WebCT Tools

Lessons I have learned

Some general comments about WebCT

My advice to others


I am flattered to have been asked to present this lecture for the MVCR Series, and I certainly look forward to engaging in discussion with anyone on these topics. You should consider me to be a practitioner who presents a view from the trenches. Since mid-November, I have been following some of your discussions. It is clear to me that you can all teach me many things. I have so far resisted the temptation to jump in, but now we will be able to have some discussions.

I teach a variety of mathematics courses at Black Hawk College. Each semester I usually teach a section of developmental mathematics, a section or two of Business Calculus, and a more advanced course in Calculus, Linear Algebra, or Differential Equations. I have included a significant component of graphing calculator and computer applications in most of my classes since returning to the classroom in 1993. I have also participated in NSF workshops on the use of projects in the mathematics curriculum, and as a result, I am a strong proponent of such methods of collaborative learning.

For the past three semesters I have used WebCT to enhance each of my courses, starting with version 1.3 and now progressing to version 3.1. I use WebCT as a quizzing and communication tool, but I generally do not use it to communicate content. My Business Calculus course is the one that is most significantly developed, and I have worked with departmental colleagues to develop another in Fundamentals of Algebra. I am currently teaching Business Calculus totally online for the first time. At the present time, I have about 150 students in WebCT, some of them in a class that I team teach with two other colleagues.

Black Hawk College is an urban-rural community college in western Illinois. Many of our students are non-traditional, often older, and nearly all are working or have significant family obligations. Many do not come to us with a strong intellectual work ethic, but they are often highly motivated, particularly in the Business Calculus class.


The WebCT Quiz Tool: This tool enables the designer to create a variety of matching, multiple-choice, short answer, paragraph, or calculated questions (using random parameters and various mathematical functions.). Some types of questions may also be imported. These questions  may be combined in a variety of ways into quizzes or surveys. There are many options regarding release, weighting, scoring, repetition, disclosure of information, and the like. My students take the quizzes online with immediate feedback, but you may also grade them manually (or have TAs do it.) I also enforce a waiting period between successive attempts.

This is the most important WebCT tool in my classes. I have developed an extensive series of WebCT quiz questions keyed to the student’s homework assignments. The student is required to take one quiz per week, which she or he may repeat up to three times (with different computer-chosen questions), with the last score being the one that counts. Collectively these quizzes count about one-third of the final course grade. In fact, in the regular Business Calculus class, which typically meets Monday through Thursday, there is an additional incentive to do well. If the student has an 80% score on the week’s homework quiz before 11 pm on Sunday night, that student is excused from class on Monday. Of course, many of these students elect to come to class anyhow, but Monday is then devoted exclusively to a review of the homework and to answering questions on it.

At the technical level, I find the WebCT Quiz Question editor to be relatively easy for the experienced user but not particularly straightforward for the novice. It would certainly be nice if one could import (calculated) questions more easily. I do like the various tools for reporting information on a quiz, such as the summary. These are very helpful to me in determining how to refine my emphases, etc. And the students like being able to see how they compare with their peers. Although I don’t usually globally release the correct answers, students can review their quiz attempts, and I have the option of commenting on their answers. This latter option is particularly nice when I have an online student who asks why her or his answer was wrong and I comment right in the context of the question. My use of quizzes in Business Calculus has been described here. Of course, notation is always a problem when using computers in math classes. This problem is somewhat alleviated in my Business Calculus class because it does not use a lot of algebra and because we use "calculator syntax" such as (-b+-sqrt(b^2-4ac))/(2a) (anybody remember that?). I use Snagit to make gifs or jpgs of graphs or standard formulas or drawings, and although this is a lot of work, the results can be effective. I eagerly await the day when MathML (Mathematical Markup Language) is ready for prime time and works well with standard browsers. But alas, IMHO, we are not there yet.

Student Homepages and Photographs

The WebCT Student Home Pages Tool enables even the most computer naïve student to create his or her own web page, which is then available to others in the class.

During the first day of each class, I take a digital photo of each student and promptly place it as the banner on the student’s homepage. I also print thumbnails of these pictures to enable me to learn names quicker, and I include these thumbnails in my WebCT Gradebook as well. Later, I encourage the students to elaborate upon their homepages. Some do a great deal, while other are content with the photo alone. Of course, students are given the opportunity to decline to have their photo posted, but less than 5% decline. (I emphasize the fact that these photos and homepages are protected behind a WebCT password, so only persons with access to the course may access the pages.) Only once have I had a problem with inappropriate material being posted, and that was handled promptly with a terse referral to our college’s appropriate use policy. I have observed that many non-traditional students who do not have much computer experience are thrilled to have their photo on the Web, and these persons are often eager to show it to friends and family.


The WebCT Calendar Tool is an online calendar keyed to the course. I have found the course calendar to be a particularly useful tool in all of my classes, primarily because it can be so comprehensive. Before the course begins, I use it to indicate what sections are to be covered on which day, when the assignments are due, test and quiz dates, and other relevant data. Then I link the calendar entry to the relevant page or assignment or quiz, etc. The students can see what is currently happening in the course in a single view. They are also encouraged to use the private entry feature of the calendar, which some do. And students are also notified with a pop-up menu at login when changes have been made.


The WebCT Private e-mail tool is a rather rudimentary e-mail tool within the course, but it does allow HTML entries. It allows forwarding of mail to a regular internet e-mail address. Although I give out my regular e-mail address, every student is encouraged to utilize the private e-mail feature of WebCT to communicate with me and with fellow students. I find the mail-forwarding feature to be particularly helpful for both students and me. It provides a convenient means of filing all correspondence relative to the course.


The My Grades Tool is essentially an area in WebCT where students may view their grades and class curves. It is automatically connected to the quizzes, and additional information may be posted here as well. I grade exams right after they are taken, and I immediately post the scores using the My Grades tool. This is effective, and the students like it. However, as a gradebook, I find WebCT to be severely lacking. The column management is cumbersome and the various arithmetic operations are rudimentary at best. It takes a while to learn how to use and display columns effectively. For example, if you want to see a column as a designer, you need to check “No” for Hidden, but if you want students to see a column, you need to check “Yes” for Revealed. I generally use another gradebook program and copy the results into WebCT.

Discussion Forum and Journals

The WebCT discussion tool allows the designer to create a structure of bulletin boards, or Discussions.

I use discussions, although somewhat sparingly. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the organization of the discussions continues to be somewhat confusing both to students and to me. Second, the first time I allowed anonymous postings, I got a rash of ad-hominem postings directed at students in the class. I do believe, however, that this can be a valid medium of expression, so I am allowing anonymous postings and watching it carefully after giving the students appropriate admonitions. And my online students have their own fora, but so far these are relatively underused. I plan to formally encourage more use next semester, perhaps by requiring periodic posts.

After reading some more literature on the use of journals in teaching mathematics, I decided to re-institute the use of student journals, on a voluntary basis, for my Business Calculus class this semester. My previous bad experience was related to the huge stack of notebooks and the difficulty of reading some of the handwriting. But now I just created a private forum for the student and me, and it is working very well. No stacks of notebooks and no handwriting problems. Both the students and I like it.


The WebCT Chat tool is synchronous and text based.

I have not yet found the Chat tool to be very effective for me. In the earlier versions of WebCT, it did not work particularly well. But more significantly, my students are generally so busy that it is very difficult to find times for them to chat. As the semester progresses, I may attempt to use a more sophisticated non-WebCT audio tool, such as NetMeeting or Groove, for this purpose. Most of my students can, and do, call me, and it is a local call for nearly all.

Assignment Dropbox

The WebCT Assignment tool allows the students to retrieve and submit assignments at a central location within the WebCT course. In my Differential Equations class, where we were using Scientific Notebook and ODE Architect, I found the WebCT Assignment Dropbox to be particularly effective. I would write an assignment in a SN or ODEA file, place it into an assignment, and the students would download it, do the assignment, and upload the results. It was very slick, and I would then post the grade for the assignment right there with the Assignment Tool.

Course Content

WebCT allows the instructor (designer) to place course content into a file structure called a content module or course path.

As stated above, I do relatively little with content. I find the WebCT notions of Content Module and Course Path to be conceptually obtuse and terminologically confusing, but I have learned to work with them. I have generally used HTML pages in the course path to post assignments, and then I have linked them to the calendar. This seems to be quite effective. Although I have not done it, I believe it is possible to publish directly from FrontPage to WebCT. There is also a CD-ROM tool, so you can link your course content to a CD which the student inserts into her or his machine. You may either burn your own CD-ROM or use a commercially provided one. Many textbook publishers now provide WebCT-compatible materials either on CD or suitable for installing in WebCT itself. I do not have any experience with such materials.

Content Assistant and Syllabus Tool

The WebCT Content Assistant is essentially a template wizard for creating a new course, and the syllabus tool works similarly. I have only used the content assistant (new in version 3.0) to create a syllabus in one class. I found it to be easy and straightforward to use, if not a bit simpleminded. In looking at the content assistant, I am put off by the quasi-commercial links in the WebCT e-learning hub. But I guess I would definitely recommend these tools for a first-time user.

Learning Goals and Glossary

The WebCT Learning Goals tool may be linked to each page of content, enabling me to state concisely my learning goals for that section. The glossary works similarly.

I have used these tools quite effectively. Students can just click on the Goals icon at the top of a content page to see the relevant goals for that section, or the Glossary icon to chick on a definition. It is a bit tedious to enter these items, but once in, they are nice.

Student Presentation Area

As mentioned above, I am a proponent of student projects. I find the Student Presentation tool be very effective. First, it provides an easy way to create groups, either manually or at random. Second, it is a very nice, simple way of enabling students to make their group presentations. It can be used by students with only a rudimentary knowledge of HTML, but much more sophisticated presentations may be made as well. My students like it.

File Manager and other tools

The WebCT File Manager is simple but effective. It allows for zipping and unzipping of files, and you can do elementary editing of text files in it. I would like to see drop and drag capability, but that is probably a few versions away. Page layout is easier and more straightforward in version 3.1, but the notion of Welcome Page is still confusing to the novice. I have not used the Whiteboard, CD ROM, Search, Index, Image Database, or Self-Test Tools. The course map and designer map are very helpful, as is the Student Tracking Tool. Of course, the Course Backup tool is imperative, and it works well.

My students teach me a lot

It is my observation that these online tools give students greater control over their learning environment, thus promoting greater student responsibility in the learning process. My role is transformed from that of a teacher to more of a guide. Also, given the fact that many of these students are relatively sophisticated technologically, they teach me a lot and we work together to solve common problems. I do not subscribe to the conventional wisdom that these online tools inhibit communication and interaction. In fact, it is my observation that the quality of my interaction and communication with some of my students, as well as the frequency and currency of that interaction, is enhanced in the context of these online tools. And we all know that some students can better express themselves in an online context.

My students like this approach

It is my observation, borne out in evaluations, that students like this online approach, be it web enhanced or totally online. One of my favorite quotes from a student evaluation is "And, let's face it, I really like being able to have a beer while taking a quiz." Most are comfortable with the technology, they like the flexibility in scheduling, and they appreciate the fact that it is helping them to become better prepared to function in this century. For many of them it also gives them either an excuse to purchase a computer or it justifies a purchase already made. We have noted that the percentage of students who report their own independent access to the Internet is consistently above 50% and rising. This takes some of the pressure off of our college computer laboratories. Naturally, we continue to be concerned about those who are technophobes or who cannot afford access. But many of the former do manage to overcome those fears in these classes.

My students will forgive technological snafus

It is my experience that our students are generally more forgiving of technological problems than I might be. It is important, however, to let them know that you are working hard to resolve these issues and that they will not be penalized in the process. I am careful not to present too much material to my students at once. In particular, I have learned that some, particularly in developmental classes, can quickly fall victim to technological overload. Thus, I try to spread things out over several class periods, and I also repeat earlier technical topics.

Organization and planning are critical

I have learned that it is imperative for me to think through all of my systems very carefully and to do this before the course begins. We are operating on a much leaner margin of error in this online world, with correspondingly shorter timelines. Consequently, our former tendencies to “wing it” are counterproductive in this new context. Ideally, I think we should have the course “in the can” before the first student enrolls. I need my systems in place for logons and lost passwords and server problems and missed quizzes, etc. I find that even such a mundane thing as the file structure in WebCT can become an albatross if I don’t think it through carefully ahead of time. I also try to test as much of the system as I can, by logging as a fake student and by trying to think and act like my dizziest student.

Expect the unexpected

Despite all of my planning and organization, the unexpected always occurs. So I have to be tolerant and fleet-footed in order to respond quickly and effectively without expending too much emotional energy.

Good textual materials are still necessary

I have learned that as students take more responsibility for their own learning and as I teach less, the quality of the texts that they use is more important than ever. In our Business Calculus course, we are fortunate to have a national award winning text, and the students really like it because it has a real-world approach and because it de-emphasizes algebra.

Plagiarism is not a significant problem

I encourage collaboration in my classes, and I certainly do not know who is taking a particular quiz. But it has always been my philosophy that it is a good thing for my students to be talking about mathematics with someone else. And I do know that there is some cheating happening with the computer quizzes. However, all (non-online) students still have to take regular, in-class exams, and they also have to pass the final in order to pass the class. In the handful of instances where I suspected quiz cheating was occurring, the person involved was unable to pass the exams or the final, so the problem took care of itself, and I expect this phenomenon to continue.

Some general comments about WebCT

I believe that WebCT represents a very attractive suite of course presentation and management tools. In fact, from my reading of the literature, it is as good as any of its competitors. There are some drawbacks, however. I believe the company, which started out as an academic operation at the University of British Columbia and is now apparently part of the Thomson International conglomerate, has often tried to do too much too soon. As a result, there are usually many bugs in each new release of the software. But these are followed up with patches, and the product appears to be getting more stable.

Any serious user should regularly read the webct-users listserv, but be warned that there is a tremendous amount of traffic on this list (I have seen over 100 messages in some days) and much of it either involves other versions or operating systems, and it is often, to coin a word, techno-esoterica. Many of the users are put off by the increasingly commercial nature of some of the links on the students’ first "My WebCT" page. At my institution, we have experienced a natural tension between those of us, like myself, who always want us to have the latest version of all of our software, and the more conservative persons who would rather live with the bugs of the old version and the lack of new features rather than risk the new bugs of the unknown. But this is a healthy debate, and it is necessary.

I note that you are really giving WebCT a bad rap in your discussions, primarily because of its slowness. I am terribly disappointed with the speed of the WebCT being used in this course. Although we had similar problems when we were on version 2.0 and 2.1, it is no longer an issue for us. In fact, version 3.1.2 is quite fast, even on our slow server. I am sure that when we get it on our fast server, pages will load very quickly.

My limited experience with WebBoard is that it is an excellent text based conferencing tool. In particular, we have used it very successfully to prepare North Central Accreditation Teams for visits. However, it is much more limited in scope than the entire WebCT suite.

Resolve technical problems early and thoroughly

Back up your course on a regular schedule - at least weekly

Have an adequate computer setup

Ideally, you should have comparable hardware and software setups at home and at the office. I have all of my necessary software in both places. Initially I had a dial-up ISP, but I switched to a cable modem for speed and to enable me to look at the screen while I talked to a student.

Treat your technical staff with respect

Sometime during the semester you are going to need these people, and you certainly want them to be on your side. Absolutely the worst thing you can do is to shout at them or tell them how to do their job. Make sure that they are working to resolve your problem. We periodically treat our technical staff to doughnuts.

Find colleagues with whom you can share

It is impossible to do this job effectively if you are a lone wolf. You can find others on your campus or online or on listservs or through the Illinois Online Network or somewhere, but find them!

Be available, be prompt, and show concern

This online world operates on a different time metric. I try to be generally available to my students from early morning until 10 pm, including weekends. If you expect to do either a web enhanced or online course in 2 or 3 days per week, forget it. I try to keep my MTR (mean time to respond to e-mail) under one hour. I generally grade exams and post the scores on the day taken. Finally, I feel it is imperative that you demonstrate to your students that you believe in this approach to their learning and that you are passionate about it.

Online tools have enabled me to improve the learning of my students in several ways. I have traded off the relatively low productivity of grading homework for the higher order work of constructing questions and interacting with students. The students generally are taking more responsibility for their own learning. The computer provides an impersonal and objective structure for their learning activities. And all of us are having more fun, although it is still difficult for me to give up the role of classroom performer.


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