Popular learning tool, Learnlink, won’t be shut down


The diverse possibilities of the LearnLink computer-based academic support system has changed the way a large portion of McMaster's faculty and students interact.

The system was supposed to provide a glimpse into the future of university learning. Instead, according to Carl Cuneo, a professor of sociology and co-founder of the program, an old problem – money – threatens to shut it down.

Cuneo posted a notice on the system during the week of April 10 stating that, if a source of additional funding can't be found in the near future, the initiative could disappear before September.

“We've come up with nothing,” Cuneo says. “We're more or less at our wits' end. If we don't get financial support by the summer, we'll have to close it down.”

Harvey Weingarten, provost and vice-president academic, says there is no cause for concern. “The Learnlink system has grown significantly,” says Weingarten. “Now, many Faculties use it. The issue we've had to grapple with is: What do you do in the case of something that was used and budgeted locally originally and is now used throughout the University?”

Weingarten says the support and budgeting of Learnlink will be moved from a single department, biology, to a centralized location in the University. “This move reflects the widespread use of Learnlink throughout the University. Support for this university-wide learning technology will come from the Quality Enhancement Fund created this

LearnLink is an electronic learning environment currently used by 7,154 students and faculty members – a substantial jump from 4,000 during the 1998-99 academic year. It has become a medium of collaboration and communication used by McMaster faculty and students across a number of Faculties and a variety of courses. Currently, the Faculties of Science, Social Sciences, Health Sciences, and Engineering are all using it.

It is a multifaceted program, providing the opportunity to utilize a diverse range of online educational activities including: peer assistance; student resource sharing; group projects; tutorial groups; mailing and discussion lists; distributing of course bulletins and class notes; as well as the transmission of tests, exams, and questionnaires.

The program is directed by Cuneo and Del Harnish, a professor of biology who designed it.

Until the 1999-2000 academic year, the software to run the program was free for all faculty members, but students had to pay a nominal fee to purchase an instruction manual and licence. A portion of the funds from those sales was used to administer the program. Harnish and Cuneo decided to allow everyone free access to the system last September.

Though the requisite hardware for the program is owned by the University, ownership of the software company has changed twice in the past year. That directly affects the school's licensing agreement. In the past, the school was given a licence based on the number of simultaneous log ins to the system. They were allowed 250, but rarely went beyond 150.

Now, the annual charge for a licensing will be based on the number of users. With that number predicted to jump from 7,154 to 10,000 by next fall, a drastic increase in the cost of licensing is unavoidable.

“The last two years we've been pleading for help and our requests have gone unanswered,” says Cuneo.”At this point, I can't say I'm optimistic.”

Weingarten says, “LearnLink is a valuable part of many courses. It's widely used. It's not being ignored.”