New tools help instructors create and maintain course websites

New tools help instructors create and maintain course websites
by Fred M Beshears

Berkeley Computing and Communication
Academic Computing
Sept-Oct 1998

As at other schools around the country, many UC Berkeley faculty have been caught up in a mad dash to enhance their courses with web-based materials and activities for students. Initially, a few instructors took a do- it-yourself approach, designing their course web pages in HTML with text editors. But now, more faculty are creating web pages with simple tools that come with popular browsers such as Netscape Navigator. A few have started using more advanced tools, such as FrontPage or NetObjects Fusion, to manage large, complex websites. Unfortunately, these generic authoring tools were not specifically designed for use in instruction, lacking tools for options such as creating quizzes or online grade books.

Recently, however, a number of UC Berkeley faculty have started using WebCT, an integrated set of “course tools” for creating and maintaining coursesites (course websites). These coursesites are set up on a free WebCT server administered by the Instructional Technology Program’s Faculty Internet Service Center (FISC). The FISC’s WebCT server currently manages over 130 coursesites. Each coursesite comes with templates to help faculty create course web pages, and a broad range of other features including:

  • student coursesite accounts that let students publish web pages individually or in groups,
  • a web page annotation facility that lets students attach private notes to online course content,
  • password protection for all or some of the coursesite’s web pages,
  • a web-based bulletin board for communication among all course participants,
  • page counters,
  • a realtime chat facility,
  • a web-based email system,
  • a searchable course glossary,
  • a coursesite indexing system,
  • a coursesite backup and download facility,
  • timed online quizzes, and
  • an online grade book.

Before adopting WebCT, the FISC staff evaluated a number of coursesite management systems, including TopClass, Web Course in a Box, and CourseInfo. They also reviewed several in-depth comparative studies from other schools and found that most reviewers gave WebCT the highest marks for the quality of the company’s support services and for WebCT’s extensive range of features.

Many UC Berkeley faculty find WebCT well suited to their needs, especially those who want to go beyond simple web page authoring without developing sophisticated coursesites from scratch. These faculty want robust tools, specifically designed to cobble together materials (e.g., graphics, digitized video clips, animations, software components) for web-based instruction.

Of course, this is not to say that WebCT solves every problem a faculty member might face when creating a course website. For example, although the current version of WebCT does let the coursesite designer create group entities so students can publish web pages as a team, it does not let students publish their own individual work within the group entity. (The current work-around for this is to manually create a separate group entry for each student.) Also, at the end of the semester, although the faculty member has the option of saving all the materials created by project teams, students must save their work elsewhere (e.g., on floppies).

There are other issues common to all website developers that WebCT does not address. For instance, WebCT does not provide tools for converting materials created in popular word processing and spreadsheet programs to HTML format. Of course, some programs such as Microsoft Word and Excel do have a “save to HTML” option, but the HTML document produced often contains inappropriate or incomplete formatting, leaving much to be desired.

Moreover, since the use of the web in instruction and tools like WebCT are still quite new, a number of fundamental problems remain unanswered, such as the lack of:

  • indexing standards (i.e., metadata) to help faculty search for course content on the Internet,
  • metadata standards for exchanging student records between systems from different vendors,
  • security standards to assure the accuracy of grades and privacy of student records, and
  • interoperability standards to allow coursesite management systems from different vendors to incorporate course content components from different publishers.

Fortunately, national standards to govern the design of coursesite management systems, course content servers, and student profile servers are being developed by the Instructional Management Systems (IMS) project under the auspices of EDUCAUSE’s* National Learning Infrastructure Initiative (NLII).

To stay on top of emerging standards and new product innovations, the Instructional Technology Program has joined the IMS project’s Developers’ Network, and the UC Office of the President has joined the IMS project as an investment partner. In addition, ITP has organized an IMS task force, consisting of representatives from the Office of the Registrar, Student Information Systems, the Museum Informatics Project, and the Library, to oversee the acquisition and implementation of IMS compliant coursesite management systems, course content servers, and student profile servers on the UC Berkeley campus.

For additional information on the products and organizations referenced in this article, please visit the following websites:

*EDUCAUSE is a consolidation of the EDUCOM and CAUSE organizations.

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