Instead of sifting through existing texts to find case studies suitable for his course, Matt Cookson decided to go straight to the source. In his Introduction to Public Relations class, which he teaches as an adjunct at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester, he uses content pulled directly from online archives of The New York Times -- embedded within the course management system itself.
Except it isn't a course management system, exactly, though it does allow faculty members to post assignments and readings online for students to download. Calling it a social network wouldn't be fair either, though it does offer personalized profiles for students and professors. An "integrated online course content, portfolio and communications tool" is a bit closer, but its actual name is Epsilen. Last September, the Times announced a partnership with the service in its push into the distance learning market.
Last month, it finalized a deal to purchase a 53 percent majority stake in the holding company that markets Epsilen, an environment that was originally developed at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis's Purdue School of Engineering and Technology. (For the record, Felice Nudelman, director of education for the Times, called it "the most robust Web 2.0 learning platform in the world.")
"By using the Times content, I was able to build enough case studies and avoid having the students get a second textbook. So they saved 65 bucks," said Cookson, whose day job is the University System of New Hampshire's associate vice chancellor for external relations.
For examples of how corporations dealt with severe fallout from public relations disasters -- think the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill or the Tylenol tampering scare in the early 1980s -- Cookson found that using contemporaneous news and opinion articles helped students understand how events unfolded at the time. And, using Epsilen for the second time this semester, he was able to integrate archived news content into his course materials.
The New York Times Knowledge Network provides the service with tailored and subject-specific content modules, offering instructors template tools to match articles, graphs and other materials with their lectures or online notes. News content goes all the way back to 1851, Nudelman said. "We’re really excited because we know that we’re in the process now of really ramping up," she said, with over 1,200 members of the Times network and active Epsilen users from more than 830 different institutions.
Cookson's is a traditional class taught on campus, but, like other typical courses with an online course management component, he has made use of work group features so that students who sometimes can't meet in person can stay up to speed. Epsilen allows students and faculty members to create their own profiles -- a free service for those with .edu e-mail addresses -- which can contain resumes, an e-portfolio, a blog and more. The service was initially a central component, along with the availability of archived news and multimedia content, of the Times's foray into providing technology and marketing services to colleges that offer distance learning.
The social networking features aren't an afterthought, either. "One particular part of it that’s great is a lot of [the students] upload photos, and when you go onto Epsilen you can see who visited your corner," Cookson said. "It’s a great tool to help learn their names."
Others have found that the environment helps them connect students around the world.
"What Epsilen has enabled me to do is to connect universities in Germany, Taiwan and China, as well as in Indiana and Alaska ... in order to be able to facilitate a truly global interaction between students in the same classroom but on various continents and throughout the world," said Darrell L. Bailey, a self-described "early adopter," professor and former dean at the IUPUI School of Informatics. This semester, he's using the tools in a course called Informatics and Global Engagement, where students "explore and participate in a conversation about information management techniques connecting global communities," he said.
"More specifically, it provides students an opportunity to experience both real-time and asynchronous interactions with professors, content experts and other students on four continents. Epsilen is the synergy that powers this interaction. What is unique in my experience about Epsilen is that it is not an internal course management system inside a university. Therefore it enables students at any university to participate in coursework with students from multiple colleges and universities."
It's even been adapted to uses outside the classroom. Merrill A. Ritter, a professor of orthopedic surgery at the Indiana University School of Medicine, has used it to share X-ray images with patients in Latin America as part of his organization, Operation Walk, which sends medical specialists to developing countries around the world.