use of the Blackboard portal system as the student portal available to 320 student organizations.

So what about the money? First, you have to understand Siff's take on that question:

"The money is inconsequential compared to the value and the importance because you're finally affecting the classroom," he says. Siff estimates 2004-05 costs at about $750,000, or $84 per course, or $4 per student per course, "for the gold-plated version" that includes redundant systems and help desk support.

Part of Cincinnati's revenue model includes hosting Blackboard for two smaller colleges, and a pilot program to offer Blackboard to some of the schools in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. With the hosting services, Cincinnati recovers its costs, plus a small percentage of extra revenue.

Coming up: UC will upgrade to Blackboard's version 6.3 in June. Siff plans to create an application that will hotlink an instructor's published syllabus to the course description in the course catalog so students can view exactly what the course requirements will be. UC is about six months away from reaching single sign-on capability.

New at Blackboard: Blackboard's hosting business is attracting large, sophisticated institutions, like University of Miami., and many consortia, says CIO Matthew Pittinsky.

Also, commerce products like BbOne, which supports cashless transactions utilizing a student debit account, are growing rapidly. Blackboard is also partnering with another company to offer its products in China.

No one these days is naive enough to believe that open-source software is free. But cutting out the licensing costs associated with commercial course management platforms can be pretty attractive for large schools when paired with the support it gives to the philosophical ideal of using something created by higher education for higher education.

"It's pretty clear there's a digital revolution going on in research, libraries, and teaching," says Yanosky at Gartner, Inc. "The question for higher ed is what pieces should we control and what pieces should we trust vendors to do?"

The University of Michigan, Indiana University, MIT, Stanford, with support from the uPortal Consortium, the Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI) and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, have opted to maintain control of mission-critical course management software and other applications. They hope to spread this religion with the advancement of The Sakai Project.

So far, they've attracted the attention of the higher ed community. More than 60 schools, including Harvard, Cornell and Columbia, along with the State University of New York System, and small players like Maricopa Community College (Ariz.), have committed $10k per year for three years to join the Sakai Educational Partners Program. Michigan is in full production with Sakai 1.0; Stanford, MIT, and Indiana are in pilot phases with plans for full rollout this fall. Because of the size of these institutions, Sakai's founders predict the community source project will be the third largest player in the market by the end of 2005. (Sakai is deemed community source, rather than open-source, because of the defined roles and expectations it has for members.)

Michigan has more than 25,000 students using the Sakai 1.0. The school will invest $2 million per year for at least two years in the venture, the total development cost is pegged at $6.8 million.

"People should not approach (Sakai) as just a way to save money on this particular piece of software. This is a strategic component of a university's software infrastructure and the digital development for learning and research," says Joseph Hardin, director of the collaborative technologies laboratory at Michigan.

That said, Hardin does believe Sakai will eventually eliminate the acquisition cost of enterprise LMS software, which can trim anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the total cost of ownership.

This tenet has yet to be validated.

"I don't at this point have a position on whether Sakai is cost effective because it hasn't yet delivered," says Yanosky.

For many, though, joining Sakai is a statement about commitment to innovation within higher education. Products of the project will include enterprise services-based portal, a complete course management system with assessment tools, a research support collaboration system, a workflow engine and a technology portability profile that will create a standard for writing future tools.

The other major benefit to Sakai, after reduced costs and support of innovation, will be the creation of a standard that will allow educators around the country to share the teaching tools they create.

"If somebody builds a cool tool, a useful tool, at Stanford, I want to be able to use that at Michigan next semester, not next year, not in two years, not never, which is what the current situation is," Hardin says.

New at Sakai: The 2.0 version of Sakai is scheduled for release in June. It will include gradebook functionality, module authoring capability, improved resources tools, and improved support for groups, roles, and security tool compliance to Sakai guidelines.

When Berry College decided to purchase Jenzabar's Learning Management System in 2002 the school had already tried two other course management tools with little success. The earliest iteration was a web course in a box product, after that came a WebCT implementation. Jenzabar was selected because it already provided the school's backend database and they wanted a portal and LMS that would easily integrate.

Now the school embraces Jenzabar's entire suite of products, including its portal, learning management system, and an entire suite of customer relationship management tools for faculty, students, and even applicants. All of the programs are integrated, and connected easily to Berry's back-end database.

"We feel like any time we can add something that's already integrated, we're better off," says Penny Evans-Plants, assistant manager of administration at Berry.

Having the integrated CRM tools allows faculty to easily import a student transcript when they're getting ready for an advising session. Applicants use the system, and are already comfortable with it if they choose to attend the school. Student adoption is near 100 percent because that's the only way they can view their course grades, and the only way they can prepare for academic advising sessions. Faculty adoption is at about 50 percent with 215 courses online last fall.

"We're very pleased with that number considering with WebCT we only had seven," Evans-Plants says.

Coming up: Berry will upgrade to Jenzabar's .Net release after the end of the spring semester, which they anticipate will improve ease of use and functionality. They'll also add Jenzabar's CRM staff application, which will allow for things like online requisitioning. Berry is hoping to attain a single-sign on system for e-mail and VikingWeb, their branded version of the Jenzabar portal, this summer. Also, the school is eager to add e-portfolio capabilities, particularly for their School of Education students, when Jenzabar makes these available.

New at Jenzabar: The company recently signed a marketing agreement with ePortaro, a provider of electronic portfolio systems. This product will be integrated into Jenzabar's total campus management solutions allowing students to create electronic portfolios.

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