The University of Toronto is hoping to improve the student experience through a learning management system, increased portal functionality and an revamped Web site.

The U of T started the process of looking for a new learning management system, called Blackboard, about two years ago and has been implementing the system since last January.

“It’s probably the most important way of communicating with students and providing a consistent interface to learning materials,” said Marden Paul, U of T’s executive director of strategic computing. “The more difficult part of it is putting this out across the entire university, given there are lots of existing systems and that’s what we wanted to consolidate. It could be something as simple as providing a class list or something as sophisticated where all kinds of learning modules are developed and everything in between.”

To help the university decide where it should be IT-wise in the future, it surveys students and faculty and relies as well on steering committees that focus on that specific issue, he said. The U of T also turns to Educause, another  U.S.-based non-profit aimed to further IT in education.

Videoconferencing, which has not yet been widely used on a global scale at the U of T, is likely to come into its own over the next few years – the university has a group focusing on video-mediated communication to assess all the resources on campus necessary to expand videoconferencing’s availability and the best way to deploy them, said Paul.

“That would include things like quality of service and facilities that are available to everyone, because we don’t want to create hundreds and hundreds of nodes. We should be (deploying) really good ones and making them accessible to lots of people with good service.”

Paul, however, said he thinks it is a stretch to predict the U of T will one day compete with other universities based uniquely on its technology offerings to students.

Universities such as Yale, Oxford and the U of T will also have the cache of being special places that can’t be replaced with technology, he argued.

“Why is technology important? It’s important because it allows the transmission of information in a more efficient manner. Does it take away from the value of having direct contact with a brilliant researcher every day in a lab? I don’t think it can replace that, so I look at it as an enabler, rather than a replacer.” 

For Paul, senior management buy-in is not the greatest challenge he said he faces in deploying new technologies.

“It’s recognized it’s essential to fostering communications and expanding our ability to teach across all the campuses and around the world,” he said. “Budget is not the biggest problem. You can get management support, but it’s difficult to determine what your priorities should be, given the scope of the things you have to do. Even if you get buy-in, you still have to implement. You introduce new technology and you’ve got to convince thousands of new people to use it, while there may be alternatives floating around at the local level that work just as well.”

Paul said while he doesn’t feel he’s competing for IT dollars with other university priorities, it would be a different story if IT departments on campus had to compete with each other to implement projects.

“Were extremely decentralized, so much work is done at the local and departmental level,” he said.


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