A Look at Course Management Systems
Academic Computing Coordinating Council Releases Report
by Jeff van de Pol
In March, a subcommittee of the Academic Computing Coordinating Council (AC4) released a report with recommendations for the future of course management systems at UC Davis. These recommendations include continuing development of online instructional tools in MyUCDavis (the campus Web portal), extending the current WebCT pilot, and holding a symposium on course management systems to inform the selection of a course management tool for UC Davis instructors.

The report, prepared by the AC4 Subcommittee on Course Management Systems and Chair Harry Matthews, faculty director of Mediaworks, also recommended elevating MyUCDavis to Tier 1 critical system status and conducting a further review of course management systems in 12 months.

What is a Course Management System?
A course management system is a computer program that brings Web-based automation to many of the administrative aspects of teaching. Typically, faculty and students access the systems via a Web browser. Some of the administrative benefits of these systems include controlled access to materials, dynamic class lists and grade books, online management of assignments (e.g., Web delivery, grading, follow-up), and links to the student information system. The instructional benefits include integrated communication tools (e.g., chat rooms, Web pages, email lists) and tools for building online content (e.g., HTML page builder, animations, simulations).

According to the report, "There are many course management systems available, many originating on university campuses, and they are widely used in distance education programs and increasingly to automate administration of on-campus courses." These campus-specific systems include Catalyst at the University of Washington, Angel at the University of Indiana, and MyUCLA at the University of California Los Angeles. UC Davis provides some of the features of a course management system through the MyUCDavis Web portal, including dynamic links to BANNER student information system, dynamic class lists, and other communication tools (course Web pages, class bulletin boards, and a text-to-HTML converter). Plans are underway to include a gradebook and self quiz, pending funding approval (for more on MyUCDavis, see Story).

There are also many commercial offerings, including WebCT, Blackboard CourseInfo, and TopClass that offer a wide range of features.

Piloting WebCT at UC Davis
During spring quarter 2000, the Teaching Resources Center (TRC) and Information and Educational Technology (IET) supported pilots of two of the more popular commercial course management systems: WebCT and Blackboard CourseInfo. Ten faculty members were recruited and their progress followed from both a technical and a user viewpoint. The final recommendation of the pilot study was to continue piloting WebCT with interested instructors (for more information, see TRC Course Management Tools Page). The AC4 has recommended continuing the WebCT pilot through winter 2002, when the AC4 will reevaluate course management options.

To date, 43 instructors have established accounts. Seventeen have attended training hosted by the TRC, and twelve others have signed up for summer training sessions. In all 55 courses have been established, with an additional 24 demonstration courses set up. To learn more about how some instructors are using the program, see the Web CT faculty profiles. By July, the Banner database will automatically populate a course set up in WebCT with all the pertinent information for each student. Over the next year, faculty training and support requirements for a campuswide implementation will be assessed.

"WebCT provides faculty with a number of advantages," says Victoria Cross, 3ho provides WebCT support from the Teaching Resources CEnter (TRC). "It offers a comprehensive set of tools to get course materials online. Faculty have a tremendous amount of control over what materials to release according to a variety of criteria, taking it beyond an administrative system to a very sound pedagogical tool. And faculty can easily reuse courses." Interested faculty should visit the TRC's WebCT page.

So Many Options...
Early results from the pilot have also highlighted the complexity of choosing a comprehensive course management system. According to the AC4 report, WebCT, while popular at other campuses, currently lacks certain features necessary for campuswide implementation at UC Davis. These missing features include Kerberos support (the campus's existing authentication method), the ability to exchange and retrieve information with other systems through an industry-standard relational database, and the ability to scale the system to a level necessary for campuswide use. The company responsible for WebCT has recognized these issues and has pledged to address them over the next two years.

Recognizing these limitations, the AC4 subcommittee recommended "expanded deployment of both the course management features of MyUCDavis and one or more commercial course management systems including WebCT." The report also suggests a further review in 12 months, at which time "the use of these features and programs should be evaluated...to see how far the technology has matured and if it is then feasible to move to full production of one or more of these services."

Several of the course management features of MyUCDavis recommended by the committee's report are either already available through the portal or are under development, according to Joyce Johnstone, project manager for MyUCDavis. For instance, Web-based email is available and Web-based file storage and sharing (MySpace) is under development.

Course Management Symposium in the Works
With many universities already using different variations and combinations of either a university-developed or commercial course management system, the report also suggests that the AC4 host a symposium with contributors from other campuses. According to Matthews, "Such a symposium could focus on best practices for implementation, to allow UC Davis to make optimum use of the next 12 months of continued development of both homegrown and commercial systems. The symposium would also highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the approaches, allowing UC Davis to devise better evaluation strategies." The symposium is currently scheduled to take place in the fall. For more information, contact Andrea Ullrey at alullrey@ucdavis.edu.

To download a copy of the subcommittee's report, see http://ac4.ucdavis.edu/minutes/03_19_01/#agend2.

 Related IT Times stories

 This Issue
WebCT Faculty Profiles

MyUCDavis Makes a Short List


Other Resources


Catalyst (U of Washington)

Angel (U of Indiana)


TRC Course Management Tools Page


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