Online Learning Meets Online Community

Colleges and universities are like any other service providers: They must have online capabilities if they want to compete.

The stakes in education are high. Approximately 2.1 million students were enrolled in online programs last fall, according to Eduventures Inc., a Boston-based research and consulting firm.

In addition, another 2 million people have taken at least one online course in the past year.

"If you’re going to be in the growth game in education, you’d better be involved online," says Wallace Pond, CEO of Colorado Technical University, part of Career Education Corp.

To better serve its online students, CEC built a system called the Virtual Campus that’s designed to raise distance education to a whole new level. The Virtual Campus provides students with much more than a platform for taking a class. It gives them an online community that mirrors a brick-and-mortar campus.

In recognition of its Virtual Campus initiative, CEC was chosen as the 2009 Computerworld Honors award recipient in the Education and Academia category.

"Most online students elsewhere just go into a Web site, but they don’t have the campus at their fingertips. Ours is so much more comprehensive. When you go into the Virtual Campus, you have access to an actual university," Pond says.

Gerry DiGiusto, a senior analyst at Eduventures, agrees, saying that most online programs have had "e-mail, chat rooms, material online, but nothing that extended too far beyond the pedestrian user’s experience."

"Virtual Campus has taken it beyond that. You can feel that sense of community. It’s a fuller experience," says DiGiusto.

CEC started work on the first iteration of the Virtual Campus in 2001, building it for its three online schools: American Intercontinental University, Colorado Technical University and the International Academy of Design & Technology.

"We didn’t want the technology to pass us by," says Marwan Alamat, vice president of IT at CEC and part of the original team charged with developing the online campus.

CIO Manoj Kulkarni says that from the start, CEC officials wanted to provide an "integrated learning experience" where students could access instructional material, connect with others and perform administrative tasks. CEC leaders realized that they’d have to build the Virtual Campus if they wanted to deliver that type of experience.

"When we started developing the concept of the Virtual Campus, there was nothing like it," says Alamat. "There were no products like it in the market. There were just pieces of it."

CEC’s developers built the Virtual Campus in traditional IT fashion: through trial and error. Alamat acknowledges that some pieces of the system were built multiple times before the team got them right.

The IT team did use some off-the-shelf technologies. They chose Adobe Acrobat Connect (formerly Macromedia Breeze) for the live interaction platform because it allowed for tight integration yet was easy to use. They also implemented antiplagiarism software called Turnitin from iParadigms LLC in Oakland, Calif.

The resulting Virtual Campus lets students attend classes, visit an online library, meet with instructors, tutors and other students, access financial aid and other administrative services, and participate in clubs. They can also take part in social activities through areas like the Virtual Commons and can even attend virtual graduation ceremonies. Instructors can interact with students and one another, and they can access course development systems.

"I have taught for many online institutions that did not even come close to the capabilities of the Virtual Campus," says Cindy Roberts, a math instructor and member of the curriculum design team at Colorado Technical University, via e-mail. "Most institutions have text-based-only discussion boards for communications with the students."

Alamat acknowledges that the developers faced several challenges. They had to recognize, for example, that not all instructors and students had Flash multimedia software or access to high-speed Internet connections (an issue that persists even today), so the Virtual Campus had to work for people using varying types of equipment.

The IT team also had to build a system that would work for users with different levels of technical expertise, Kulkarni says. Thus, the features and functions of the Virtual Campus had to be easy to use and seamless.

And the developers have had to keep up with new demands and add new features as technology has evolved. Among other things, they’ve built mobile versions of the Virtual Campus, added support for podcasting and built iPhone-friendly capabilities.

Even More to Come
"Our understanding of how to leverage technology to make it more exciting for students is growing," Pond says, explaining that CEC is looking at using virtual world and gaming technologies to deliver lessons. It is also moving ahead with a tool called MUSE (short for "my unique student experience"), which lets students choose the format in which their course materials are delivered (i.e., text or audio).

So far, more than 500,000 students have used the Virtual Campus, and CEC officials say the platform is important to student success. "It’s all about retaining students and helping them graduate, and technology plays a role in that," Kulkarni says.

Carlos Ramos, an employee service representative at Goodwill Southern California in Los Angeles, received a bachelor’s degree in human resources and is working on a master’s in operations management online through American Intercontinental University.

"They have everything you need to have a fruitful experience," he says. He adds that having the opportunity to network with other students through the Virtual Campus helped him stick with the program.

Pond says the Virtual Campus puts CEC in a strong competitive position, because more and more people are expected to go online for an education.

"The quality, the sophistication and the user-friendliness of the experience becomes extremely important to students," Pond says. "We are well positioned to meet that consumer need."


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