The Plovdiv branch of the Technical University of Sofia in Bulgaria wanted to create a Web-based integrated learning community for its lecturers and students. The university administration was suffering under a huge burden of paper processes and manual systems for data processing. By deploying a package of technology based on Microsoft Class Server 2.0, Microsoft partner Bulgarian Software House (BSH) has enabled students and university staff to connect with the new system 24/7 from any PC using a browser. Teaching staff now spends less time on administration and has raised standards of educational attainment through increased one-to-one contact with students and automated progress assessments. Administrative costs have also been reduced, because the university now spends less money on expensive imported consumables, such as photocopying paper and toner.
Advanced computer technologies are quite widely studied in universities and institutes of higher education in Bulgaria, which have enthusiastically embraced the information age. In common with many countries in Eastern Europe, Bulgaria is obliged to import computer hardware, software and consumables from the west at considerable cost in terms of valuable foreign exchange. The leading institutions in Bulgaria are now seeking to improve standards of learning and reduce administrative costs by creating integrated learning communities for their lecturers, bureaucrats and students.
The Plovdiv branch of The Technical University of Sofia in Bulgaria was no exception. It was established in 1986 in Bulgaria's second largest city of Plovdiv as a satellite branch of The Technical University of Sofia. The institution educates more than 2,400 full-time and extramural students to bachelor degree level and offers post graduate studies leading to a master's degree qualification and after that to a doctorate. The Council of Ministers in Bulgaria has mandated the university to teach in 10 different subjects.
The university had 330 computers connected in a Local Area Network on site and 10 classes with Internet connections. The institution, nevertheless, lacked easy access to advanced technologies, although these were being taught in the curriculum. Lecturers and students found it difficult to work off site or out of hours, at home, or in student accommodation. The university was also hampered by a growing volume of paper-based assessment processes. In addition, manual systems were slowing down the storage of data.
Professor Dimitar Katsov, Director of the Plovdiv Branch of Technical University of Sofia, says: "Using paper for students' tests was taking up a great deal of time for our professors and other lecturers. It was also consuming a great deal of money from the budget which clearly could have been spent on improving standards of attainment. Consequently, the Plovdiv campus was interested in implementing a project to automate its processes."
However, the principal driver for the project to create a virtual learning community was to encourage better student performances and raise teaching standards. Professor Katsov says: "Lecturers had less time to analyze and process the increasingly higher volume of learning content. It was becoming almost impossible to give each student individual attention or to provide each student with a consistent learning experience. Staff also found it difficult to adjust their teaching methods and materials to match the varying levels of ability of individual students."
The university turned to Microsoft® partner Bulgarian Software House (BSH), a specialist in designing, building and maintaining e-learning solutions, founded in September 2000. BSH's e-learning solution is based on the integration of Microsoft Office SharePoint™ Portal Server and Microsoft® Class Server.
The latter provides a system for a personal approach to each student, sharing of a resources library and online task assignment and grading. The system allows for three groups of users to access information with specific rights – system administrators, teachers and students.
Professor Katsov says: "Every student gets a user identification code and password for access to a protected Web site. Through this Website students receive lectures, exercises, projects and tests. They complete their tests and return them for evaluation. All they need is a computer connected to the Internet."
The e-learning solution was implemented with Microsoft Windows® 2000 Server operating system, Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS) 5.0 and Microsoft SQL Server™. The university also upgraded its internal computing environment with Microsoft Windows XP and Microsoft Office XP.
Vladimir Tchalkov, CTO, BSH says: "Our solutions improve key business processes and empower organizations to create sustainable competitive advantage by concentrating on their unique competitiveness by adopting leading edge Internet technologies. Our focus on e-learning, content and document management and Internet solutions enabled us to meet the specific needs of the university."
Lecturers Learn New Ways of Working
The e-learning solution implemented by BSH using Microsoft Class Server has enabled lecturers at the Plovdiv branch to organize their teaching resources and assessment methods electronically. They can now work flexibly from home and when the university is closed or on vacation by connecting to the Internet via a browser.
Professor Katsov says: "Another important element of Microsoft Class Server is the option for the exchange of learning resources between lecturers. Each lecturer can easily add comments and complete or adapt the learning resources to any specific needs. This has helped to ensure transparency in terms of quality of teaching at the Plovdiv campus."
Learning Outcomes Improve
Educational outcomes are improving with the integrated e-learning solution. Academic staff have more time for teaching, because they spend fewer hours on administration. Professor Katsov says: "A lot of time previously spent checking and evaluating students' work has been saved, because evaluation tests have been automated through Microsoft Class Server."
By using the automatic test generation function teachers create tests with different questions for a whole group of students by simply clicking a couple of times with a mouse. Professor Katsov says: "The possibility of duplication is eliminated. Our teaching staff say the automatic evaluation option is one of the best assets of the new system."
Spending Falls on Consumables
The Plovdiv branch is under pressure from the government to deliver value for money and to avoid unnecessary expenditure on expensive consumables that have to be imported from abroad. Professor Katsov says: "Owing to the online testing option the branch is now saving several thousands of Bulgarian leva a year from the funds it would otherwise have spent on photocopier paper and toner."
Students Gain Individual Attention
University students can now access their educational resources 24/7 from a home computer and are no longer confined to learning in campus opening hours. In the past instruction was classroom or lecture hall-based but now students can open a one-to-one dialogue with their mentors via the Web. This is a valuable bonus for the university's extramural or distance learning students who are not based on the campus.
Professor Katsov says: "Microsoft Class Server has given our lecturers more time to spend on individual approaches to each student. The opportunity to access the learning resources from one's home computer enables the lecturers to engage interested students with additional tasks."
Secure, Centrally Managed Data
Students work and records of attainment are now securely managed on SQL Server, cutting down the need to store paper records. The potential for errors and lost files has been reduced, because data is stored centrally.
Professor Katsov says: "The security qualities of Microsoft Windows 2000 Server and Microsoft Windows XP Professional have given us peace of mind and enabled the university to concentrate on adding value to the curriculum."