University may replace WebCT

After 10 years using WebCT as their primary online learning tool, Portland State students and faculty are playing a large role in determining what will replace the outdated system. Pilot courses in WebCT’s newest version (WebCT 6.0) and Samla, an open source system, have been underway since fall term, providing feedback which will contribute to the decision making process.

With over 22,000 students utilizing online learning, the transition will take over a year to complete once a choice is made. Five thousand students participated in the Samla pilot over winter term, and this term a WebCT 6.0 pilot will include six to seven courses.

Most important in this decision, said Maggie McVay Lynch, manager of distributed education, is the ease of use for both faculty and students. “No matter how much we may like it from a technical perspective, if it is really difficult to use then it just won’t work and it will be pretty useless to everybody. That’s really the number one thing.”

Since Samla utilizes an open code, the IT staff on campus can easily make structural changes, resulting in immediate changes to elements that do not work. With close to 100 universities working with the Sakai program that Samla is based upon, all who participate can take advantage of any alterations or updates made to the code by other institutions.

“It’s still very much in the beginning stages, and there are some rough places, but because its open source, we can report the changes that need to be made,” said Karen Carr, an associate professor in the Department of History. Carr tried Samla over winter term in her Greek History class and will be using it again this term.

“Because WebCT is proprietary, if there is an element you don’t like, you just have to live with it,” Carr added.

The primary improvement in the new WebCT 6.0 currently being considered is that it is built upon a database, unlike its predecessor. The old version has proven to be problematic when maintaining and backing up records, and performs inconsistently when corrupted.

Costs for each system vary, but ultimately would end up being roughly the same after five years. The new WebCT has annual licensing and data base fees, whereas SAMLA would hire a dedicated programmer to work between half and full-time on programming and development.

“If this was a slam dunk answer, we wouldn’t spend all this time on it,” said Mark Gregory, executive director of information technology. “Eventually the open source software will be as good or better than WebCT, and we know that we will have more control because we can do the development ourselves.”

Some professors are finding that the new Samla tool does not easily translate to meet the needs of their class. “Samla has potential, but lacks features I rely heavily upon in WebCT, such as notifications, exam functionality, grade book automation, etc. So my view is that we will need to either wait a while for Samla to mature, or be prepared to invest significantly in its development locally,” said Wayne Wakeland, associate professor of systems science who tried out Samla last term and is testing out WebCT 6.0 this term.

Others, such as Wende Morgaine, prefer its simple process. “For me, uploading an assignment for my students using WebCT was a multi-step process that wasn’t intuitive. When I use Samla, I just have to click one or two buttons. I could figure out SAMLA with no training at all, so I prefer it.” Morgaine is the faculty team leader for the PSU Eportfolio Expansion, and an instructor for the University Studies Program who has taught eight classes using Samla.

Student Katie Mahoney, who took a Samla course during winter term, had a frustrating experience. “It was very hard to navigate the system and was not user friendly – until the university figures out how to use the program and can provide information about how it is used to the students, it should not be used.”

“It added a lot of issues for many of my classmates – and there was often a negative buzz about Samla during the class time – maybe they should have a better understanding of the programs they are providing before letting us do the leg work and possibly have our sanity suffer because of the frustration,” Mahoney added.

Feedback will be compiled through spring term, with a likely decision this summer. The Advisory Committee of Academics and Information Technology (ACAIT) will make a recommendation to Mark Gregory, executive director of information technology, which he will then take to the provost and vice president for a final choice.

WebCT no longer supports its version that PSU is currently using, which necessitates a definitive plan of action to be implemented by July of 2007.

“We can’t make everyone happy during this transition phase. We’re just hoping to hear from the most people that we can during the decision making process. The more people we hear from, the better chance we have of making the right decision,” Gregory said.