A Big Decision

Fifteen years ago when MSJC embarked on its journey to offer online courses, a small group of faculty gathered to assess different course management platforms in an effort to choose one that would provide the tools necessary to deliver online courses.  Three platforms were evaluated: Web CT, eCollege and Blackboard.  Following presentations and demonstrations of each company’s products, MSJC faculty, administration and support staff recommended that we adopt Blackboard as the platform to deliver our online courses.

For fifteen years Blackboard has provided a stable online platform for learning to students who enroll in online and face-to-face courses at MSJC.  Faculty members have undergone professional development to learn about online teaching and learning and how to use the myriad tools available in Blackboard; support staff have been hired and attended professional development workshops to learn how to best deliver Blackboard services to faculty and students.  Blackboard has been integrated with our Student Information Systems software, Web Advisor, to allow students and faculty members to navigate seamlessly between the two.  In the fifteen years since its adoption by MSJC Blackboard has cannibalized much of its competition to become the industry leader in course management systems.

In 2014-15, the Online Education Initiative was looking for a common course management system to host courses that would be offered throughout the state in an effort to provide opportunities for students who needed to take courses but were unable to do so through their local community colleges.  After careful deliberation and evaluation the OEI, with statewide input from a variety of constituent groups, selected a relative newcomer in the course management system business, Instructure’s Canvas Course Management System.  It was decided that Canvas would be the platform in which courses would be offered through OEI.  With its adoption by OEI, Canvas would also be offered to local community colleges who were a part of the OEI pilot program for no licensing fees for up to three years with the potential of reduced fees in the following years.  The reduced fees would be based upon wide scale adoption and the ability of the OEI to negotiate a better deal.

Turn to Fall 2015 and MSJC is at a crossroad.  Should we stay with Blackboard or should we adopt Canvas as our course management system?  Who should make that decision?  Why are only Backboard and Canvas being considered since other platforms like Moodle and Sakai are open source products and are free to license?  There are many factors that must be considered in this process, but we must always keep in mind why we license a course management system– it enables students an opportunity to pursue their educational goals.  Simply put course management systems are platforms for delivering online content.  It’s the quality of the content, the interaction with the content by students, the interaction between students and other students, and the interactions between students and their instructors that matters most in the learning process.  The platform is just a means to create these interactions.  Some platforms, e.g. Moodle, Canvas, Blackboard, etc. offer similar tools to share content and provide spaces for interactions.  Their chief differences are in how they enable instructors to display their content and how they enable instructors to create interactive experiences for students.  Will Canvas provide a better user experience for students than Blackboard?  The OEI evaluators believed it would and as a result they adopted Canvas as the common course management system of the OEI Exchange.

Now it is time for different constituent groups at MSJC: students, faculty, administration, classified staff, to evaluate Blackboard and Canvas to determine which course management system is best suited to deliver online learning opportunities for students at MSJC.  The process is daunting and it is the task of the ETC to create a transparent process to make an assessment and recommendation whether to stay with Blackboard or switch to Canvas.  As an aside, Moodle, Sakai, etc. were not considered in the evaluation process because of the dramatic increase in costs that would be encumbered with local and remote hosting of an open source content management system and the support staff required to host such a system.

EDITORIAL: The prevailing opinion amongst people with whom I have discussed this issue is that it is a foregone conclusion that MSJC will adopt Canvas because of OEI’s selection of Canvas and because it is available to MSJC at no cost for three years and a potentially reduced price thereafter.  This is simply not true!  However, I am sure cost considerations will be factored into the final decision, but cost will not be the overriding factor when making a recommendation just as cost was not the overriding decision for OEI when it selected Canvas.

The recommendation for whether to stay with Blackboard or switch to Canvas will be based upon a team of MSJC students, faculty, administrators, and classified personnel who will attend presentations by both companies during October, a review of each product, both companies will provide access to their products for testing also during October, and a thorough discussion about which product best meets the mission of enabling students to pursue their educational goals.  The face-to-face and virtual discussions will take place after the presentations and testing and will most likely finish up in early November.  A vote will take place by the subcommittee who viewed the presentations and tested the platforms.  The vote will take place in early November with the majority of votes for whichever platform is preferred going to the Academic Senate as a recommendation.  The recommendation of the ETC will not be a decision to adopt one platform or the other, however.  The recommendation of the ETC will go to the MSJC Academic Senate who will then make a recommendation to the College Council regarding the justification of the recommendation.  Afterwards, the college council will make a final decision and sometime in the coming months we will know whether we are staying with Blackboard or switching to Canvas.

Regardless of which platform is chosen, the ETC will continue to provide access to quality professional development workshops to assist teachers who wish to use a course management system to engage their students in interactive learning experiences.

Please stay tuned and as always I would love to have your participation and input in the recommendation process.

Reflective Practitioner

Dear MSJC Online Teaching Community,

I thought for my first post to our online teaching community I would offer up an introspective entry about a couple of the challenges I face as an online teacher.

Online teaching can be lonely.  As an introvert I am seldom lonely, but teaching in a classroom for years allowed me to experience an energy that has been difficult to replace as an online instructor.  Not one online student has laughed at any of my jokes :)  As a result, one of the biggest things I miss being in a classroom on a regular basis is getting to know some of my students.  Don’t get me wrong, I have been able to establish some relationships with a few of my online students, but just never at the depth that I had achieved when I saw my students twice a week for an entire semester.  As an aside I never teach full term online courses any more as they seem to drag on forever.  Now… all of my online courses are offered in an eight week format.  The students who are disciplined, focused and don’t believe they need to be in a classroom to learn often excel in this short term format.  My struggle is with the students who don’t perform well or they quit.  Is it the short term course that poses them problems?  Is it my instructional design of the online learning environment that is inhibiting them?  Do I encourage them enough?  Do they feel a sense of connectedness?  Do they lack adequate motivation to work without consistent reminders when going to a classroom twice a week?  Why do fewer of my online students persevere in my online courses as compared to my f2f courses?  These questions are difficult to answer and the lack of answers leaves me wondering whether I am offering a quality online learning experience for my students?

Are any of you struggling with whether you are providing a quality learning experience for your online students?  How are you determining whether your course is meeting the needs of students while maintaining academic rigor?  What practices have you implemented to improve retention and success rates?

It is my hope as I share with all of you the challenges I face, we can all share possible solutions to the challenges we face as online instructors.  Please feel free to jump in and share your challenges, successes and failures.

Thanks for reading.



Dear MSJC Faculty,

We all understand that this a very busy time of the year. Thanks for taking the time to glance through some important news and updates regarding Distance Education at MSJC.

  • Your three current DE Coordinators—Belinda Heiden-Scott, John Seed and Tamara Smith—will all be stepping down at the end of Spring term. We have enjoyed serving you.
  • A new single DE Coordinator will be taking over beginning next Fall. This coordinator will cover both campuses, and will have 80% release time. Expect to hear more from Micah Orloff as things move forward.
  • A major project, a 54 page fully updated Distance Ed Plan covering the years 2015-19 has been completed and has been forwarded to the MSJC Academic Senate for review.
  • The DE Plan calls for a physical location (office) to serve DE Faculty, a DE Coordinator with 100% release time and a Full-Time online course designer, to be hired by Spring 2016.
  • As the DE Plan notes: the MSJC District has been designated as a “pilot” district for the California Online Education Initiative (OEI). It is anticipated that one or more MSJC courses may be used in the rollout of the OEI program in fall, 2015. It is also anticipated that the MSJC District will continue to collaborate with OEI as it offers a Common Course Management system and more online classes to its offerings.
  • Because MSJC is near the limit of its ability to house face-to-face campuses, it is anticipated that more DE courses will be offered in coming semesters. Department Chairs should think about how this would be best accomplished.
  • The DE Coordinators recently made the following recommendation to the MSJC Curriculum Office regarding class caps: We recommend that class caps for DE Courses be determined as follows:
    – For courses with face to face caps of 30 or less, the DE course cap will be the same as the face to face class.
    – For all other courses the DE enrollment cap will be a maximum of 30 students.
    – Any instructor teaching a DE course for the first time will have a one time enrollment cap of 20 students for every new     course taught.
  • Finally, we would like to offer thanks and acknowledgement to a few key people:

Thank you to Micah Orloff for guidance and support.

Thank you to Suzanne Uhl who is preparing an OEI course for the Fall.

Thank you to Amrik Randhawa, Wendy Orcajo and Carlos Tovares for their assistance in drafting the 2015-19 DE Plan

Thank you to Rhonda Nishimoto for sitting in on many hours of online OEI meetings.

Thank you to Lorraine-Slattery Farrell, Del Helms and Tamara Smith for all the time they spent in Sacramento.

Thank you to all those who participated in our online Focus Groups.

Thank you to all members of the MSJC ETC.

Thank you to all MSJC DE faculty for your professionalism and support.

The California Community Colleges (CCC) Online Education Initiative (OEI) announced its intent to award Instructure Inc. the contract to provide an online course management system and related services to community colleges statewide.

Support for Instructure’s Canvas system was nearly unanimous among the OEI’s Common Course Management System (CCMS) Committee members, with overwhelming support from student participants, officials said. Canvas is a course management platform that is currently being used by more than 1,000 colleges, universities and school districts across the country.

More at this link…

You can try out Canvas at this link…

Dear MSJC Educators,

Here are some facts and figures that you may find interesting:

  • There are approximately 134 distinct MSJC courses that are approved for Distance Ed.
  • In Fall of 2014 there were 65 hybrid sections and 220 fully online sections offered.
  • There are approximately 150 faculty members involved in online teaching: this includes both full-time and part-time faculty.
  • 37% of online sections are taught by full-time faculty. In comparison, 21% of face-to-face sections are taught by full-time faculty.
  • In Fall of 2014 33% of MSJC Students took DE courses. This accounted for approximately 18% of the college’s term FTE.
  • DE Class size, as set by the curriculum committee is whatever the face-to-face class size is, not to exceed 35 students.

E-mail communication now plays a very important role in teacher/student interactions for both Online and On-Campus courses. At MSJC, each student has an e-mail account, and when instructors use e-mail as a tool to notify students about important matters, they tend to assume that students are reading and receiving their e-mail.

Guess what? In many cases, students are not getting their MSJC e-mail…

In a recent focus group organized by MSJC’s Distance Educators none of the students who were interviewed  said that they actively read or received their MSJC e-mail. Also, none of the students who participated in the focus group had arranged to have their MSJC e-mail forwarded to their personal e-mail accounts.

In other words, when you send out an e-mail to an entire class changing the date of a field trip, reminding students of a due date, or notifying them that you will be absent few of them may actually be receiving and reading what you send. Who knew?

To fix this situation, one of the first things you should do during the new semester is instruct your students on how to have their e-mail forwarded. On the page linked below you will find a short video that shows how forwarding can be set up.

Using Rules to Forward Microsoft Web Mail

You should post this link and video in your online classes and consider asking all your students to set up mail forwarding. Even better, ask students to set up forwarding and respond to an e-mail you send to their MSJC account before class begins. The information in this video can also help you have your own MSJC e-mail forwarded to a  personal account if you wish.

This summer I devoted some time to developing a fully online, no cost virtual textbook for my online art appreciation students. The timing seemed right: the cost of the conventional text had risen to over $150 while at the same time the availability of suitable high-quality online resources had clearly increased.

To create the text I used Google’s free “blogger” service. To make sure that the content of my virtual text would satisfy the legal course outline of record for my course, I located and vetted content that closely mirrored the approved text.The units of my virtual text approximate the chapters of a conventional art appreciation text. The blog format makes it easy to add or correct links as needed, and the text appears in my online course as a link that is available outside of Blackboard.

The art history field is full of remarkable resources, and about half of the content I included comes from the Khan Academy which has absorbed a wonderful multimedia textbook called “Smarthistory.” The content they provide includes both written content (comparable to a text) and short videos that feature images and conversations between two art historians. As our online regulations require, these videos are all captioned.

If you want to view and visit my virtual text you can find it at the link below:


At any rate, I adopted the virtual text and used it throughout this past term. Now that the class is winding down I asked my students what they thought of it. Here are some of their comments:

“I liked the online virtual text; it helped with the cost of the semester, plus it was very clear and well thought out.”

“The class was designed really well, especially the virtual textbook. Usually, the textbooks are really hard to find and purchase and are really extremely expensive, but it was awesome they we had a virtual one.”

“I did prefer the virtual textbook to printed text. What a great idea!”

“The virtual text was great. It was SO nice to not have to worry about buying a book (Thank You, my bank account appreciates this) and I think it was honestly more helpful than a textbook because the sources used were interesting and educational.”

“Regarding the virtual textbook, I thought it was a definite plus about this class! I love having our textbook online because I don’t have to spend extra money and the textbook is tailored to our class. I feel like our online reading and watching segments were a condensed form of lectures.”

At any rate, that gives you an idea how students responded. There were no negative comments about the virtual text, although one student said that he missed the feeling of a book in his hands, but liked the virtual content.

The success of this experiment makes me want to ask all of my MSJC peers a serious question: are there high quality online resources that might supplement or even fully replace your current textbook?

I hope you will add comments to this blog to let me know what you think of my experiment, and also let me know if a virtual text might be in the future for your online students.





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