The University of Alberta will use the high profile it has gained from a Sun Microsystems designation to promote best practices for e-learning production environments.

Markham, Ont.-based Sun Microsystems of Canada Monday anointed the university as a Sun Center of Excellence for E-Learning. While Sun has named Centers of Excellence for categories like digital libraries, wireless, Java development and high-performance computing, a Sun spokeswoman said this is the first educational institution in the world to be recognized with the designation for e-learning.

Michael Byrne, the U of A’s director of computing network services, said the school would use the credibility Sun’s announcement has given it to try and help other institutions.

“We’re trying to say what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “Not everybody can afford this kind of environment. Even we couldn’t, to begin with.”

Three years ago Byrne’s department started an initiative called project iDEal, which was focused on creating a distributed education platform for faculty and students. When it was launched, the iDEal project was run part-time with one person and $10,000 in capital, along with some provincial funding. Today, the university has three people dedicated to the project, and is looking at adding a fourth. Byrne said eventually the school could be running three Sun boxes to handle the 100,000 enrollments in course management programs from WebCT.

Bryne said Sun got matching donations from Sun for its hardware infrastructure and used them to put up its environment on a Sun platform running Solaris. “We had to have stability,” he said. “One of the things that happens with distributed learning is that people’s expectations change. The competition, to be quite frank, is only a click away. We have to be able to create a robust environment which will be available all of the time.”

The designation is an evolution of the school’s relationship with Sun, which began when the U of A established a Sun site to handle 17 million images in a digital repository. The school is now trying to transform that from a database repository structure into something that can be used generically by other subject areas.

While online distance education was still a young market in the mid- to late-1990s, Byrne said the school wanted to get involved quickly.

“The demand was there if you looked for it,” he said. “It really didn’t take much examination to recognize that supplementing face-to-face learning with online availability of material, ability to take tests, look at grades, submit comments, to consult — that that was a better all-round model.”

The U of A has not yet determined how it will document and make its best practices available to the broader education market, though Byrne said it would likely work with sister institutions like the University of Calgary as well as Sun and WebCT. His best off-the-cuff advice for colleagues was basically to work in the short term while being ready for the long-term.

“You’ve got to really be planning dynamically,” he said. “Multi-year plans certainly will work and they’re absolutely vital to organizations, as long as you realize there has to be a great deal of flexibility as far as the installation of technology is concerned.”

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