WebCT Faculty Profiles
WebCT, a course management software tool, has been in pilot usage for nearly 18 months at UC Davis. The program enables instructors to perform a variety of course-related functions online, from setting up self-test quizzes to teaching whole courses via the Web. In this issue, we highlight the efforts of three UC Davis instructors who have used WebCT.
Emilio Laca, Assistant Professor, Agronomy and Range ScienceLaca teaches Applications of Microcomputers in Agriculture, a very popular course required in several majors. The course is an introduction to computers and technology. Students learn to use basic spreadsheet, database, and wordprocessing programs, such as those found in Microsoft Office. "The idea is to ease them into it," says Laca.
Each quarter, about 270 students take the course, always leaving a long waiting list of disappointed students. The course, intended for freshman, includes a lab. Laca, with funding from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, decided to create an online version of the lab with WebCT.
"This course has lots of demand," says Laca. "We have to turn away hundreds of students every year. The bottleneck is really the lab space." The course is offered in nine sections for a total of 270 students, 30 in the lab at one time. Offering the lab online enabled Laca to offer the course to approximately 30 additional students.
The online lab was designed to mimic the structure of the physical lab. In the physical lab, each student has his or her own computer and completes the exercises during the lab, with an instructor in front leading the exercises (shown on a screen) and student lab techs observing the students and how they work their way through the exercises.
As Laca explains, there are no right or wrong ways to get to the end result of a particular exercise, so the lab employs student interns who observe the students' progress through each exercise. The online lab enabled the students to have the same instruction on the screen at the same time they were using the software to make their way through the exercises. An add-on piece of software tracked the students' progress per exercise.
Laca, with help from Mediaworks, used Quicktime to create movies and audio for the online instruction component.
Students participating in the online lab had access to the same materials and lectures as the traditional students, with the exception of not being able to attend labs.
Laca released the online labs once a week, so the online students had the power and flexibility to take the labs whenever they wanted to during a given week, and they could control how many times they could review the instructions simply by sliding a bar back and forth in the Quicktime window.
"There are some real advantages for students in this situation, most notably the ability to do the work on their own time and at their own pace," says Laca. But he pointed out there are some potential pitfalls as well.
Students who are asked to do this level of work via the Web must be comfortable with computers and technology. "There is a certain level of creativity and problem solving required. Students also need to possess a level of maturity that allows for the unpredictability that comes with the use of technology."
Laca cautions instructors to think carefully about the content of the course and the target student audience. "In retrospect, because this is an intro to computers, this may not be the most appropriate course to offer online, though I had only one student who clearly struggled with the technology," says Laca.
From the instructor's perspective, offering a course like this on the Web, particularly with the use of WebCT, brings a number of rewards and challenges.
Laca explains, "WebCT has so much functionality built into it that makes it a great tool." But as Victoria Cross, the resident Teaching Resource Center's expert on WebCT says, WebCT is "not trivial to learn."
"There are lots of concepts internal to WebCT that could take up to a couple of weeks to learn," says Laca. "I also had to learn a lot about all of the software (WebCT, Quicktime, Dreamweaver, Java scripting, and Windows 2000 Server) and hardware required to deploy this class. It took me two to three months full time, but it was a worthwhile investment."
Ting Guo, Assistant Professor, ChemistryGuo used WebCT for Chemistry 205 (Symmetry, Spectroscopy, and Structure) to post his lectures and syllabus and to create an email list for communicating with students. He also experimented with online quizzes.
"I learned about WebCT at SITT (Summer Institute on Technology in Teaching) last summer, and I was very impressed," says Guo.
Guo says that his comparisons of WebCT and MyUCDavis last summer led him to choose WebCT. "WebCT is more interactive, especially the testing component. I can develop simulations, provide context for each question, can limit each test or even question to a certain amount of time, and have more control over the sequence of questions based on a student's performance on previous questions," says Guo. "Looking at it this way, [the testing component] goes beyond just an online quiz to a whole new learning tool."
Guo says he sees the potential to use WebCT for another chemistry course that will be offered to approximately 400 students during winter quarter 2002, but he has concerns about the reliability of the program in pilot status.
"I'm an adventurer, but I like calculated adventures. The program has to be well-supported in order for me to commit to using it for a large number of students," says Guo.
Rick Pomeroy, Teacher Education Supervisor, Division of EducationPomeroy used WebCT in a science methods course, primarily to foster collaboration.
"I chose WebCT because it was the most full-featured course management software that I could find," says Pomeroy. "MyUCDavis did not offer the types of features that I wanted."
He also used the online discussion feature and once used the program for conducting the class meeting when he was away at a conference. Pomeroy says the program has the "potential to make communications, grading, and student work much easier."
Pomeroy says he is not yet convinced that WebCT is the "best tool" for his needs, but says it is important for instructors at UC Davis to know this type of program is available. "It will take a while before I am ready to encourage them to commit to it."
Like Guo, Pomeroy says he is interested in using WebCT again, but only if it is sufficiently supported.
Check It OutTo request a WebCT ID and course or to see the online tutorials and training schedule go to http://trc.ucdavis.edu/trc/technology/webct/.