Course Management Tools Mature: Resource Libraries on the Web

Only a year or two ago, Web-based courses were considered interesting and unusual alternatives to traditional fare, and any instructor teaching a section solely on the Internet was a pioneer. Now, most college campuses offer a variety of opportunities for teaching and learning on the Web. Course management tools such as WebCT, Blackboard, and Jenzabar have become everyday teaching vehicles for posting course materials and links to learning resources on a course Web site. It follows then that as faculty members, students, and IT staff become more sophisticated users of the Internet and World Wide Web, the purveyors of these course management packages are looking beyond providing templates and tool kits, to offering content as well.

Since many instructors of online courses refer students to online resources, and a large percentage of students use the Web for at least some of their academic research, it makes good business sense for a course management provider to position itself as the starting point for finding reliable information on the Web. Currently the most robust package of content available comes in WebCT's e-Learning Hub, a content source for dozens of academic disciplines and sub-disciplines, from biology to writing. Content, in this case, is defined broadly to include text material from commercial publishers, self-published faculty material, reference content, and links to hundreds of journals that offer their back issues online. Much of the content is free, but some, notably material available from textbook publishers, must be purchased.

Finding the content on the WebCT site is easy for most of the subject areas. Visitors click on "find resources" or "library" within one of the e-Learning community's many disciplines—currently 15 are established, and more than twice that many are listed as "emerging." Within the chemistry category, for instance, there are 23 subcategories, allowing users to tailor a search for content. Links within these subcategories are carefully annotated and vetted by editors familiar with the academic terrain.

WebCT has partnered with Bell and Howell Information and Learning's XanEdu ReSearch Engine, an online collection of newspapers, periodicals, magazines, journals, and dissertations. This vast database is available to any student who registers with WebCT. Partial access is free, and for a nominal fee, registrants get complete access to XanEdu's treasure trove of academic content.

In addition to offering access to academic content, WebCT's e-Learning Hub is a learning community. Students can get advice from the ask-an-expert feature, staffed either by WebCT consultants who are experts in their field of study, or users who have been reviewed by WebCT and deemed expert. Registered users can ask a general question or one that is discipline specific. Those are directed to experts dubbed "Dr. Biology" or "Dr. Education," depending on the topic. Although some students appear to be trying to get their homework done by sending the questions in to the experts, many students are using the service as an opportunity to study a topic in depth and expand their use of the Web. There are articles, eColloquia, and discussion groups defined by academic discipline as well as discipline-specific topics.

A Community of Resources

WebCT's e-Learning Hub is a useful portal for instructors and students seeking in-depth information on a particular academic topic. Within some disciplines, such as mathematics, education, and history, there are hundreds of links. Happily, WebCT has organized them into logical hierarchies that simplify searching for even the most inexperienced Web surfer.

Since many of us have already bookmarked major sites within our areas of interest, the most valuable contributions in the Hub may be WebCT's own original materials and compilations for academic support. For instance, students struggling with college algebra may appreciate the Algebra Problem of the Week (http://mathforum.com/algpow/), which provides a weekly challenge along with its solution. World history instructors may want to surf the useful list of academic sites compiled by WebCT expert and Washburn University Professor Sara Tucker (www.webct.com/ History/ViewContent?contentID=1807236). Students of art history can explore WebCT's list of online museum tours (www.webct.com/History/library/ browseCommunity?objectID=361407&categoryID=311737&sIndex=0).

Always worth a look are the Hub's "best of the Web" lists. The history "best" list currently includes links to sites on the American colonies, jazz, the Supreme Court, and "smoking gun" documents for conspiracy followers, along with established authoritative resources such as the Library of Congress. The education community's best sites include links to thousands of lesson plans, background on instructional media theory, and cultural arts resources.

Although several of the science communities are still in development, there are plenty of resources here for biologists and chemists. Along with links to the American Chemical Society and Lawrence Berkeley Labs, the chemistry "best sites" list includes the Mad Scientists' Network, the Why Files, and How Stuff Works (www.webct.com/Chemistry/ViewContent?contentID=2385430) pages.

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