A New Era for e-Learning

by Eva Wong (LIB)
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In October, with the endorsement of the Committee on Information Services and Technology (CIST), our Chief Information Officer, Dr J T Yu announced the adoption of the Blackboard Academic Suite as the e-learning platform of the University. As this is an important decision of the University and the task of implementation has already started, Network Computing talked to Dr Yu to find out more about the background to the decision, the capabilities of the software suite and the plan for its release for general use in the University.

"The Blackboard Academic Suite we have adopted is version 6 of the product, consisting of a learning management system (LMS), a portal system and a content management system (CMS)", explained Dr Yu. "Although some members of the University are familiar with Blackboard 5, this new version with the portal and CMS is based on a new design with different systems architecture, hence is significantly dissimilar from previous versions of the product", he added. Apart from Blackboard 5, many academic colleagues use the other e-learning product, WebCT. As the decision of the CIST on the adoption of a single e-learning platform for the University was aimed to empower students to manage their own learning and relieve course administration burden on teachers, a thorough, methodical and highly participative evaluation process was carried out over a six months period before the final decision on Blackboard 6 was made.

To meet the changing educational landscape and in keeping with the university mission and the UGC role statement coupled with TLQPR feedback, the deployment of a single e-learning platform in the University is a part of a total integration project that aims at bringing together and consolidating the various resources and constituents to support the one central University mission - student learning. "Support for e-learning is also the focus of our strategic IT direction for the next few years and a central component of the Information Services Strategic Plan currently being formulated", Dr Yu emphasised. Thus a vision-driven and pedagogically oriented approach has been adopted to guide the implementation of Blackboard 6. The new platform will be exploited for the delivery of a wide range of learning resources that can be shared across courses, encouraging more active participation in learning by students, enabling a wider range of assessment activities and providing more timely feedback to students, and realizing a more evidence-driven approach to student progress through their programmes.

As for the actual implementation, a development environment has been set up, and training and pilot courses deployment has already commenced using this environment by a multi-unit support team with key members drawn from CSC, CTL, EDO, ESU, IS and LIB. Working with colleagues from ARRO, ELC, CCIV, CCCU, SDS and SGS, proof of concepts using some of these pilot courses will take place in the next semester. Migration from the current Blackboard 5 and conversion of WebCT courses will also start in the new year. For the current academic year, Bb5 and WebCT courses are still running in parallel. It is anticipated that full scale deployment of the Bb6 components will take place in September 2005 at the start of the new academic year, at which time, the Bb6 portal will also replace the current e-Portal based on Campus Pipeline. The CMS will provide some new capabilities allowing students to have access and control over their own content based on the portfolio concept. The e-learning platform is thus not just for instructors but also for students to manage their own materials, and from the students' point of view, it will be the same product for all courses, amplifying the notion of a seamless learning environment. Furthermore, with web-based delivery crossing time zones and physical boundaries, the e-learning platform also offers great potential for our expansion in distance learning as well as maintaining large scale alumni liaison.

Dr Yu re-iterated that this is a mission critical application affecting every student, thus participation and support from all colleagues is of paramount importance for the success of this significant project of the University.