News  Out with WebCT, in with a new system

Replacement selection committee urges for student feedback

After six years of use, Blackboard WebCT Vista 8.4 is no longer getting crucial retail support, and as a result McGill is now searching for a replacement Learning Management System (LMS).

In late January and early February, four providers presented their systems to McGill professors, information-technology personnel, and Engineering Senator Andrew Doyle.

Doyle says that he was approached and asked to get involved because he was already actively searching for a method to collect student feedback on the IT systems.

“Basically, these vendor demos were a big opportunity for students to participate, ask questions, voice their concerns, give their feedback in the form of a survey we are compiling, but I think that asking students or anyone to come out for four hours to four different sessions is unrealistic,” he told The Daily.

“The best idea is that we get one student to attend all four and compare the systems. Realistically, no one has that kind of time, except me.”

While Doyle said he is the only student consistently involved, the LMS replacement selection committee has been seeking students’ involvement from the beginning.

“We learned from the food-systems project that the stakeholders didn’t really feel like they were consulted, even though the committee thought they were doing a good job,” Doyle said.

“In that case, decisions were made before the committee even met. There wasn’t really a place for students to participate in that project.”

Sharon Roy, director of Content and Collaboration Solutions and project manager of Moving Forward to select a new LMS, told The Daily that broad consultation is fundamental when it comes to executing such an enormous project that affects every part of the McGill community.

“We did interviews over the course of the year with 31 different faculties, students, and system staff members,” she said.

An extended list of requirements constructed from these meetings as well as surveys was sent to Learning Management System providers so that they would know what features were expected in a replacement for WebCT.

Roy said that there were countless requests for features that WebCT lacks. For example, many professors requested open content so that course material can be shared online, and crawled – an automated program that scans web pages and creates a index of specified data – by Google and other search engines.

Ken Ragan, McGill Physics professor and member of the selection committee, said that he is looking for tools that he thinks will generate more student discussion and participation.

“I’ve seen things that I won’t use, but that are cool. I can imagine that my colleagues would use them,” he said.

“There’s a core set of functions [that any LMS will] provide, but it’s the additional things they do, or the upgrade path, the support, and how knowledgeable [the software providers] are, that we are looking at for valuation.”

Doyle added that a major debate on the committee is whether or not to go with an open source solution. He says many people in the community, especially Computer Science students and staff, would like to have a system that can be adjusted and augmented. The problem is that most providers of open-source systems have an uninvolved and hands-off approach, which would require McGill to hire specialists to provide in-house support.

Ragan said that the goal is to choose the product that provides the highest quality and most consistent services to the McGill community.

“The committee has been explicitly told not to deal with cost; we are not given a budget to balance, that’s not our concern,” he said. “We’re trying to see which ones work and, ultimately, rank/order them to see which ones are below threshold and which ones are above it. By law, we can’t even think about dollars until we’ve gone through the process.”

In terms of student consultation Doyle stressed that the committee would benefit from greater student input.

“[The committee] asks me what students would think about certain features, or what students want in the system. I think I’ve done a good job, but it would have been nice to hear other voices.”

Students are encouraged to email or and offer their opinions, positive or negative, about WebCT or possible replacement systems. Requests to poke around prototype versions of LMS candidates are strongly encouraged.