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