Angel platform receives praise

Josh King

Online courses are a big deal at Washburn University.

Of the 6,652 students announced by Washburn University as the total enrollment in the fall 2009 semester, 3,610 of those are enrolled in at least one online course. Type those numbers into a calculator and the results are a bit mind boggling, 54 percent of Washburn students have taken at least some portion of their learning to the Internet. Perhaps even more incredible is the fact that many of those students signed into Washburn’s new online course management system, the Angel Learning Management Suite, for the first time this semester.

That’s because last Spring Washburn made a decision to go shopping. Perhaps it would be better said that the University had to go shopping. The outdated WebCT, not updated at Washburn in several years, was being phased out by its new owner Blackboard Inc.

Though Washburn’s contract with WebCT didn’t end until this September it was time to move on, which is where the shopping came in.

“Through several committees, sub-committees, references and vendor demonstrations we whittled our choices down to four products:  Blackboard, Angel, eCollege, and Moodle,” said Stuart Murphy, online education coordinator at Washburn.

The eventual winner was Angel and in the January 2009 meeting of the Board of Regents, it was approved to license the product from Angel Learning, Inc. Murphy said that the contract goes through February 2012.

Unfortunately the purchase wasn’t cheap. The minutes from that 2009 meeting showed a motion passed to spend $117,700 on “the purchase and implementation of the Angel Learning Management System to include year one off-site hosting.”

Thankfully it would appear that money was well spent. With each online hour bringing with it an extra $57, the university should be able to recoup its expenditures fairly quickly. In fact, if even half of those 3,610 student accounts are filled by students taking a three hour class, the university’s coffers are more than $300,000 richer than if those same students had enrolled in traditional courses.

However outside of the somewhat unexplained surcharge students grin and bear for online courses, response toward the new online system has been fairly positive.

“I think it works well,” said Jessica Polk, a Spanish major at Washburn. “I think it’s easier to get around in Angel than it is on some of Washburn’s other sites. It’s more linear and organized, and I like that.”

Students appreciated Angel’s ease of use and organized layout that makes getting through a course online easier than the earlier WebCT. A feeling shared by Israel Wasserstein, a lecturer in the English department at Washburn.

“Angel is almost immeasurably superior to WebCT,” said Wasserstein. “It’s more customizable and more student friendly. It’s better for students; it’s better for teachers, so I think it’s a win.”

It’s that customizability and “friendliness” that has made Karen Díaz-Reátegui, assistant professor of Spanish in the modern languages department, a believer. Díaz-Reátegui got her start with Angel this summer when she offered her Hispanic culture class online as one of the pilot courses offered in the new system.

“I actually taught the class from Peru,” said Díaz-Reátegui. “It worked really well because I could interact with the students. I had virtual office hours and it really allowed me to have fluent communication with my students.”

This coming from a professor who admits to being scared of technology when she first stepped to the front of the classroom. During her career she has seen the steady takeover of technology in the classroom. From the days of overhead projectors and slides, to computers displaying simple Word documents culminating in her MacBook and running slide shows using Apple’s Keynote.

And it’s that same mindset, the one that realizes that technology is part of the future of higher education that is spreading across Washburn University. And in a large part, Angel online courses will be a big part of that future.

“It’s here to stay,” said Keith Rocci, information literacy librarian at the Mabee Library who said that 125 of the 275 students enrolled in the IS170 library research course are completely online. “You’ll see a lot more hybrid courses and eventually it will be used even outside of courses.”

While not everything in the Angel world has gone exactly heavenly, considering the fact that a system was purchased, configured and installed in a matter of months rather than years, the change from WebCT to Angel has gone extremely well.

“No transition from one major platform to another goes as smoothly as you would hope, but given the timeline and circumstances we all had to deal with I am very proud of our faculty, students, and staff,” said Murphy. “Change is never easy and rarely fun, but most have embraced it as a necessary thing to do in order to stay current and move forward.”

And moving forward is the very reason the Angel purchase was made. The earlier software was supposed to be updated in 2006 but plans were put on hold with the uncertainty of the lifeline of a recently purchased WebCT. Today, that problem is no longer a reality as the latest version of one of the most widely-used online course platforms is in use at Washburn providing faculty, staff and students an environment for online learning that will grow and adapt to the university’s future needs.

“Angel is like a Mercedes,” said Rocci. “It’s not a Yugo, it’s got a lot of bells and whistles.”