Collaborative tech project wins national award

Western Carolina University was recently honored with one of two of the Association for Continuing Higher Education’s Creative Technology Awards for 2012 for a project titled “Online Collaborative Learning Beyond Course Registration.”

Laura Cruz, director of the Coulter Faculty Commons for Excellence in Teaching, said faculty began two years ago to increasingly request the ability to bring more people into the secure, online Blackboard environment created for classes. Faculty also wanted to be able to have students work together outside of a traditional course structure or time frame.  Some wanted to be able to invite other faculty, staff, students and community members to participate in the discussions and collaborations within the students’ secure online learning community.

“Faculty wanted to be able to not just add one person for one specific reason but develop a structured, programmatic way to bring people in,” said Cruz. “We started to see from these scattered requests some commonalities that we could build into a technical infrastructure.”

In response, Coulter Faculty Commons partnered with the Division of Information Technology and the Division of Educational Outreach to find a solution. Working together, they developed online communities within Blackboard called “Student Community Centers” and online “Organizations.” Both went live in 2011 and utilized Blackboard technology as well as Banner, an administrative software that maintains records about people connected to WCU.

“Student Community Centers are similar to an online course,” said Jason Ottie, project manager for the Coulter Faculty Commons. “They use a Blackboard course shell as a meeting area and have access to tools such as discussion boards and Wikis. Participants can share documents and use tools within Blackboard to communicate and collaborate without participation being registered to a specific course.”

Within a year, more than 40 online Student Community Centers with more than 6,000 participants have been created. They include the student entrepreneurship community, which is a place for students in the online master’s degree program in entrepreneurship to collaborate with peers and entrepreneurs around the world.

“Now, entrepreneurship students across a cohort can collaborate online even if they are not enrolled in the exact same course during the exact same semester,” said Ottie.

Bill Richmond, associate professor of entrepreneurship, said the Student Community Center for their program has made it possible to create a long-term repository of documents and resources for all students in the cohort.

“We can include lessons learned that apply to all courses or are tied to using the technology rather than being part of a class,” said Richmond. “It gives the students a ‘place’ to communicate that is not course-specific. This has helped the students build community. For a distance program, this is critical.”

Richmond said they also are starting to use cross-cohort capabilities that are enabling first- and second-year students to network and enjoy mentoring and advising relationships.

Bill Miller, an online student in the master’s degree program, said he has particularly appreciated the ability to use the discussion boards and GoToMeeting tool to facilitate “getting together” online in the way students might on campus.

For Prince John Gaither-Eli, a student in the master’s degree program of entrepreneurship, the program’s online Student Community Center enables him and other students to revisit what they have learned.

“Education is cumulative, and the better part of education is reflection, which you cannot do if the materials are not there anymore,” said Gaither-Eli, who will be opening his company, Sovereign Insurance & Asset Management, this winter. “The Student Community Center also has allowed us as a department to work collaboratively and has enhanced our sense of community.”

Meanwhile, Organizations function similarly to Student Community Centers but each has a leader who can enroll and unenroll members as needed. There are more than 3,000 participants in the 64 Organizations currently created in Blackboard.

“We also have setups for people who do not have an employee or student account, such as a community member, so he or she can be involved,” said Ottie.

Jessica Shirley, director of student services for the School of Nursing, said she and many nursing faculty use the online Organizations extensively. For instance, Shirley and faculty can post materials, announcements such as job postings or student organization event details.

“The tool allows all students in our various nursing programs, online and residential, to connect easily with the faculty, staff and fellow students, regardless of if they are an incoming student or about to graduate,” said Shirley. “This has proven to be such a useful resource that we now have an organization for each undergraduate nursing program and one organization for all graduate nursing programs. We call the organizations ‘Homepage’ or ‘Homeplace’ to emphasize their purpose, which is to, among other things, serve as a common space for connecting, exchanging ideas and information, and fostering a sense of community.”

Cruz said the team that partnered to develop solutions worked very creatively and collaboratively, and she characterized Ottie’s contribution on the technical side as “brilliant.” “I say brilliant because we don’t host Blackboard, which is used by many institutions,” said Cruz. “To come up with a technical solution was very creative, and there were legal and administrative obstacles that had to be overcome. He also was creative in terms of establishing a smooth, automated system.”

Craig Fowler, chief information officer at WCU, said the initiative fits right in with WCU’s goals of having experiences that enrich the learning process.

“Jason and the Coulter Faculty Commons listen closely to what faculty and programs conceptually desire to achieve and then research how to marry continually changing technology in an innovative way to help enable those desires,” said Fowler.

Regis Gilman, interim dean of the Division of Educational Outreach, said the initiative extends the resources of the university to the community of lifelong learners “outside the institution,” and noted that 90 percent of the external users in the online Student Community Centers are participants in WCU Continuing Education programs.

Susan Fouts, director of continuing education, said the new online collaborative learning environments enable WCU to offer more “on-demand” type of high-quality learning experiences especially useful to working professionals faced with an immediate need for a particular skill or knowledge.

“Western Carolina University is able to be ‘the’ resource with this type of student learning community for professionals,” said Fouts. “This process is very customer-friendly for the participant because continuing education students can be taking a course within an hour of deciding they need the course.”

Mary S. Bonhomme, chair of the association’s awards committee, spoke highly of WCU’s project. “The Association for Continuing Higher Education’s awards committee found WCU’s program to be innovative, obviously successful, and reproducible – all key characteristics of an award-winning program,” said Bonhomme, who is a professor at the Florida Institute of Technology. “As online learning continues to generate attention, it is important for institutions to allow students to explore whether or not online learning/elearning is for them. WCU’s program allows that to happen.”

To find out more information about Blackboard Organizations and Student Centers, login to Blackboard and click the “Instructor Resources” tab, then “Service Requests” and then the button for “Blackboard Organizations.”