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Teaching and Learning with Web Course Management Systems

Final Report

  1. Introduction
  2. Lessons learned
  3. Recommendations
  4. Issues of Policy and Practice for Students, Faculty, and Administrators

I. Introduction

Tools that are intended to provide a more efficient and effective means to facilitate learning have been a preoccupation of, in particular, curriculum writers, software designers, and educators themselves for centuries. And for good reason, as the teaching and learning process is complex, time and labor intensive, and perhaps never quite as fruitful as one hopes.

With the recent advent of the Internet and World Wide Web, these same people and, more broadly, corporate America, have promoted new technology-rich tools that aid in all sorts of tasks, from tracking student progress, to creating on-line quizzes, managing group projects and grades, and incorporating digital media of many types into the teaching and learning process. These new tools, referred to as Web Course Management Systems, integrate Web-accessible course activities and components into a single environment. As noted by Bruce Mann [1], "Developers of these systems claim their products require minimal technical skill, preferring to let educators employ the most appropriate methods they deem necessary and sufficient for managing their own Web courses."

Web course management systems certainly sound like tools worth careful consideration. Consequently, in March 2000, Xavier University's Center for the Advancement of Teaching (henceforth, the Center) invited proposals from all faculty members to participate in a case study aimed at such a careful consideration. In particular, the case study was designed to examine two questions concerning Web course management systems (WCMS):

  • As regards teaching and learning, what are the advantages and disadvantages of WCMS?
  • How do WCMS change, if in fact they do, the teaching and learning process?

The case study also provided the University community an opportunity to examine WCMS in order that it might determine "best practices" of WCMS use and the type of institutional support that is needed to integrate WCMS into the teaching and learning process. Furthermore, the case study offered an opportunity to examine related policy issues that may affect the University and its faculty and students.

In developing the request for proposals, the Center recognized that experience with educational technologies varies among faculty members. Therefore, consideration was given to both novice and experienced faculty members. The Center also recognized that adding substantive on-line components to a course alters the need for traditional class meetings. Therefore, with the support of the Vice President for Academic Affairs and the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, 25-33% of traditional class time could be replaced with on-line collaboration and other Web-based course activities.

Prior to the proposal submission deadline, the Center hosted a "Course Management System Information Day" to provide interested faculty an opportunity to examine the systems and discuss the request for proposals. The Center also:

  1. Arranged for the trial use of the systems with the application providers and where necessary, a server was provided by the university
  2. Provided stipends to the faculty members
  3. Assisted faculty in learning to use the tools and developing the on-line components of the course
  4. Provided training for students enrolled in the courses
  5. Designed and hosted a summer seminar for funded faculty members (see below).
  6. Prepared this report that addresses the case study questions and provides an analysis that may serve to inform policy decisions regarding the University's decisions on course management systems.

Faculty members whose proposals were funded were expected to:

  1. Substantially change a course by using a WCMS
  2. Work with Center staff to develop survey(s) aimed at assessing the various aspects of the course delivered by the WCMS
  3. Submit progress and final reports
  4. Present the results of the project at a roundtable discussion or workshop for faculty.

In summer 2000, six faculty members from the Division of Education, and the Communications, History, and Biology departments (Table 1) developed on-line components of their courses using WCMS such as WebCT, eCollege, Anlon, and Blackboard. The Center hosted a summer-long on-line seminar for the faculty members to assist them in course design and development. The faculty members participated in face-to-face meetings and on-line activities using the on-line seminar resources, which were delivered using an eCollege seminar website. The seminar included six modules:

  • Module 1: Orientation
  • Module 2: Course Structure
  • Module 3: Assessment
  • Module 4: Asynchronous & Synchronous Communication
  • Module 5: Tools & Resources
  • Module 6: Fair Use & Intellectual Property Rights

The faculty members who participated in the Web Course Management Systems Case Study include:

  • Deborah Bordelon, Assistant Professor of Education [send an e-mail]
  • Gayna Credle, Instructional Design Specialist, Center for the Advancement of Teaching [send an e-mail]
  • Arnold Crump, Assistant Professor of Communications and Manage, Radio-TV Productions [send an e-mail]
  • Elizabeth Hemenway, Assistant Professor of History [send an e-mail]
  • Cirecie Olatunji, Assistant Professor of Education
  • Elizabeth Rhodes, School/University Liaison, Center for the Advancement of Teaching [send an e-mail]
  • Todd Stanislav, Associate Professor of Biology and Director, Center for the Advancement of Teaching [send an e-mail]
  • Vera Walker, Instructor of Communications [send an e-mail]
Faculty member Department Course name and number Semester taught
Dr. Deborah Bordelon Division of Education Clinical Procedures in Remedial Reading in Elementary School (EDUC 4113R) Fall 2000
Mr. Arnold Crump Communications Fall 2000
Dr. Elizabeth Hemenway History World Civilizations to 1500 (honors) (HIST 1030HN) Fall 2000
Dr. Cirecie Olatunji Division of Education Fall 2000
Dr. Todd Stanislav Biology Genetics (BIOL 3110) Spring 2001
Ms. Vera Walker Communications Fundamental of Public Speaking (SPCH 1010) Fall 2000
Table 1. Faculty members and the courses they taught using Web course management systems.

As noted previously, this report is intended to serve as a synopsis of the case study, with particular attention to:

  1. The original questions that framed the case study, namely:
    1. As regards teaching and learning, what are the advantages and disadvantages of WCMS?
    2. How do WCMS change, if in fact they do, the teaching and learning process?
  2. The "lessons learned" as a result of the case study
  3. A short list of recommendations
  4. Issues and policies that may affect the University's decisions on teaching with technology in general and WCMS in particular.

A more detailed narrative that provides a sense of the faculty members' and students' experiences in using the WCMS is available on the Center's website.

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II. Lessons learned

Our participation in this has taught us much about course development, teaching with technology, student learning, and what it means to be a community of learners.

The following is a short list of lessons that stand out; they're presented here in no particular order of significance.

Cost and support

The cost of Web course management systems ranges from no cost to extraordinarily pricey. Some companies (e.g., Convene and WebCT) even charge for system evaluation. Although there are several Web course management systems freely available on the Internet, some companies will distribute a limited-use copy for installation on your server for a small fee. Most companies prefer one point of contact from an institution to discuss server related issues. Helpdesk agreements are usually a separate issue, with most providers offering helpdesk services on several levels from frequently asked questions (FAQ's) to multiple payment options.

Technical issues

During implementation of the WCMS projects the following became issues that often required constant attention: network firewall, server space, ports, file type recognition, and platform compatibility. For example, proxy instability often left half the students in a computer lab session unable to access their course on-line. It was also not unusual for local server glitches to cause students delays of 15-20 minutes in logging onto a remote server. Due to local network security conflicts, the whiteboard feature was not accessible to any of the systems in this study. We also became aware that many of course management systems perform best with a specific browser and platform combination. For example, in summer 2000, authoring in eCollege was done best on a PC with an Internet Explorer browser. Other applications have specific requirements, for example, eCollege executes PowerPoint off the host server whereas Blackboard requires the PowerPoint application to run locally.

Faculty time and energy

The use of Web course management systems had a significant impact on faculty time and energy. In the summer prior to the study, time was allocated to familiarize faculty participants with the course management systems. Although faculty members were provided opportunities in the summer to plan the course for the following semester, most underestimated the amount of time needed. Several faculty members noted that they underestimated the amount of time that was needed to manage and update on-line course content and materials. Some faculty members benefited tremendously from the assistance provided them by student assistants.

Student computer skills

Student computer skills appear to have improved through the course of the case study. Students suggested that a more training, or on-going training during the semester would be helpful. Some students resisted the use of a WCMS and allowed network delays to affect their participation. For example, many students, when left on their own, did not keep up with assignments. In reference to difficulty logging onto a system, a faculty member noted that, "Students gave up on an assignment in frustration rather than trying to overcome the technical difficulties." Another faculty member noticed that students, after several experiences with threaded discussion, began to use symbol systems within messages, indicating a growing familiarity and comfort with the system. In another course, students began to take the initiative to form learning communities with intellectual and academic community exchanges.

Potpourri

Several WCMS features enhanced learning experiences and made use of the system more manageable. With eCollege, the ability to assign administrative permissions to a student assistant was helpful. The use of student electronic journals was also very successful for student participation and increased students' positive attitudes towards the course. The capability to distribute and run presentations, videotaped vignettes, and film (multimedia files) were also considered valuable. The use of on-line quizzes, practice tests, and grades were heavily utilized. Other useful system features include: the ability to upload files, an access authenticating system, various user levels (e.g., instructor, teaching assistant, student, guest), file sharing, server-side applications for streaming audio and video, and PowerPoint, and archiving capabilities. Although threaded discussions were used in every course, the discussions did not replace the importance of face-to-face discussions. Several faculty members found that students missed the communal aspect present in a traditional classroom setting.

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III. Recommendations

The following are our recommendations for using a Web course management system in the teaching and learning process. They are not given in any particular order of importance.

Technical considerations

Be certain that the appropriate browser and platform combination for the WCMS of choice is available on campus. Similarly, alert your students to possible conflicts regarding other browsers and platforms relative to the WCMS.

To avoid access problems, carefully review the WCMS specification sheets and discuss implementation and support issues with information technology support personnel.

Designate a local server administrator and a helpdesk administrator, or obtain a helpdesk agreement with the provider.

Faculty and student training considerations

Plan for faculty and student training and provide follow-up sessions on using the interactive features of the application to ensure successful implementation.

Provide a means for faculty to have assistance in their course design, development, implementation, and assessment, including a process for thinking through pedagogical and other issues related to using information technology in the classroom.

Implement a mentor support system (e.g., a system users group) to provide guidance and assistance. Also consider having student assistants involved in some course management tasks.

Teaching and learning considerations

Carefully think through how you want technology to aid in student learning. Carefully consider what aspects of the course will be best served by the use of the WCMS.

Link activities to course grades.

Plan for unforeseen network glitches; always have a back-up course plan.

Consider the volume of e-mail and other responses when making assignments and the amount of time required on the part of the student to complete the activities.

Allow students to share and showcase their work on-line.

Familiarize yourself with the research literature on teaching and learning, particularly as concern information technology.

The oft-cited "Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education" is a good starting point for thinking again the teaching and learning process. (This paper is available from several websites. We found it at: http://www.hcc.hawaii.edu/intranet/committees/FacDevCom/guidebk/teachtip/7princip.htm). More recently, Chickering and Ehrmann considered the place of information technology relative to the seven principles. This paper is on-line at http://www.aahe.org/technology/ehrmann.htm

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IV.Issues of Policy and Practice for Students, Faculty, and Administrators

Now and then, the conversations of faculty and staff who participated in this case study touched on issues related to teaching and learning with technology. These issues seemed to us to be of sufficient significance to warrant at least brief mention in this report. To be certain, determining the real significance of these issues will require their consideration by the entire University community. What follows is little more than a laundry list, with brief commentary, of issues that we discussed during this case study.

Measuring the value of teaching with technology

This issue is undoubtedly viewed differently depending on one's primary responsibility at the University. For example, a faculty member and the chief academic officer (CAO) will undoubtedly ask, at one time or another, "Just how important is it that I (or the faculty) use information technology in the courses I (they) teach?" Arriving at an answer to this question will require at least some consideration of:

  • Balancing one's professional work in teaching, scholarship, and service with the very real likelihood of investing a great deal of time in learning to teach with technology
  • Xavier's system of incentives and rewards vis-à-vis teaching with technology
  • The impact of teaching with technology on student learning. Faculty members and the CAO should have reasonably easy access to research literature from, for example, educational psychology, and cognitive and information sciences that link technology and student learning outcomes.

On the other hand, the chief financial and information officers, for example, will be concerned with balancing the costs of building an information technology infrastructure with the return on investment in terms of, at least, student recruitment and retention, and student learning.

It is, perhaps, a bit of a stretch to say that all members of the University community should understand basic financial reports for higher education, what financial resources are required to succeed, and the role and cost of information technology at the institution. We think, nevertheless, that it is important that all faculty members, in particular, have at least some understanding of these issues. And to the extent that they can contribute to finding solutions to the institution's financial needs as they relate to information technology, then progress can be made in developing a reliable and strong infrastructure that has the potential to impact positively on the teaching and learning process.

Bridging the gaps

The world of information technology is a chaotic world that, when combined with the unique workings of a university community, produces the potential for gaps to grow. These gaps, real or perceived, include but are not necessarily limited to:

  • A gap in faculty and student needs and the available technical support and services
  • A gap in faculty learning, developing, or obtaining technology-based course materials and actually applying them in a class
  • A gap between implementing technology-based course materials and measuring their impact on teaching and learning
  • A gap in the technology resources available on campus and faculty knowledge of such resources
  • A gap in the information that faculty need to know out about teaching and what they need to know about teaching with technology.

The University is making a concerted effort at bridging some, if not most, of these gaps. In mentioning these gaps in the context of issues of policy and practice we simply want to emphasize the urgent need to develop solutions that are comprehensive, widely disseminated, sustainable, and cost effective.

Information technology infrastructure

Teaching and learning are dynamic processes that are intricately linked to how people communicate, relate, interact, and, simply, act. Layering other elements, like information technology, on the teaching and learning process has the potential of disrupting these intricacies and, ultimately, student learning. Therefore, it is imperative that the University's infrastructure be as reliable as possible.

In addition, as new technologies are introduced that have the potential to affect student learning in positive ways, the University must be in a position to implement and support their use by the entire University community.

Privacy

We were particularly interested in this issue as it applies to the use of an on-line grade book -- a feature that is common with most, if not all, Web course management systems. Undoubtedly, the issue of privacy was considered when the University implemented Banner Web, which includes access to students' transcripts. So too with Web course management systems, the privacy of the students' grades must be protected.

Patents, inventions, copyright, and intellectual property rights

The Web and new digital media have created new opportunities for faculty and student scholarship and creative activity. In order to protect the rights of the University, its faculty, staff, and students, the University must conduct on-going review of its policies as they relate to new digital media intellectual works developed at the University.

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Footnotes

Bruce Mann (2001). Web Course Management Systems In Higher Education, The Bulletin of The Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education. On-line at: http://www.stemnet.nf.ca/~bmann/HigherEd99.htm

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