My background with educational technology and online learning at UC Berkeley

In general, I’m interested in online learning because I worked as an educational technologist at UC Berkeley for twenty years (1987-2007). During this time, I helped Berkeley establish support services for its campus wide Learning Management System.

During this time, UC Berkeley took a big step in the direction of online learning by establishing a campus wide Learning Management System service. As the assistant director of Berkeley’s Instructional Technology Program, I played a role in this effort. ITP started LMS services at Berkeley and received a budget to buy an enterprise LMS for the campus.

From my experience at Berkeley, what I learned about developing a LMS support service is it has to be an iterative process. Also, I learned that developing a major new service function can easily become a process charged with political strife.

At ITP, we started off by testing out a few very inexpensive, low-end learning management systems such as CourseInfo (which later became Blackboard), WebCT, and TopClass. While it was easy to get started with these low-cost, low-end systems, it was fairly clear from the beginning that these systems would not be the end of it. The software vendors selling these systems were beginning to develop and sell high-end systems (aka enterprise level LMS), and I thought that was the obvious path to follow.

But, as soon as ITP received a budget to purchase a high-end LMS, we encountered resistance from programmers in Student Information Systems who wanted to develop the campus wide LMS from scratch. There was also resistance from the Office of Media Services, the group that managed physical classroom space, videotaped lectures, delivered overhead projectors, etc. OMS was much larger than ITP, and they correctly saw the growth potential for LMS services. As it unfolded, OMS took over ITP and the two units then became known as Educational Technology Services.

As the discussion of the OMS/ITP merger got under way, and it became clear that the campus would have to either make or buy an enterprise-level LMS, a number of related debates erupted:

1) Conservative faculty, who were dead set against any form of distance or online education, saw the advent of the Learning Management System as a stepping stone towards distance education. They correctly saw the live lecture as being the traditional mode of education at Berkeley, and they wanted to keep it that way.

2) The Business School wanted to buy its own LMS, one customized to its needs, and other professional schools were thinking along the same lines. At UCLA, things were much worse. Each of their four major L&S divisions (physical science, life science, social science, and the humanities) all had their own LMS, as did one or two of their professional schools. And, none of these groups at UCLA were in favor of having an enterprise level LMS. As for the UC system as a whole, each of the nine campus wanted to go its own way. There was almost no coordination what-so-ever.

3) A campus lawyer at Berkeley (the one in charge of licensing things that Berkeley had rights to such as copyrights or patents) wanted to sell online course content developed at Berkeley to the general public. His idea, however, ran afoul of faculty who were textbook authors. They had never been required to share their textbook royalties with the University, and they didn’t want to start. Further, some of them thought they could create their own online courses, and didn’t want to cut the University in on any income that those courses might generate.

4) Some information-wants-to-be-free buffs wanted to give away course content for free, as was the case at MIT’s Open Courseware Initiative.

5) Some administrators and faculty wanted to buy a high end, robust version of some LMS and make that system the main, campus-wide LMS.

7) Some programmer groups and faculty wanted to develop an LMS uniquely crafted for Berkeley, all from scratch.

8) Some administrators, programmer groups, and faculty wanted to develop an open LMS in concert with other schools (e.g. the Sakai project).

9) Some people wanted to do a mixture of all of the above.

7) And so on.

Needless to say, all this made for a very lively debate.

After some initial experiments with low-end versions of Blackboard and WebCT, Berkeley decided to become a member of the Sakai project, which consisted of a consortium of schools. But, after trying to build that system for a few years, Berkeley finally decided to pull out of Sakai. When they did, they switched to Canvas, which is a commercial off-the-shelf LMS. Canvas is now the main, enterprise wide LMS at Berkeley.

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