donderdag, juni 01, 2006

MyUnisa: very impressive!

Yesterday I attended two sessions delivered by representatives of Unisa, the major South African distance education institution with over 200.000 students (mostly in Africa, but also in Asia and even in Europe and the US)! Unisa have gone into full production with Sakai as of January 9, 2006, under the title "MyUnisa".
The first session was delivered by Johann M├Âller. He gave a very informative talk about their change management approach and a brief look into the history of Unisa. Unisa is actually a result of a merger of three institutions, of which two of them were already doing a lot of distance education. They all had their own learning management system and that situation could not be sustained (ofcourse not!). The fact that they would we switched off, created the right sort of sense of urgency that was needed. To overcome possible barriers (especially with the teaching staff) it was throughout the process that all functionality of the 'old' systems would be preserved within the new system, to be based on Sakai.
So, how much time did they have? Well, that's what so impressive! They basically had no more than 6 months to go into full production. And they didn't actually use Sakai out of the box. Most of the time spent was on integration with the legacy systems. And then they developed a total of 19 (?) additional tools, to deliver the promise that all old functionality would be maintained. And Unisa actually used only 6 of the standard tools from the default Sakai toolset.
And these tools were the focus of the presentation by Francette Myburgh. Despite the technical problems with the wireless network, we were given a clear impression of some of the tools that Unisa has developed. I will not list all the tools that were developed. ONe of the tools I liked was the Mailing list tool, that can be used by a lecturer to create bulk email for (a selection of) students in (a selection of) his/her courses (coursesites). This was actually a functionality that existed in one of the previous LMS systems. The other tool that was developed is the Join tool, which is used to assure that every student is identified and fills in a valid email address, which is then verified also.
As I said: what Unisa has done is very impressive! It stands out as a very clear example than can be scaled to enormous amounts of users. The actual figure for Unisa is pictured here. Right now there are two other installations of Sakai that have close to 100.000 users. The other two are Indiana University and the University of Michigan.

1 opmerking:

  1. The UNISA technical team has done very well overall. The challenge at UNISA has been with implementation and management of the changeover process, and here (perhaps understandably, given the complexity and scale of the task) progress has been less impressive. It is good to see that UNISA has a review process planned in order to be able to publish "lessons learned" to other prospective users. Writing as an end-user of UNISA's system, I suggest the main operational challenges have been:

    1. Failure to consult the students on their requirements for the system. Although I know academic staff were consulted, there doesn't appear to have been any formal consultation process involving students, who make up the majority of users.

    There may also be a related issue around the lack of testing. Extended testing by students would have brought some challenges (e.g. forum permissions) to the attention of the technical team at an early stage.

    2. Some lecturers lack basic understanding of the system and for a range of reasons are resistant to using it. Because of the timing of the installation, not all academic staff have received training that enables them to feel confident using myUNISA. As a result there are still plenty of staff who simply do not use the system; six months after installation, dozens of subject forums are still not enabled because lecturers lack the basic knowledge to do it.

    3. Poor prioritisation of functionality. OK, there may be a great Join tool and bulk e-mail system, but 6 months after installation myUNISA still doesn't have a basic Help system in place - not even a list of How to/FAQs for users unsure what the system is and how it works.

    4. UNISA's students are located all over the world, so online communication and discussion is an important part of the learning process. The UNISA technical team has chosen not to allow threaded subject forums in myUNISA. Students cannot initiate discussions, so until a lecturer posts a message on a subject discussion forum, no discussion can take place. This is a serious and very basic flaw in the way that UNISA has chosen to use the Sakai system, and here the promise to maintain all previous functionality comes nowhere close to being delivered.

    In general, I repeat that the technical team should be congratulated on the technical aspects of the integration. My personal opinion is that the planning and implementation of the myUNISA system could have been managed better, and that - in some areas at least - myUNISA still does not offer student users some of the most basic functionality of its predecessors.