NDUS takes steps to enhance virtual footprint

NDUS takes steps to enhance virtual footprint

The rise of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) quickly escalated the migration of higher education classes and programs to the online world. The North Dakota University System transitioned roughly 11,000 face-to-face courses to digital formats last March at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. As fall classes continue in the online realm, the system is expanding and enhancing its digital toolset in order to raise the overall experience of online teaching and learning.

Vice Chancellor of Academic and Student Affairs Lisa Johnson said among the many changes implemented, Labster was one that stood out. The online virtual laboratory boasts more than 100 courses for high school and university-level classes and can allow students to safely learn things that would have otherwise required a physical classroom. Its applications include virtual lab simulations and experiences in the areas of biology, chemistry, engineering, medicine, and physics.

According to Johnson, a handful of campuses in the state were already using Labster in a limited fashion before the pandemic.

“It was determined that a systemwide Labster contract would be more cost efficient than separate, individual campus agreements,” she said. “The NDUS covered the purchase of Labster for all NDUS campuses for a period of one-year at the discounted rate. After that, it is at the discretion of each campus as to whether they wish to continue use and the purchase of Labster.”

Thanks to the systemwide implementation of the virtual labs, students are enabled to practice techniques, skills, processes, protocols, and underlying theory. That practice can get students through the trial and error. Johnson noted that a virtual lab experience might be sufficient in some educational settings or at other times, serve as practice before moving into a physical laboratory setting. She added it was likely that the software would remain in use once the pandemic had concluded.

According to Vice Chancellor of Information Technology and Chief Information Officer Darin King, the systemwide contract for Labster was for one year at a cost of $220,000 with unlimited licenses across all 11 public colleges and universities. He said it was easy to put in place.

“It was pretty simple to implement and only took a few days from the time of purchase to have it available for faculty,” King said. “It uses a building block in Blackboard, which is a standard way we integrated third party software into BB.”


Additional services

Beyond Labster, Core Technology Services was able to place a bid for instructional design services after so many courses took on online components. According to King, the services would be utilized if a campus wanted someone to take an existing course, make it better and return it for use at the campus.

“The training is to train campus faculty and staff on the principles and techniques of effective instructional design,” he said. “This was a multi-award bid, so there are a number of vendors campuses can engage for assistance.”

King noted that other changes had been made, including increased storage in learning management systems and lecture capture systems. He said that the move to make all courses fully online during the initial months of the COVID-19 situation basically doubled the NDUS storage.

“Blackboard was a great partner and allowed that growth to happen at the time and we are now ‘settling up’ and purchasing the additional storage required,” he added. “We should have plenty of available storage and will continue to monitor our records retention schedule to manage the storage in the future.”