Posted: November 14, 2006
The College has recently begun using a new learning management system known as "ELLA" that enables professors, students, and campus organizations to post information and communications in a central location. ELLA, which stands for "Electronic Learning Arena," is replacing WebCT, to be phased out by the end of this academic year.
ELLA is part of the Sakai system, a noncommercial, online collaboration and learning environment that was created initially by M.I.T., University of Michigan, University of Indiana, and Stanford University. Sakai is an "open source" product, which means that it is free of charge and created, maintained, and improved upon by the collaborative effort of the Sakai community of users. While many major universities use Sakai, Mount Holyoke is one of the few liberal arts colleges so far to have adopted it. "We're on the cutting edge," said Owen Ellard, director of research and instructional support for LITS, who is helping to get the new system up and running at the College. In addition to helping professors and students manage course work, ELLA supports faculty advising, students' e-portfolios, and storage of institutional materials. ELLA also incorporates Wiki, a collaborative writing tool that facilitates group projects. "ELLA is the future platform of academic computing at the College," Ellard said.
ELLA's reception at MHC has been extremely enthusiastic, according to Ellard. So far, 51 professors are using the system in 75 classes. The music and Spanish departments have adopted the system for departmental organization, and the theatre arts department is preparing to follow suit. Sandy Lawrence, associate professor of psychology and education, uses ELLA for all her classes. "I like all the features," she said, "but my favorites are the email archives, which make it easy to send a message to all my students at once, and--this surprised me--I like the chat room." Lawrence has found this instant messaging feature a useful way to hold impromptu office hours, for example, the night before the midterm exam. "I tell the students I'll be available from six to seven in the evening online so they can IM me with last-minute questions. It's easy. They all grew up IMing. It's their thing."
Lawrence has her syllabus, assignments, and schedule on each class's ELLA site. She has posted selected reserve readings, as well as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Education Week,which makes it easy for students to check up on the latest news in their area of study. She also uses ELLA as a tool for students to exchange and comment on each other's written work and to collaborate on projects. Students may use the "drop box" to submit assignments. In her advanced class, she has assigned students to design a curriculum on the uses of modern technology in the classroom, including tools such as ELLA, blogs, and Wiki, a collaborative writing space. "This is something I wouldn't have thought of without ELLA and Wiki."
Students are also happy with the new system. "I definitely prefer ELLA to WebCT," said Karen Mac Kenzie '07, one of Lawrence's students. "I find it a lot easier to use and I really appreciate the additional features such as the chat room. I wish that more professors took advantage of it as an easy class Web site. It's incredibly convenient, for example, to have the course syllabus posted online so when you're in the library or off campus you can check your homework assignments. It's also been a great resource for storing additional course materials that don't need to be printed out to waste paper."