Thursday, March 31, 2011

Advancing our digital learning environment

The University of Alberta has kicked off a three-year initiative to build, enhance and advance its digital learning environment. This integrated environment will facilitate a collaborative learning experience that spans across the U of A and beyond, utilizing a variety of platforms to speak to diverse, mobile, engaged, web-savvy audiences.

The web is a ubiquitous tool used every single day by every single student, faculty and staff member at the University of Alberta. It has become as basic an infrastructure need to the academy as classrooms and chalkboards. A well-executed web strategy is a critical component in attracting and retaining the best students, staff and faculty in Alberta, Canada and from around the world, and it is therefore essential that the university deploy time, energy and resources in this area. Failing to do so will continue to result in a diminished online experience for students and faculty at the University of Alberta.

In fact, people across our campuses are telling us what we need to do better, and we are committed to listening. We recently completed an online web survey that resulted in 2,700 responses from students, faculty, staff, alumni and other members of the community. Around 200 of the respondents also volunteered to be part of our online Feedback Forum so they could take an active part in determining the future of the U of A’s digital environment. If you would like to join the online Feedback Forum, please sign up here. In addition, web engagement sessions continue to take place with deans, chairs, faculty and staff in all faculties and administrative units. As they identify their specific needs across all of our platforms, these needs are being added to the overall university web strategy.

Most university sites, our own included, are primarily focused on the wants and needs of departments. This collective myopia has resulted in a website that leaves users bewildered and frustrated, and as a whole it serves no one well. The new vision, above all else, commits to a user-centred design, where the needs and wants of our audiences are put first. A cohesive online environment will have an immediate, positive impact on our audiences, allowing people to quickly find the content they need in a design that represents and reflects our leadership position as a post-secondary institution. It will also provide them an integrated experience with their university’s communications tools and learning platforms.

So what does this really mean? Are we spending $3.5 million over three years on a website? No. We are building expertise critically needed at this university, expertise that will help us fully realize the institution’s digital future. Resources are being re-allocated and in some cases augmented to develop and execute a re-architecting and integrating of our key datasets across the university. We are measuring all aspects of this work using comprehensive analytics. We are also using the best in open-source features along with our current enterprise systems, leveraging industry partners for key components only when required. The university is in fact already taking some big steps in the right direction. Some examples include:

  • In December 2010, an agreement was signed with Google to provide students, faculty and staff with Google Apps for Education—a key building block for our vision as we move forward.
  • In late March, U of A students were invited to begin making the switch over to Google Apps for Education. In the first nine days, 23,000 students made the switch.
  • We have begun migrating eClass to Moodle 2.0, a robust open-source learning management system that offers an improved set of features for instructors and students, and which integrates with Google.
  • In the fall of 2010, UAlberta became the first Canadian Foursquare Campus, and already has more than 10,000 check ins at our campus locations. The university is also utilizing a variety of other social media platforms to interact with students, faculty and staff, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr and Memolane.
  • A uAlberta app has been designed for the iPhone, with other platforms (Blackberry, Android) in development—providing easy access to U of A news, events, courses, timetables, maps of campus and transit information.

Enabled by our web, mobile, social networks and IT systems capabilities, we hope to create the best, leading-edge digital infrastructure for teaching and learning at any Canadian university. Our initiative will tap into an interdisciplinary team of faculty experts and online technology leaders who will collaborate in designing and implementing a fully accessible, usable and mobile digital environment as part of a new five-year IT plan under development. That environment will integrate features from Google, Moodle, our social media networks and our core data in Peoplesoft, libraries and research. This initiative has already received tremendous support and input from our faculties, units, students and alumni, and will require continued commitment from the entire university community. We encourage your feedback as we move towards our ultimate goal of becoming the best example of a post-secondary digital learning environment in the country.

If you have any questions about the university’s web strategy, I would be happy to answer them here on the blog or via email.

Jennifer Chesney
Executive director, web strategy

18 comments:

  1. It sounds awesome :)

    Hopefully your team will continue to document your learning and discovery journey :)

    With that passion I sense... The future looks great at your University :)


    Best wishes :)

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  2. The AICT Development Team has been working to extend the functionality of the existing mobile uAlberta application to other platforms. To that end, we've published alpha versions of two new mobility options:

    1. uAlberta for Android
    Built for Android 2.1 and above.

    2. uAlberta Mobile Web App
    Build to support a variety of mobile devices.

    As alpha versions of the software, each application supports only a subset of the features currently offered on the uAlberta iPhone app. In addition, as alpha versions, they may exhibit some buggy behaviour (sometimes spectacularly). You can use the "Feedback" feature in each application to let us know how it works on your specific device. If you do so, please provide us specifics on your device and operating system.

    We're not performing a full public release of the applications yet, and as such, the Android version is not currently available in the Android Marketplace. However, if you have a mobile device and are interested in giving the applications a try, instructions for accessing these applications are available at http://mobile.ualberta.ca/welcome.

    You can also follow us on twitter for updates on the mobility applications and other AICT Development initiatives.

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  3. The iPhone uAlberta App pulls up campus contact info in a iPhone-native-looking address page. Unfortunately, this info doesn't seem saveable in the iPhone native address book. Is that functionality on the way? It'd be nice!

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  4. I assume that Bear Tracks an important part of the university's web presence, eh?

    I was going to do my taxes this weekend. It was great to find out that Bear Tracks, where my T4 slip is sitting, was down all weekend.

    Did it ever occur to anybody to let people know ahead of time when the system is going to be down for 2 days in the middle of term?

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  5. Did it ever occur to anybody to let people know ahead of time when the system is going to be down for 2 days in the middle of term?

    A notice went up on the U of A homepage last Wednesday. That link was tweeted out on Twitter by us, and was RTed by many. It was also sent out as a memo on that same day from the Office of Finance and Administration to Deans, Chairs, Directors and APOs. We apologize for any inconvenience, but the upgrades were necessary, and we did inform the campus community.

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  6. Will an app for the blackberry be available any time soon?

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  7. A central communication strategy for a two day Beartracks outage was TWEETING?

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  8. We have received some comments over the past couple days regarding communications around upgrades to student records systems on campus, which resulted in Campus Solutions, Human Capital Management, and Bear Tracks being down for the weekend of April 2-4. Unfortunately, some of these comments were uncivil and crossed the line into personal attack. As they therefore fail to meet our community guidelines, have not been approved for publication. We encourage dialogue, debate and healthy disagreement on this blog, but even disagreements must be written in a civil, respectful manner. Comments that do not meet the criteria outlined in the community guidelines will not be published.

    As was mentioned already, a number of methods were used to get the word out regarding the service interruption over the weekend. A memo was sent out last Wednesday by Phyllis Clark, Vice President (Finance and Administration), to all Deans, Chairs, Directors, APOs and campus communicators. Following that, also on Wednesday, a notice was placed on the U of A homepage. Lastly, a tweet went out Wednesday afternoon alerting people to the outage, and directing them to the homepage for more information. We again apologize for any inconvenience, but the upgrades were necessary, and we informed the campus community in ways we deemed most suitable and effective.

    To answer some of the questions presented in both the unpublished and published comments, we would like to note that Finance and Administration chose not to send out a blanket email, because for as many people who would like to receive notifications that way, there are as many who complain about getting them in their inbox. As for Twitter, social media is a valid and proven means of communicating. It is also something that many people expect us to be doing. Twitter was not the main way of communicating about the outage, but it is becoming an increasingly important tool for the University community, as that is where an increasing number of people gather and share information. We will continue to use our social media platforms to communicate with the campus community.

    Lastly, it should be noted that the issue of Bear Tracks being down is in no way related to the post written about the digital learning environment. Bear Tracks, Campus Solutions and Human Capital Management were down due to regular maintenance and upkeep. The outage was initiated by Finance & Administration, was completed over the weekend, and all three programs are now back online and working.

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  9. I don't understand what would be so hard and so expensive about sending out a blanket e-mail. And I, for one, do not have time to be combing through all those tweets to find something relevant nor do I want to have to check the University page and/or ask my Chair and APO every day if they have any news for me.
    P.S. This complaint is coming from a faculty member who specializes in communication and who is not taken in easily by the sexiness of putting these things out on social media.

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  10. I don't think you can call Twitter a "valid and proven" means of communicating, at least in the way you intend it. There is still much debate in the news, academia, and general small-talk as to its purported usefulness. Generally, the only people following Twitter are: a) upper or upper-middle class, and b) young. Being an elite university doesn't require being elitist.

    While I applaud the effort to reach out using modern channels, such as social media, these efforts cannot supplant traditional forms of communications, but should rather complement it.

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  11. I don't understand what would be so hard and so expensive about sending out a blanket e-mail.

    Cost and difficulty aren't the issue. As we wrote above: "Finance and Administration chose not to send out a blanket email, because for as many people who would like to receive notifications that way, there are as many who complain about getting them in their inbox."

    these efforts cannot supplant traditional forms of communications, but should rather complement it.

    That is what was done. As stated, the tweet was sent out last, as a supplement to the letter that was sent out, as well as the notice on the webpage.

    We are going to write a follow-up post on this, as we are constantly trying to improve the way we communicate internally on campus. It is difficult with such a large campus, and so many differing views on sending out and receiving information. But this post was not about routine outages, or internal communications, so we aren't going to address those matters anymore in this thread. We ask that people save their comments for the new post.

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  12. Tom Joad said:

    "Generally, the only people following Twitter are: a) upper or upper-middle class, and b) young."

    Although the majority of Twitter users are 18-29, the majority is not upper or upper middle class.

    Here is the most comprehensive data from Pew Research as of December 2010.

    Some facts from the report:
    1. Among the 74% of American adults who use the internet, 8% report using Twitter.
    2. Twitter is especially popular among young adults -- 14% of online adults ages 18 to 29 use the social networking tool. Just 4% of adults ages 65 and older use Twitter.
    3. Minority internet users are more likely to tweet than are white internet users.
    4. Among online adults, 18% of Hispanics and 13% of blacks use Twitter, while only 5% of whites use the microblogging service.
    5. Online urban residents are also roughly twice as likely to use Twitter as online rural dwellers (11% vs. 5%).

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  13. "The iPhone uAlberta App pulls up campus contact info in a iPhone-native-looking address page. Unfortunately, this info doesn't seem saveable in the iPhone native address book. Is that functionality on the way? It'd be nice!"

    This is not a feature we are planning to include in the foreseeable future. Contact information may change. The uAlberta app connects to servers to retrieve the latest information. If you retain contact information in the native address book, the app will be required to verify and synchronized the contact information each time to ensure accuracy. The decision was the convenience did not justify the development effort required. However, please continue to send suggestions through the feedback feature on the app.


    "Will an app for the blackberry be available any time soon?"

    We are currently looking at the possibility of a Blackberry version using a conversion tool. However, the decision to move forward is primarily dependent on resources, time, and cost. iOS and Android are the primary focus. The two platforms combined have a significant market share. For Blackberry, Windows 7, and webOS devices, we have built a mobile web app to provide similar services to the iOS and Android apps.

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  14. So the point about twitter users really does make me wonder as to why you thought that was a sufficient way of communicating the outage. It also seems to me that if a thread started on such a major expenditure to improve the digital environment can't include our feedback on the processes used to disseminate internal information, then it makes no sense to have it at all. The point about complaints about e-mails does not wash, given that the Central Admin and everyone else floods our e-mails with all kinds of pr announcement/s (and don't get me started on the amount of Spam that gets in). If someone really cared about that, you would get rid of those things first. In any case, I don't buy it as an excuse for not using e-mail for an important piece of communication.

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  15. You can get tweets emailed to you if you prefer to read them that way:

    http://tweetymail.com/

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  16. To Anon@11:26. I don't want all the tweets. I just want crucial announcements. And why should I have to direct that when the U knows full well how to send out e-mails. What is so hard to understand about that?

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  17. The UAlberta twitter account has 3800 followers. Clearly it is NOT a valid nor a proven means of communicating for the U of A. Not saying it should be ignored, but saying "we tweeted this announcement" is basically saying "we whispered it in Rutherford Library on a Friday afternoon."

    Related: please stop hashtagging every tweet from the UAlberta account with #ualberta. Do you realize that hashtagging does nothing, save for allow a quick link to search that term? It does nothing for indexing or making a tweet searchable. Amateur hour.

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  18. The UAlberta twitter account has 3800 followers. Clearly it is NOT a valid nor a proven means of communicating for the U of A.

    3800 followers, plus the followers of all the people who retweeted (and there were many), received that tweet. That does make it valid. What it doesn't do is make it comprehensive. But we never claimed it to be such. It was only one of the ways we communicated the outage.

    Do you realize that hashtagging does nothing, save for allow a quick link to search that term? It does nothing for indexing or making a tweet searchable.

    Yes, we are aware of the purpose of hashtagging.

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