Everything about Hamilton College in Clinton, NY says, "Come live here." This top liberal arts, residential college seems the antithesis of distance education. From its rural hillside campus to the school's description of itself as a "vibrant community" with small classes, everything at Hamilton seems to center on face-to-face contact between an exceptional faculty and student body. In fact, students can't take any Hamilton courses entirely online. So how is it that an online learning system (Hamilton uses Blackboard; www.blackboard.com) has become one of the mainstays of the college's curriculum? Surprisingly, about two-thirds of the courses at Hamilton now make use of the course management system. Yet, people at Hamilton don't see a contradiction.
Aren't tools such as those from WebCT (www.webct.com) and Blackboard aimed at delivering an education to students who can't come to the campus?
"We've never thought of it that way," says David Smallen, Hamilton's VF for Information Technology. "I've always believed that at a place Like Hamilton, which has a virtually ideal setting for excellent teaching and learning, faculty will use technology only in ways they feel will further enhance the already good setting." Accordingly, the university faculty use the course management system to distribute materials, provide students with access to information in many formats, and facilitate discussions and collaboration outside of class. "The technology," says Smallen, "facilitates Hamilton's core values by extending the classroom beyond the meeting times, increasing time on task for students, and helping them be better prepared to use the in-class time for substantive discussions."
Students who chose Hamilton at least partly for its intimacy have readily embraced the online dimension of their courses. Almost every student has contact with the online learning system in at least one course, and faculty regularly approach the tech support staff for help using the online system. "My students have asked me to use it in my courses" is the reason most often given for the support request.
BEYOND THE CLASSROOM
But a course management system can also have an important impact on the role of a campus library, as well as on classroom practices--even when students are within easy walking distance of the library building. As chair and executive director of the library at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Etheldra Templeton works closely with the faculty in assembling online resources for the medical students. Since PCOM adopted e-learning software (the college also uses software from Blackboard), says Templeton, "we in the library can far more successfully integrate our resources into the curriculum." For required or recommended readings, PCOM creates links to licensed electronic resources including individual articles, or to scanned electronic reserves. "We also greatly expand available resources by identifying and linking to relevant, high-quality Web sites. You can make the entire Web your library, in terms of what you can put in your course," the library director points out. For example, one cardiology course at the Philadelphia medical school directs students to a site where they can listen to actual recordings of heart sounds.
Templeton concludes that students now make fuller use of what the library has assembled: "The library has an extensive Web site, but students were largely unaware of our resources. When those resources are built into the individual course sites, the students see their relevance and use them." Incorporating a range of materials from on and off campus into a uniform system that extends across many courses has made it easier for faculty and students to manage it all.
Course management software can sometimes have unexpected uses, and that, too, was the case at PCOM. Students in the Doctor of Osteopathy program take intensive coursework on campus for two years, but in the last two years of the program they are assigned to clinical rotations at hospitals and medical centers throughout Pennsylvania. …