Not Just Another Pretty Course Web Site

About three years ago, our department head challenged our faculty to develop a Web site for each and every course they teach. The rationale was that students need support for what happens in the classroom and the Web could be the most flexible and efficient way to do that. The Web allows us to relay important announcements to our students through, for example, e-mail, an electronic bulletin board, and even something as simple as a pop-up message. It also serves as a distribution point for materials, such as instructional supplements, assignment handouts, or presentations.

Now our department head wasn't irrational. He knew that the faculty couldn't—or wouldn't—meet this challenge without support. We began to tirelessly develop static Web pages for each course. Subsequently we trained support staff—typically secretaries and/or graduate/student assistants—in basic Web page editing so that they could make the necessary updates. Realizing the tediousness and inefficiency of this task and knowing that developing static Web content was fast becoming an obsolete strategy, these practices didn't last long.

At the time, one of our alternatives was to use a well-known course management system that was available throughout campus. However, a number of the faculty had attempted to use it in the past and weren't pleased with its options, functionality, or reliability. Furthermore, we had little control over the system at the departmental level. This inspired the in-house development of our own system. The end product of this development has been in operation for over a year now, and early feedback has been very positive. Let me mention that the term “system” suggests the development of an elaborate monstrosity. On the contrary, our “system” merely uses common, run-of-the-mill Web technologies.

The system uses Active Server Pages to create dynamic Web sites. Data needed to create a site for each course taught in a term is imported into a database at the beginning of the semester. For simplicity in management and because it's so small, each course has its own individual database. The database contains pre-defined tables for the materials that will be uploaded, grades, information about the students that will populate the course, and more.

Next, through a Web-based interface, faculty members and their support staff simply have to manage files and/or fill in forms to further develop their course site. For example, if the faculty member has a handout that they want to distribute, they log in, go to the administration page for their course, and complete a form. The form includes fields for a link title, a description of the file, a classification (e.g. handouts, assignments, lectures, etc.), a field to specify a time frame (data), if desired, that the file will be accessible, and a field used to browse and select the file to be uploaded. So, with only a few clicks, they have added content to their site.

The system allows them to upload almost any type of document (e.g. HTML, Word, PDF, PowerPoint, etc.), then dynamically creates the link, with the text specified in the link title field, to the file being uploaded. The page that the link is included on is based on the classification, so you could have a separate page for handouts, assignments, cases, and so on. Those classifications are predefined but can easily be changed at the instructor's request.

The system also includes an online grade book for each course. Grade management also works through an upload/download process. The instructor simply manages grades in an Excel workbook and saves that workbook as a CSV file. Then, the file can be uploaded directly into the system. When it's uploaded, that file populates the grade book table in the database. If the instructor needs to update grades, he/she can simply download a copy of that file, which the database generates through an automated export process, make the necessary changes, and repeat the upload process.

Other features include an e-mail distribution list, course announcements section, and a links archive. The e-mail distribution list is automatically created, for each class, from the student profiles. Through a Web-based e-mail option, the instructor can send e-mail to the whole class without having to use normal e-mail software to create a distribution list. This is ideal for simple message distribution. The instructor also has the option to change the text (or “announcement”) that is displayed on the course home page. This announcement section lets the instructor give the students information, for example, about upcoming assignments, class cancellations, and the like. Maintaining a links archive is another option—the instructor can provide the class with a list of links relevant to the course. Finally, if they so desire, instructors can request access to a discussion forum for their class that allows for online collaboration. I should mention that the discussion forum tool used is an off-the-shelf system that we integrated into ours.

From the standpoint of the student, they first must register for a departmental portal account. Once logged into the portal, they see departmental announcements, they can create a list of their own links, and they can browse a list of current course Web sites. This list allows them to add links to the courses they are currently enrolled in. The end result is one-stop shopping, sort to speak, to each of their courses from anywhere they have Web access. It lets them easily retrieve coursework supplements, review lecture material, review grades, and communicate with the instructor. This, in fact, is beneficial to the instructor as well because they can manage course content from anywhere too!

When students enter the course for the first time, the system asks for verification that they are in the class. When they complete the verification, data relevant to them (first and last name, e-mail address, etc.) is added to the course database tables, thus creating a student profile for that student, in that course. This is when the student is added to the grade book and the e-mail distribution list.

Finally, the elegant simplicity of the system has led us to migrate from the above mentioned campuswide course management system to a complementary system for delivery of our Web-based Executive MBA program. Thus, we were able to meet different instructional needs with similar technology.

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