The University Record, November 6, 2000

CourseTools technology brings students, faculty closer

By Jay Jackson
School of Information

One of the lessons learned in designing a software learning tool for students and faculty is that nearly everyone has suggestions for improvements.

Far be it for the developers to complain about that.

The team behind the Web-based UM.CourseTools knows that the best way to create software is to include as many faculty and students in the design and development process as possible.

“UM.CourseTools is an online approach to solving an age-old question,” says Joseph Hardin, who in his capacity as deputy director of the U-M Media Union oversees the UM.CourseTools development team. “That is, how do you distribute course information to tens of thousands of students?”

UM.CourseTools is one of several projects under development in the Learning Collaboratory, a multidisciplinary and inter-campus initiative. Enhanced development efforts are in part supported through the Ameritech Learning Initiative, a $1.5 million, five-year grant to the U-M. The Office of Instructional Technology coordinates the development, training and support structures that make UM.CourseTools widely available.

UM.CourseTools offers two major advantages for the University community:

  • It allows faculty to structure their course and manage course material delivery through announcements, calendars, assignments, posted resources and participant profiles. Faculty have an efficient and effective way to communicate expectations and requirements to students on an ongoing basis, and can “meet” with students online rather than in person, if necessary.

  • It provides faculty a mechanism to extend learning beyond the walls of the classroom through the collaborative tools of electronic assignment submission and “threaded” discussions. These online discussions can include important classroom topics, student group and project work, and peer reviews.

    “We make it possible for professors and students to transfer knowledge from anywhere, at any time,” Hardin adds.

    Typically, UM.CourseTools is used this way: a faculty member develops a Web site using the software and provides a course description that anyone, anywhere can view. Students enrolled in the course review the syllabus and class assignments, participate in online discussions and get feedback from the faculty member.

    “The impetus for the UM.CourseTools project came in 1997 when campus leaders figured there had to be a better way to reach the students in professional programs who did not live on campus,” says Louis E. King, assistant director of the Media Union. “The Office of Instructional Technology, the Business School and the School of Nursing set out to find a solution.”

    The first version of UM.CourseTools successfully emerged two years later. In 1999, with backing from the Office of the Provost, developers expanded UM.CourseTools for campuswide use.

    Developers rolled out UM.CourseTools in stages, starting with small groups and measuring reaction. Changes were made based on user experiences, and a formal structure was created for staff to conduct “usability” tests with additional students and faculty. This fall, more than 17,000 students on the Ann Arbor campus have access to UM.CourseTools.

    The software also is used in faculty research. The Space Physics and Aeronomy Research Collaboratory uses UM.WorkTools, a variation of UM.CourseTools, for sharing information with scientists around the world. Sherrie Kossoudji, associate professor of social work, who recently was cited with a ComputerWorld Smithsonian Award for her project on the “New Interactive Learning Experiences” initiative, uses UM.CourseTools to maintain an Internet-based classroom community.

    Some might wonder why U-M didn’t simply buy a large-scale commercial software product. “The purpose of the Learning Collaboratory is to create products and services with the help of students and faculty, thereby providing an educational and research experience,” Hardin says. “Undergraduate and graduate students work together with staff and faculty as designers, collaborators and critics to make UM.CourseTools meet specific campus needs. This becomes part of the students’ educational experience. In the spirit of the Learning Collaboratory, UM.CourseTools is not considered ‘completed,’ and will continue to undergo further evaluations and enhancements.”

    An aim of the Learning Collaboratory is to create products that can be used outside the U-M. The UM.CourseTools software has the potential for use at other colleges and universities and even in K–12 systems. Several state and regional educational systems are considering licensing UM.CourseTools to give K–12 schools a common “look and feel” to course materials.