Oncourse- IU's online teaching and learning environment

The Oncourse Story

What is Oncourse?

Oncourse is an online course management system (CMS) that permits faculty and students to create, integrate, use, and maintain Web‑based teaching and learning resources.  Oncourse offers content development and management tools through a single, consistent Web interface.  Oncourse provides a framework for building teaching materials without requiring knowledge of programming or HTML.

How Oncourse Works

Oncourse uses university databases to populate course templates that automatically create Web sites.  Each course section appears as a unique Web site with an up‑to‑ date class roster of all registered students.  User profiles, which are predefined individual Web sites that include their own tool set, are automatically created for everyone associated with the class. Faculty and enrolled students access these integrated Web sites with their university usernames and passwords. Faculty and students edit their own information and add materials and resources, with privileges determined and authorized during login.  Faculty activate courses, import settings and content from one semester to another, change default settings, and edit all aspects of course content.

Background of original Oncourse

UITS typically acquires commercially available products and adapts them to the university environment.  Occasionally it is necessary to render major adaptation of an application to make it conform to the environment or to develop a system when there are no commercial products to meet university needs.  The early UITS approach to CMS therefore began by evaluating commercial Web‑based course authoring and management tools.  The centers for teaching and learning on the Indianapolis and Bloomington campuses participated in these reviews.  Several commercial products were initially selected to meet different requirements of schools and departments. 

In late 1997 a re‑evaluation of commercial products was motivated by the need to design and develop a Web‑based course at IUPUI.  Technical and functional requirements for the course were defined.  The major considerations were ease of use, scalability, the potential to leverage legacy systems, and the need to simplify individual Web site publishing procedures.  None of the off‑the‑shelf products could meet these requirements so development became the focus of a project team of faculty and staff who helped further define and generalize goals for an online learning environment.  These broader goals were recommended as part of the Indiana University’s comprehensive information technology strategic plan.

The Oncourse concept was presented to campus and university groups in the spring of 1998. By summer, a beta version was completed and offered to a select group of faculty.  Although only a few experimental courses were to be hosted, more than 300 course accounts were requested in the first three months.  Interest grew quickly. Beginning with the fall 1999 semester, all scheduled sections of classes offered by the Indianapolis and Bloomington campuses were automatically available for content development and management by faculty. 


Early Growth and Maturation

From the fall of 1999 to the spring of 2002, Oncourse usage grew to 65,000 unique users. Adoption was encouraged through progressive user support, providing faculty and student training opportunities, and executing a comprehensive communication plan.  Ensuring continued faculty engagement in the development process was an important part of the strategy.  A unique community of practice focused on technical solutions to pedagogical practices through Oncourse development.  The results yielded unparalleled adoption rates and a mature and robust application.

The strategy for technical and training leveraged the technology organization’s expertise in these areas.  This basic support infrastructure was enhanced by providing technology consulting staff to all campus centers for teaching and learning.  UITS consultants were integrated into the existing operations, with an expectation that each center would provide Oncourse application support to the faculty. This model established a synergistic relationship with each unit encouraging familiarity with the application and resulted in a distributed support model throughout the enterprise.

Reassessing Strategy

By early 2002, the commercial market for course management systems (CMS) was going through a transition with Blackboard and WebCT emerging as the leading companies. The national trend of the time appeared to be “buy” rather than “build,” and Indiana University had embarked on a build strategy for Oncourse in 1998 when commercial offerings were modest. It was time to reassess and plan a strategy for Indiana University’s next chapter of technology to support teaching and learning.

A complete review of Indiana University’s use of Oncourse, faculty trends, industry trends, economics, and technology reached several conclusions: 1) The cost and functionality of commercial systems were not attractive. There was much dissatisfaction in the marketplace and prices were rising; 2) Faculty would continue to innovate and require new uses of technology to support teaching and learning. Much innovation would be discipline specific; 3) Course management systems would evolve to be less of a stand‑alone, specialized application, and would become more integrated into the fabric of the University via Portals, shared calendaring, and other common services.

These considerations for the future led to a reaffirmation that Indiana University would keep its core teaching and learning systems under its control. The University would seek like‑minded partners to share in the investment and build software together.



By summer of 2002, Indiana University reached informal agreements to share software code with the University of Michigan, and joined with Stanford University on its grant‑funded work to build quizzing and testing software. By late September of 2003 representatives from the University of Michigan, MIT, and Indiana University discussed pooling their institutional efforts to build an open source course management system. A plan was developed, and Stanford joined in the effort. The effort was named “The Sakai Project” as a successor to Michigan’s early CHEF Project. Chef Hiroyuki Sakai was a favorite Iron Chef on television, and the Sakai name stuck for the project.

The four universities, plus uPortal by JA‑SIG and OKI which had become interested by that time, assembled a governance structure for investment and software development. They proposed a $2.4M grant to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to augment about $1M of staff time committed from each university. This idea of tendering staff time to a board of directors, aggregating resources, and governing an open source project became known as the Community Source model. The model assumed that software would be made available to all others through the OSI‑approved Educational Community License. Under this license anyone may download, use, modify, or even sell the Sakai software without fee.

By November, 2003, Indiana University and its partners formally announced Sakai at the EDUCAUSE conference in Anaheim, California. On 15 December, the project received a $2.4M grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. On that same day, Indiana University was separately awarded a $517,000 grant from Mellon to develop ePortfolio software with the Open Source Portfolio Initiative using the Sakai architecture. The strategy decision of “find like‑minded partners to build together” was now fully in play. Sakai would build a Collaboration and Learning (CL) environment that could serve as a CMS while also supporting research and committee collaborative work.

Code and Community

During the first six months of 2004, the Sakai Project staff from the four founding institutions (plus uPortal and JA‑SIG) began building software and an open source community. The software was based on the CHEF Project from the University of Michigan with an expanded architecture and set of tools. Sakai 1.0 was released in the fall of 2004, and was in full production use at Michigan for the fall term (Sakai founding institutions used the software prior to a full public release). Indiana University started using Sakai version 1.5 in January of 2005 (branded locally as Oncourse CL) as a limited pilot, and rolled out a much improved Sakai 2.0 in June of 2005. It offered many improvements over the prior Oncourse, but version 2.0 was missing some features that some faculty used for teaching. During the 2005‑06 transition year faculty could use either the original Oncourse or the new Oncourse CL. The original Oncourse is scheduled to retire in June 2006.

Open Source Partners

The Sakai Project engaged in building an open source community in 2004. The project created the Sakai Educational Partner’s Program (SEPP) in March of 2004 with 20 founding institutions. SEPP members paid $10,000 per year with a three year commitment. Members received communications from the Sakai staff and some developer support. By the first Sakai Conference in June, SEPP had 32 members and four Sakai Commercial Affiliates to provide for‑fee support services to any institution that needed installation, integration, or technical support. The first conference attracted 160. The December 2004 Sakai Conference grew to 224. By 2005, Sakai had become a global brand for teaching and learning software. The June 2005 conference drew 426 attendees from 5 continents, 15 countries, and 34 US states. At that time there were 74 SEPP institutions and 11 commercial affiliates including IBM, Sun, Unisys, and Pearson Publishing.

Indiana University played a leadership role in the Sakai Project in many ways. Staff served on the board of directors, led the functional requirements process, and participated in the core architecture team. The KnowledgeBase and training staff shared Indiana University training materials and documents with the Sakai community. Through this developing new project, Indiana University is linked with a world‑wide community of scholars and educational technologists that are creating new and innovative tools for improved pedagogy and research support. Oncourse CL, based on Sakai, provides a highly extensible environment to support Indiana University’s faculty, students and staff.


Questions or comments about Oncourse?
Contact Us
Last Revised: 27 July 2006
© 2006, The Trustees of Indiana University