E-learning at Purdue University, one of the Untied States's top-ranked universities, started small. In 1998, a Purdue faculty member returned from a conference with a beta version of e-learning software from a company called WebCT (www.webct.com). The faculty member brought the CD to the Multimedia Instructional Development Center and said, “We have to try this.” That single act was the beginning of Purdue’s institution-wide e-learning program, which is embraced by more than 1200 faculty members, spanning more than 1700 courses, and serving more than 33,800 students.
Currently, the majority of courses offered at Purdue contain an online component, making e-learning an expected and welcome part of the learning experience. "E-learning promotes connections between faculty and students, and it extends the learning environment beyond the classroom," says Jim Bottum, vice president for Information Technology at Purdue, which is responsible for planning and coordinating the central computing and telecommunications systems on the West Lafayette campus.
Students and faculty have responded positively to the role that e-learning has come to play at Purdue. Communication tools such as discussion boards, email, chat, whiteboard, and student presentation capabilities have helped connect students to instructors and each other. Students have a high comfort level with technology and appreciate having convenient online access to course information, including their grades, of course. According to Bottom, "E-learning has a major impact on our entire academic community."
Managing rapid growth
E-learning has quickly gained wide acceptance at Purdue. In 2000, the university standardized on WebCT Campus Edition as its course management system. By Spring 2001, Purdue offered 790 courses with an online component, more than 660 faculty members had adopted e-learning, and approximately 15,000 students were supported by an e-learning environment. By Spring 2002, those numbers increased to some 1200 courses, 870 faculty, and 25,000 students. Indeed, Purdue experienced a 40 percent increase in the number of unique students using the e-learning environment in just a single year. With such rapid and widespread growth, Purdue needed a strategy, technology infrastructure, and support team in place to facilitate the expansion of their e-learning program.
As the number of faculty and students involved in e-learning grew significantly, so did the need for integration with existing campus infrastructure. Using WebCT’s IMS Enterprise APIs, Purdue was able to integrate its course management system with an homegrown student information system, resulting in improved efficiency for faculty and enhanced access to information and services for students. Courses in WebCT are automatically populated with data from Purdue’s student information system, simplifying the course development process for instructors. Likewise, faculty are able to access electronic versions of the class roster, which helps them manage enrollment. Having access to student data also gives instructors the ability to identify students that aren’t participating in class, haven’t completed quizzes, or have tried to drop a course. Therefore, professors can be more proactive in offering students help.
“Integration has eliminated the need for us to manage multiple user IDs and passwords, has provided our students with the convenience of single sign-on, and has reduced the administrative burden on our faculty by automating the enrollment of students in WebCT courses and the transfer of grades back to our student information system,” says John Campbell, associate vice president for instructional computing at Purdue.
Providing the necessary support structure and resources for faculty has been another important factor in sustaining rapid growth of e-learning at Purdue. The Instructional Computing Services (ICS) group, a division of Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), offers training workshops throughout the academic year to address the needs of faculty across the spectrum—from novice to advanced online course developers.
A “WebCT Basics” course provides faculty, staff, and graduate students with an introduction to the fundamentals needed to deliver online materials using WebCT, such as how to load a syllabus online use the course calendar and mail tools. Purdue also offers a workshop called “Build Your Own Course” designed to help instructors build actual WebCT courses. As faculty and staff progress to leverage the full capacity of the online learning environment, Purdue offers workshops on more advanced topics, such as how to create structured content modules or how to use WebCT-specific functions such as the selective release feature that distributes materials based on predefined time or performance parameters.
In addition to offering training workshops, ITaP’s Multimedia Instructional Development Center (MIDC), a division of the ICS group, provides assistance to faculty in developing their online courses. MIDC strives to understand faculty needs and to guide them in developing courses that match individual pedagogical styles, course goals, and student learning preferences.
Going the extra mile
Purdue has established a reputation as not only a leader but as an innovator in e-learning. In addition to sustaining rapid growth and creating efficiencies through integration, the university has built numerous extensions to customize the e-learning environment for the diverse needs of its faculty. In fact, Purdue began using homegrown versions of such features as drag-and-drop content acquisition and support for the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) prior to its adoption of WebCT’s e-learning systems. “With a standard course management system, we don’t have to build everything from scratch. Using WebCT as a foundation, we have the flexibility to focus our energy and resources on building innovative product extensions that can add significant value to our faculty,” asserts Campbell.
Notable development efforts at Purdue include extensions to WebCT’s assessment tool and a modification that allows scanned grades to be automatically transferred into WebCT’s system for tracking tests scores and grades. For example, in response to Spanish language faculty members who were looking for ways to enhance their testing processes, Purdue built an extension to the WebCT that allows instructors to include customized question types, such as jumbled sentences, in their online quizzes and self-tests. Using the jumbled sentence question type, students have the ability to rearrange jumbled words to form cohesive sentences as a practice test activity to develop their Spanish language skills. The wide popularity of online assessments is evidenced by the fact that all of Purdue’s introductory Spanish courses contain an online component.
In another example, the addition of customized assessment extensions have reduced the time and effort required to develop and evaluate practice tests for large survey courses. At the same time, students have a convenient way of building their skills and preparing for exams. Likewise, the School of Consumer and Family Sciences at Purdue asked the ITaP group to develop a more efficient way to transfer grades from standardized tests. Previously, faculty would scan the tests and manually post grades on office doors. Leveraging the online learning environment, Purdue created a product modification that allowed scanned grades to automatically transfer to an online gradebook. By doing so, scores were made available to students immediately in a secure manner, in accordance with the Family Education Rights to Privacy Act (FERPA). The integration of scanned tests has proven to be a significant time-saver for faculty, particularly in large courses. For instance, in the first half of the Fall 2002 semester, more than 250,000 scores were automatically and added to WebCT tracking system using the new utility.
Forging ahead to enterprise e-learning
With e-learning continuing to expand at a rapid pace, Purdue began looking for new ways to ensure the scalability, efficiency, and extensibility of its e-learning environment. In October 2002, Purdue became one of the early users of WebCT Vista, an academic enterprise system. Purdue’s single installation of WebCT Vista will support 45,000 students and encompass four campuses: West Lafayette, North Central, Fort Wayne, and Calumet. And adopting it is the first large-scale joint effort undertaken by those four campuses.
WebCT Vistaoffers Purdue the unique ability to support all four campuses in a single installation, while allowing each individual campus to maintain local academic control of the system, preserve its unique branding, and efficiently administer courses.
Under this model, Purdue will be able to develop a collaborative framework among the four campuses to share IT, training, and support resources. Purdue also will have the ability to share content and course templates across its multiple campuses, making it possible to leverage content on an institution-wide scale. Recognizing the importance of making content easily accessible to students, Purdue is looking at integrating its e-learning system with its library system to provide students with convenient access to e-reserves.
Purdue also has plans to use the software development toolkit, which allows faculty to develop specialized application extensions that interface with WebCT Vista’s core services and tools. In addition, another planned project includes extending the assessment tool to allow customized question types and integrating the gradebook with test scanning capabilities. “The open architecture of WebCT Vista doesn’t inhibit anyone from innovation—whether it’s another supplier or another institution,” says Campbell.
In less than four years, e-learning at Purdue has grown from an idea suggested by a single faculty member to an institution-wide e-learning initiative that’s closely aligned with the university’s strategic and information technology plans. Moving forward, Purdue will continue to pursue and implement innovative technologies that improve operational efficiency and enhance the educational experience for its faculty and students.
To learn more about Purdue’s e-learning program, visit www.purdue.edu/itap.