Department of Computer Science

Experiences using a web-based tool for course support

Scott Hazelhurst
Department of Computer Science

Postscript version for printing

1. Introduction

The University has identified the use of information technology as a strategic issue in teaching, research and administration. The wide-spread use of the internet has raised the possibility of internet technology being used in the delivery and support of courses offered by the University. Various suggestions have been made - with varying degrees of enthusiasm - on how this technology can be used.

In 1998, the Senate Committee on Student Development granted me R2000 to explore the use of a web-based tool for the delivery and support of course material. The objective of my work was to explore how web-based tools can be used, and what the advantages and costs are.

The tool was used in presenting the course Data Abstraction and Algorithms II in 1998. The course was taught twice:

The tools was used in different ways by each lecturer. Other lecturers expressed interest in using the tool, but for reasons of time pressure did not.

Section 2 discusses the tool that was used, the features and costs. Section 3 discusses the experiences of using the tool, and Section 4 concludes with some recommendations. In summary the conclusion and recommendations that this report makes are:

2. The tool used: WebCT

The tool that was used is called WebCT, developed by WebCT Educational Technologies, a spin-off company from the University of British Columbia. A number of other tools are available, but when I made the choice I did not have time to do a proper comparative survey.

Note: This report is based on the use of WebCT. While the discussion does focus on WebCT, I believe that many of the later comments are generic in nature. While my experience of WebCT was positive, this report is not meant as an endorsement.

There is a large amount of documentation and published papers concerning the use of WebCT, most of which can be found on the web1. Section 2.1 gives on overview of the features of WebCT; Section 2.2 discusses setup and system requirements; and Section 2.3 describes how we used WebCT.

2.1 Overview of features

Some of the features that WebCT provides are:

2.2 Set-up and requirements

WebCT runs on a server machine (either Unix or Windows NT)2. The machine need not be dedicated to WebCT use. The users (whether the instructors or the students) interact with WebCT using a standard web-browser on any machine (Netscape 3 or above). Unless limitations are placed on the machine, a user can access the server from anywhere on the internet

To set up WebCT on the server requires reasonable but not highly expert knowledge of the system running on the server. The typical system administrator should be able to do this easily. From then on, all interaction is done using the web. One person acts as ``Administrator''. Using a web interface the administrator can create a new course and give the login and password to the lecturer who will be responsible for the course. Using a web interface the lecturer can create the course material, create accounts for the students and tutors, and perform any administration relevant to the course. The individual students access the account through the web.

The WebCT tool provides facilities for the production of course material. Thus no skills beyond using the web browser and WebCT are necessary. However, for productive use it is desirable that the bulk of the course material is produced in a reasonable format (preferably HTML) and then uploaded to WebCT. Many standard word processors (e.g. LATEX, Microsoft Word, ...) have facilities to produce the document in HTML format and there are a number of other products of a range of sophistication that can be used to produce HTML code directly (e.g. FrontPage, emacs).

The learning curve is reasonable so a lecturer can start to produce reasonable material with minimal extra skills, and as they learn more (e.g. HTML, Java etc) they can get as fancy as they like.

4.2 Costing

WebCT is provided on a time and user-based licence. There is no cost for downloading the WebCT system, experimenting and creating the course material. The charge is based on the number of student accounts created (a student registered in three courses concurrently would need three accounts). We had a four month, 200 person licence, which cost us US$300. A year's licence that would more than cover the needs of the Department of Computer Science costs US$1250. A single-server, unlimited user, 12 month licence costs US$3000. The WebCT documentation indicates that discounts for multiple licences may be possible, and that for renewing customers prices will not increase by more than 5% per year. I tried to find prices for competing products but without much success.

While these costs are not trivial, the costs of the software are quite manageable for us (and we might be able to press some vendors for `developing country' prices) and do not constitute a barrier.

The costs in using such technology come elsewhere:

These costs require serious consideration and are discussed later in the document.

2.3 Our use of WebCT

2.3.1 Course material

The most important part of the course material on WebCT were the lecture notes for the course which had previously been produced by a lecturer in the Department3. The original document was in Microsoft Word, and was converted semi-automatically into HTML format. A simple glossary and index were created for the material and few self-tests were added.

WebCT was used for a few tests, administered on-line to students in their laboratory groups. The lecturer evaluation was conducted on-line using this facility.

Laboratories, tutorials assignments and extra material were placed on-line.

System set-up

We ran WebCT on a fairly old Unix workstation that is used as a general compute server in the mathematical sciences. The performance of the server did not appear to be a problem. The lecturers used Netscape on Unix machines, Macintoshes, or PCs running Windows 95; our students ran Netscape on in the lab on Macintosh PowerPCs, and those who have internet access at home could have used any machine.

3. Experience


This section reports some of our experience with WebCT. Unfortunately, most of our experience is anecdotal as we did not have the resources to conduct a proper study.

4. Conclusion and Recommendations

4.1 General remarks

Overall, my experience was positive and I believe that Wits as an institution should put some resources into developing web-based education, based upon our strategic plans and the educational objectives we see we will gain.

Before making specific recommendations, I have a few general points.

4.2 Costing

On a small scale, Departments with reasonable technical expertise such as Computer Science or Electrical Engineering can adopt this technology with very modest investments and the new technology would not put any significant extra burden on technical staff. Central resources will be needed for effective wider use, but these would be modest in relation to the objectives (if the objectives are met by the technology). I believe there is enough evidence to support some pilot studies, and that the cost of these pilot studies is justifiable based on the possible benefits.

From the user side, this assumes that staff and students have access to computers. New entry-level machines (whether Pentiums, Macintoshes or whatever) will be able to meet the needs adequately. In the short-term there may be some problems with older machines but natural attrition will deal with this.

The real costs will be in the human resources required to develop and maintain educational resources. There are many examples of successes using this technology as enthusiastic, bright people put lots of resources in doing fun things. But this doesn't mean that this is the most productive way of using resources, or sustainable in the longer term.

4.3 Recommendations

There is potential for the use of this technology and we should take some steps to evaluate how the technology can be used effectively. Having some central resources to minimise the duplication of resources is very desirable.

Choose a web-based technology:

We should pick a web-based technology for adoption in the University. This would not be prescriptive in that people should be allowed to adopt other technologies if they want, but the University should provide some support for the chosen tool. Some subsidy would be given to people using the tool (through the purchase of site licences), and someone should be given the task of gaining experience in using the tool so that academic departments that adopt the tool would have technical support.

I have had positive experience with one tool, but clearly a study needs to be done to make a choice. A number of other Universities have done similar studies so we can draw upon these and we need not reinvent the wheel. There are educational criteria in terms of functionality and ease of use that can be found in the literature. There are also technical criteria that we should bear in mind. Some are:

We may need to tie ourselves to a particular vendor for the web-based tool, but we do not want to tie ourselves to particular hardware or operating systems platforms. There is some effort in standardising this type of system (the IMS project) and whatever platform is chosen should have a commitment to IMS.

Collection of resources:

We should have a resource centre for case studies which contains the international literature on the subject as well as local experience. Someone should be mandated to keep this material and to keep in touch with initiatives such as the IMS project. We need to share information so that we don't duplicate efforts.

Pilot studies:

We should identify courses that could benefit from web-based technologies. These should be courses that have reasonably large registrations, where computer labs are available, and where the course is likely to stable for at least three years. How much resources we put in should depend on what importance the University places in this. I would suggest the purchase of a reasonable server machine, the cost of licence fees for selected projects and some technical support for a selected range of courses for a three year project

The objectives of these studies are to build capacity in the area and to learn how to use the technology effectively.

Distance education:

Although there is potential for distance education, I recommend that we leave this for the future until we have more experience. Rather we should concentrate on what we do well, better. There may be room for some pilot experiments - for example some of the admissions tests could be done remotely, but we should focus our energies appropriately.


Vashti Galpin and Philip Machanick gave a variety of help, Gloria Aikhorin cleaned up the web pages, and the Department of Computer Science contributed financially.

5. Update: 8 July 1999

This is an appendix to the report I wrote on 7 February 1999 for the Senate Committee on Academic Development.

On 17 and 18 June 1999 I attended the First Annual WebCT Conference on Learning Technologies held at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.

The conference was very well attended with well over 500 very enthusiastic delegates from many different countries attending. Most of the delegates seemed to come from the equivalents of the Academic Development Centre, though there were also a number of subject matter lecturers and representatives of publishing companies. I met delegates from the Universities of Stellenbosch and Pretoria and the South African distributor of WebCT.

It is clear from the presentations and posters that the use of technology such as WebCT for the delivery of course material has grown dramatically all over the world. Compared to previous technologies (such as television and traditional computer-based education) there is a qualitatively much deeper and broader penetration and use of the technology.

Many exciting and interesting case studies were presented at the conference. A number of universities now have extensive investments in courses with a significant component of web-based material. There was a remarkable range of different types of courses and ways in which the web was used in the courses. Some courses were completely web-based, and some used the web to support existing courses. A minority of the courses appeared to be intended for distance learning.

One of the things that I was interested in was the model which the universities adopted for the introduction of the technology. My subjective impression is that at most institutions the initial introduction was `bottom-up' having been initially used by a few individuals before wider adoption. There were some case studies of `top-down' approaches where the university executive had been responsible for the introduction of the technology and encouraging departments to use it.

Two developments that appear positive are:

Two negative aspects came out:

In summary, I was positively impressed by what has been achieved. However, we must take care not to be swept away by the hype that surrounds the technology since the benefits and costs have not been properly evaluated. My experiences at this conference have reconfirmed the recommendations I made in my report. In particular:

In addition, I think it is important that we use the pilot studies to do proper evaluations of the use of the technology in our environment.

As a concrete proposal, I suggest that:

I have the proceedings of the conference - unfortunately it was damaged in transit so is not suitable for putting in the library but if anyone wants to look at them, they are welcome to contact me.

About this document ...

Experiences using a web-based tool for course support

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... web1 or
... NT)2
WebCT Educational Technologies will host a course on their machines, but given the slowness of internet lines this clearly is not a practicable solution for us.
... Department3
From Data Structures to Algorithms in C++ by Philip Machanick
... prepare4
By which I mean that once you know what questions and answers you want to ask, it is easy to upload the questions. I am not suggesting it is easy to create the multiple choice questions in the first place.
... well5
In fact it is not quite anonymous as you can see who has and hasn't responded. With the connivance of a system administrator and a lot of effort the lecturer could work out the identities of some of the authors of some of the answers. But no more effort is required to match handwriting on the ADC surveys with exams, so I don't see this as a real issue.

Scott Hazelhurst