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Distance education comes home: no longer just for distance ed, new technologies are changing the most traditional college campuses. (Technology).

Everything about Hamilton College in Clinton, NY says, "Come live here." This top liberal arts, residential college seems the antithesis of distance education. From its rural hillside campus to the school's description of itself as a "vibrant community" with small classes, everything at Hamilton seems to center on face-to-face contact between an exceptional faculty and student body. In fact, students can't take any Hamilton courses entirely online. So how is it that an online learning system (Hamilton uses Blackboard; has become one of the mainstays of the college's curriculum? Surprisingly, about two-thirds of the courses at Hamilton now make use of the course management system. Yet, people at Hamilton don't see a contradiction.

Aren't tools such as those from WebCT ( and Blackboard aimed at delivering an education to students who can't come to the campus?

"We've never thought of it that way," says David Smallen, Hamilton's VF for Information Technology. "I've always believed that at a place Like Hamilton, which has a virtually ideal setting for excellent teaching and learning, faculty will use technology only in ways they feel will further enhance the already good setting." Accordingly, the university faculty use the course management system to distribute materials, provide students with access to information in many formats, and facilitate discussions and collaboration outside of class. "The technology," says Smallen, "facilitates Hamilton's core values by extending the classroom beyond the meeting times, increasing time on task for students, and helping them be better prepared to use the in-class time for substantive discussions."

Students who chose Hamilton at least partly for its intimacy have readily embraced the online dimension of their courses. Almost every student has contact with the online learning system in at least one course, and faculty regularly approach the tech support staff for help using the online system. "My students have asked me to use it in my courses" is the reason most often given for the support request.


But a course management system can also have an important impact on the role of a campus library, as well as on classroom practices--even when students are within easy walking distance of the library building. As chair and executive director of the library at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Etheldra Templeton works closely with the faculty in assembling online resources for the medical students. Since PCOM adopted e-learning software (the college also uses software from Blackboard), says Templeton, "we in the library can far more successfully integrate our resources into the curriculum." For required or recommended readings, PCOM creates links to licensed electronic resources including individual articles, or to scanned electronic reserves. "We also greatly expand available resources by identifying and linking to relevant, high-quality Web sites. You can make the entire Web your library, in terms of what you can put in your course," the library director points out. For example, one cardiology course at the Philadelphia medical school directs students to a site where they can listen to actual recordings of heart sounds.

Templeton concludes that students now make fuller use of what the library has assembled: "The library has an extensive Web site, but students were largely unaware of our resources. When those resources are built into the individual course sites, the students see their relevance and use them." Incorporating a range of materials from on and off campus into a uniform system that extends across many courses has made it easier for faculty and students to manage it all.

Course management software can sometimes have unexpected uses, and that, too, was the case at PCOM. Students in the Doctor of Osteopathy program take intensive coursework on campus for two years, but in the last two years of the program they are assigned to clinical rotations at hospitals and medical centers throughout Pennsylvania. Although no one thought of this before as "distance education," the medical school is finding that course management software can help tie the students back to the campus while they are on rotation. Campus-based faculty can give assignments, discuss cases, and conduct online discussions, all of which aid in making the different educational settings and experiences of the third- and fourth-year students more comparable.

Still, in a fairly traditional setting such as that at PCOM, software is not replacing classrooms, buildings, or staff--and that means it is an added expense. PCOM's executive VP, Samuel Steinberg, admits, "Yes, it is going to be an expense, not a savings. That's why it is important to go to the customers first--the faculty and the students--and ask how they will use it." Steinberg recommends setting up a faculty-student committee before adopting a course management system, to make sure that it will be put to good use.


The cost of course management software has been going up, as the vendors add features and make the products robust enough to handle extensive curricula. To help schools control their costs, several of the vendors offer modules separately. This can be especially helpful in cases where the software is being used as a supplement to classroom-based courses, rather than as a comprehensive, free-standing, instruction delivery system. Schools can select the services they need, picking and choosing among modules that provide authoring tools, e-commerce and transaction handling, a portal, or other services that augment the basic learning functions.

There are even lower-cost solutions that may suffice for an individual course or two, when faculty are at the initial stage of experimenting with e-learning enhancements to their teaching. At one institution that has not adopted a campuswide course management system, a faculty member we know makes use of CommunityZero (, a Web-based community-building tool. Ramius provides this service free, at least until the usage reaches a certain quota. CommunityZero is not aimed specifically at teaching, but provides just the kinds of facilities that many faculty want to add to their courses: threaded discussions, real-time chat, announcements, and a place to exchange documents. Another free site-building service aimed specifically at teaching is provided by Yahoo!Education (


Choosing among the available software packages can be daunting, however, because the e-learning field has exploded in recent months. UB's 2002 Guide to e-Learning Vendors (April 2002) lists over 100 vendors that offer such software and services. And it does seem that virtually any software that can be used for distance learning can also be adapted to supplement classroom courses. But if you are looking for a course management system to use in a traditional classroom setting, here are some important things to consider:

Ease of use. In an educational program that is designed to be delivered exclusively online, you can and should expect the instructors to come up to speed on the necessary technology. That comes with the territory. On a traditional campus, however, you want to capture the interest of a different audience, which includes faculty for whom technology is not an end in itself. So keep the hurdles to a minimum. Faculty should not have to learn HTML or programming languages (unless they want to). What's more, the software's features should be obvious to first-time visitors, to keep the need for training students to a minimum. Remember that it is the faculty who will end up providing much of the front-line support. It is true that many institutions are finding that their incoming students are "digital natives," but if your software looks inscrutable to many students and faculty, you will be back in the business of explaining how to do basic things.

Automatic setup. Few faculty members want to be typing in the names of students from their class rolls just to grant students access to the course site, and then maintaining the roster as students add and drop. Membership in the course learning environment should follow automatically, upon signing up for the class. On a traditional campus, the enrollment is often maintained in a separate administrative software system. If your hope is that the course management software will become a staple of your entire curriculum, choose one that integrates with your administrative package, or where the services are readily available to build the necessary links.

Online conversations. When face-to-face contact is not possible, features like live chat rooms and instant messaging are a must. On the other hand, if your campus provides easy and plentiful ways for students to meet and collaborate in person, you might skip these features in your e-learning software. Threaded discussion lists are another matter. It turns out that a whole new species of "class discussion" has sprung up because of the new technologies. The threaded discussion combines the genes of both of its parents. From the familiar discussion around a seminar table, threaded discussions inherit real give-and-take of ideas with the excitement of spontaneity and immediate feedback. But in other ways, the threaded discussion resembles its other parent, the written theme or paper. Students write down their short contributions; have a chance to ponder and edit what they are going to say before submitting; and can review the log of the entire discussion thus far, to evaluate arguments and absorb what has already been written. If you decide in the end that your campus can really benefit from real-time interaction, vendors such as Centra Software ( can provide the tools to do it with full audio, even video.

Quizzes and tests. For certain types of content, students appreciate the chance to check on their understanding and progress before taking the "real" tests, back in the live classroom. You may want a system that makes it easy for faculty to author this kind of checkpoint, then facilitate giving automatic feedback to the students.

Portal. Do you need a portal? That probably depends at least in part on what you think a portal is, and what purpose it will serve. A portal is a central focal point for many different kinds of information, at least some of which are personalized to the individual visitor--in this case, a student. Many no-nonsense faculty and administrators find it hard to see the value of portals that flash the weather and sports scores from a student's hometown, much less ones that tailor ads to the student. But if your campus wants to make a decisive effort at establishing a single point of contact with the student that transcends artificial tines such as "academics" and "student life," the portal may be the powerful tool you are looking for.


The torrent of e-learning software we've seen in recent years coincided with the sharp rise of interest in network-based distance learning. But a quieter revolution has been taking place alongside the distance learning phenomenon: the thirst for such tools on campus. In fact, that thirst may have been building up for some time, just waiting for the right technology to come along. Hamilton College received a grant in the late 1980s to develop for itself the kind of software that is readily available today. But, back then, the toots were too hard to use, and the network was not yet ubiquitous.

The conditions, however, are finally right. The traditional classroom served its purpose for a long time. But it seems to have found a powerful companion in e-learning software. And that power has nothing to do with how far away students live from the center of the campus.

John Savarese is a consulting principal with Edutech International (
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Author:Savarese, John
Publication:University Business
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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