Open Learning Agency propels portal strengths

A Canadian distance learning institution is preparing to take advantage of the Web services market — even if it one day puts itself out of business.

The Open Learning Agency (OLA), based in Burnaby, B.C., recently completed a series

of portal technologies based on Oracle’s 9i Application Server. These include Web sites offering information and transactional services to its students, their tutors, employees and a connection to Campus Canada, a cross-country portal that will allow federal government and Crown Corporation employees to pursue post-secondary credits. The OLA is a provincially-funded initiative that was launched in 1978 to create greater access to college and university education in rural areas.

The next step, said OLA CIO Brian Mackay, is to take advantage of Web services tools in Oracle 9i to increase collaboration with other universities.

“”While I think it’s the future, it’s probably the death of institutions like ours as a central service provider,”” he said. Right now, the OLA registers students from the University of British Columbia, the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University. It then sends those schools an e-mail with a list of all the students, their payment details and a cheque every month. The dream, MacKay said, is that eventually grades, payment information and transcripts will link directly between the IT systems of various schools. “”Once that model’s in place, you don’t really need a central aggregator, “” he said. “”You might need some way of communicating inter-institutionally, but you could go to an SFU site and register for a University of Victoria site.””

For the moment, however, MacKay said he isn’t worried — the education market moves so slow that this killer app could take years. In the meantime, he said the OLA is concentrating on more personalized services for its users. The student portal’s frequently asked question (FAQ) application, for example, includes detailed queries like, “”If I already know the material in a course I need for my program, how do I challenge the course so that I don’t have to take it?”” If students have a question that application can’t answer they are immediately routed to the appropriate contact. MacKay said the school spent a lot of time hosting student conferences and poring over e-mail feedback to get a sense of what information was needed most often.

“”Educational institutions as a whole are really bad at customer relationship management,”” he said. “”We’re sort of taking baby steps in that regard.””

IDC Canada training analyst Julie Kaufman said organizations like the OLA have a long life ahead of them.

“”We’re not seeing a really integrated strategy with regards to online learning in a context outside the traditional school system,”” she said. “”There’s still a lot of opportunities for entrepreneurs to partner with universities that do have certain types of content and create additional channels for those institutions. That’s very much what the OLA is doing: not only offering a new channel but another way of delivering it as well.””

Instead of spending time at one institution, for example, Kaufman said distance educators allow students to get experience from a number of schools online. This is a strong value proposition, she said.

MacKay said the OLA has “”spent a fortune”” on a virtual private network project that will secure information on its various portals.

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