Designing e-learning courses in WebCT environment: a case study

R. Põldaru, J. Roots, R. Ruus and J. Lehtsaar Estonian University of Life Sciences, 51014 Tartu, Estonia; reet.poldaru&emu.ee Abstract E-learning using WebCT technologies and computers to improve learner’s skill and knowledge has the many advantages: space is not needed, learners do not need to wait until a class is available, learners can complete training when it is least disruptive to their schedule; and the methods can increase learner’s interesting, deliver contents clearly, and feedback students easily. Due to these advantages of e-learning, the popularity of e-learning has dramatically increased over the past few years. Successful use of e-learning systems may be attributed to the availability of Learning Management Systems (LMS) or learning environment. One of the most popular learning environments for facilitating the delivery of online education is WebCT. The interface is easy to use and efficient for students taking online courses. In this paper current use of WebCT teaching and learning in Estonian University of Life Sciences is discussed, the online course design process is described. The efforts reported in this paper show that creating accessible distance learning courses is an ongoing effort, not a one-time project. Discussion showed that using WebCT have for learners many advantages, the management and measurement of learning processes is automatic, but the automatic assessment should be improved. Keywords: e-learning, learning management systems; WebCT; operations research Introduction The advances in computer and network technology, advances in using data base management systems (DBMS) and new data analysis procedures provided by current data mining (DM) are substantially changed the situation in the field of data processing (DP) and information and communication technologies (ICT). Changes should also be taken in teaching and training of new methods and technologies. Learning is perhaps the most indispensable activity in the current knowledge-based new economy characterized by industrial change, globalization, increased intensive competition, knowledge sharing and transfer, and information technology revolution. The Internet and associated technologies have spurred evolutionary business, including learning and teaching, processes in higher education organizations. Before the last decade, most colleges and universities providing distance education used face-to-face sessions. Recently, broad use of the Internet for conducting instruction has become popular in universities. Online initiatives are changing the way we teach and learn, who we learn with, and where we are learning. E-learning using technologies and computers to improve learner’s skill and knowledge has the following advantages (Weller, 2007): space is not needed, learners do not need to wait until a class is available, learners can complete training when it is least disruptive to their schedule, and the methods can increase learner’s interesting, deliver contents clearly, and feedback students easily. Due to these advantages of e-learning, the popularity of e-learning has dramatically increased over the past few years.

The popularity of e-learning is characterized by the vast number of journals/magazines/newsletters and others resources publishing articles and papers on online learning. The Editor-In-Chief of The Internet and Higher Education (Dringus, 2008) has collected over 120 resources (50 journals, 31 useful web sites, recommended texts and other resources) related to online learning. All Web links are accessible in the electronic version of the article in Science Direct. Another example of popularity of e-learning American Education Research Association (AERA) web site (AERA, 2008) of online journals contains 246 items. Considering the constant increasing of resources on the Web (both static documents and functional components and software) it becomes almost impossible for the learners, authors and instructors to get an overview of all the available information relevant to their current needs, tasks, roles and goals. And even if they find some materials, which seem to be suitable, they are not able to assess completely whether the found content is entirely appropriate for their goals (for instructors) or current knowledge and cognitive state (for learners) (Aroyo and Dicheva, 2004). Within the class of Web-based educational systems, a major role in various instructional contexts play the Educational Information Systems (Virtual Learning Environment) that are aimed at providing intelligent, task-centred information support for solving problems and performing learning tasks. A virtual learning environment (VLE) is a software system designed to support teaching and learning (Weller, 2007). A VLE typically provides tools such as those for assessment, communication, uploading of content, return of students’ work, administration of student groups, questionnaires, tracking tools, wikis, blogs, chats, forums, etc. over internet. Such e-learning systems are sometimes also called learning management system (LMS), course management system (CMS), learning content management system (LCMS), managed learning environment (MLE), learning support system (LSS) or learning platform (LP); it is education via computer-mediated communication (CMC) or online education (Martín-Blas, and SerranoFernández, 2009). In the United States, CMS and LMS are the more common terms, however LMS is more frequently associated with software for managing corporate training programs rather than courses in traditional education institutions. In the United Kingdom and many European countries the terms VLE and MLE are used more frequently; however, these are two very different things. A VLE can be considered a subsystem of a MLE, whereas MLE refers to the wider infrastructure of information systems in an organization that support and enable electronic learning. There are many e-learning platforms. Some of them are commercial software, whereas others are open-source software (OSS). Among the first category are WebCT (Web Course Teaching) and Blackboard http://www.blackboard.com/us/index.bbb (that merged in 2006). Examples of opensource platforms are Moodle http://moodle.org/, Ilias http://www.ilias.de/, Atutor http://www. atutor.ca/ and Claroline http://www.claroline.net/. All these applications have common features, but some of them are more flexible and complete in specific aspects, such as role assignments, chats management, etc. An analysis of the use of learning management systems (LMS) at colleges and universities in the United States of America (Falvo et al., 2007) shows, that the most popular LMS used at colleges and universities in the United States was Blackboard (33%). The second most used system was WebCT (18%). (Blackboard recently acquired WebCT and both systems are now owned by one company). Blackboard (www.blackboard.com), formed in 1997, offers various web-based software products for online learning. The Blackboard LMS is sophisticated and easy to use by both designers and course participants. The use of Blackboard spans beyond higher education; Blackboard is used in K-12 schools and in corporate training environments.

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WebCT (www.webct.com), much like Blackboard, is used around the world in multiple learning environments. The interface is easy to use and efficient for students taking online courses. The Campus Edition of the LMS was designed to include tools for interactive learning and to help learners efficiently use those tools. In WebCT, the course designer’s role is somewhat complicated. However, there are numerous training and support tools for course builders built into the system. These online courses are typically conducted in one of three environments: • completely online without face-to-face interaction; • as hybrid courses where the class frequently meets face-to-face, as well as online; • as face-to face courses with integrated web-based support materials and activities. In Estonia the adoption of e-learning is coordinated by a consortium Estonian e-University (EeU). The consortium was founded in 2002 consisting of the Estonian Ministry of Education and Science, Estonian Information Technology Foundation (EITF) and eight higher education institutions (Laanpere et al., 2004). Majority of Estonian universities are using two different systems to support learning management: web based Study Information System (SIS) – which is normal university level ICT-based information system to help university management (student registration, statistics of study results etc.); and Learning Management System (LMS) – systems like WebCT or Blackboard which aim is to support learning process itself. Both systems have common parts (for example: student registration), but according to our study, both systems have been developed in many universities separately and are not yet connected – lists of registered students are transferred manually not automatically from one system to another for example. Number of universities plan to develop automatic connection between those two systems, but obviously this will take time (Villems et al., 2005). From the very beginning of the EeU, there have been extensive discussion whether the EeU should have a unified learning management system (LMS) platform. While WebCT has gained a good foothold in Estonia (used by University of Tartu, Tallinn Technical University, Estonian Business School and IT college) its future acceptance has recently been seriously challenged by its changing pricing policy as well as increasing competition offered by free, open-source LMS’s (Laanpere et al., 2004, Villems et al., 2004). Estonian University of Life Sciences (EULS) is a member of consortium Estonian e-University (EeU). While the EeU recommend to use unified learning management system WebCT that system is implemented in EULS. The aims of this paper are: • to determine the current use of WebCT teaching and learning in Estonian University of Life Sciences; • to identify the factors and requirements affecting the design of e-learning course in WebCT environment; • to develop (to design) a e-learning course of ‘Operations Research’ in WebCT environment; • to analyse lessons learned from designing the e-learning courses in Estonian University of Life Sciences. This paper is organized as follows. First, we present a review of the current use of WebCT teaching and learning in Estonian University of Life Sciences. Then, the principles of design of e-learning course in WebCT environment are proposed. Next, the design of an e-learning course of ‘Operations Research’ in WebCT environment is described. The final section discusses the findings of the study and concludes the paper.

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Current usage of WebCT teaching and learning in Estonian University of Life Sciences In the resent years computers and Internet was used in Estonian University of Life Sciences for teaching and learning purposes in different directions: • simple use of Internet in teaching purposes; • using of simple teaching programs – tutors in teaching purposes; • using special World Wide Web-based environment – WebCT. Simple use of Internet in teaching purposes Simple use or self-study means that you learn on your own with your computer and learning materials are on a CD, in your network or the Internet. This process is sometimes called distance education. The next step in simple use is the leader-led situation. It means that you learn with your computer. Learning materials (problems etc.) are assigned by an instructor via Internet or otherwise. The students send the answers of problems via Internet to the instructor. The instructor verifies the answers and informs the students about the results. We used this technology in several years in teaching ‘linear programming’, ‘econometrics’ and ‘operations research’ for distance learning students. Our experience shows that students save time and travel expenses considerably. But instructor’s time spent in teaching increased considerable. Using of simple teaching programs – tutors (tutorials) in teaching purposes The second possibility to use e-learning are special simple teaching programs. Studies have shown that students with private human tutors have outperformed students in a standard classroom (McArthur et al., 1990). A major strength of such one on tutoring is, that it can be used to identify the student’s missing skills and then teach that absent skill so that the problem can be solved correctly. This appears to be similar to the notion of programmed instruction. Programmed instruction is a teaching innovation introduced by the renowned psychologist B.F. Skinner. It is described as specially designed written material that sequentially presents small amounts of information, provides prompts to elicit the correct response, and immediately reinforces the knowledge base with correct responses. This also allows the student to work at his or her own pace and leads to a smoother transition from previously learnt knowledge to recently acquired knowledge. The existence of a tutorial on the web could help those students who need relearning. The tutorials in particular offer a unique opportunity for topics where knowledge acquisition requires a better understanding and practice in problem solving. This is especially so in such areas as breakeven analysis, project management, computer programming, and linear programming. Tutorials may also help students to develop general analytical skills for business decision making. For example, the researchers of the Estonian University of Life Sciences have some experience in designing and implementing such tutors in teaching linear programming simplex algorithm. The first version of a tutor was designed about ten years ago using Lotus macros. This courseware was organized as menu-based dialog system. The tutor was used during many years in teaching linear programming simplex algorithm for face to face and distance students also. A new version, a VBA based tutorial on the MS Excel environment was designed in 2003 (Põldaru et al., 2004). The new version was used during many years in teaching linear programming simplex algorithm for face to face and distance students also. Another example of using tutor programs in teaching of mathematics and mechanics. The simple procedure of animation in the Mathcad environment makes it possible for the learners to visualise mathematics in the learning process (Heinloo and Saks, 2003; Heinloo and Tärgla, 2006).

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Using WebCT in Estonian University of Life Sciences The next step to use e-learning is special educational environment in teaching. WebCT is used in EULS since 2002. Next we discuss some examples. We have implemented the e-learning courses ‘Theory of Probability and Statistics’ and ‘Operations Research’ in Estonian University of Life Sciences both for full-time and distance learning students in the Institute of Economics and Social Sciences. Those are face-to-face courses with integrated web-based support materials and activities. The main accent of the e-part of those courses is solving exercises and problems purposed to make students work all the term round, not only during their examination sessions. Design of e-learning course in WebCT environment Short characterisation of WebCT environment One of the most popular software products for facilitating the delivery of online education is WebCT. Designed by a company in Canada nearly a decade ago (UBC, 2004). WebCT has grown in features and customers steadily. As early as in 2001 over 2200 institutions in over 70 countries was using WebCT (Clark, 2002). In February 2006, WebCT was acquired by rival Blackboard Inc. As part of the acquisition terms with Blackboard, the WebCT name will be phased out in favor of the Blackboard brand. WebCT had long been criticized for being the most difficult of the course management systems to use. This criticism partly reflected the flexibility of the system - where other systems present a single way of organizing or adding course material, WebCT offered several options with more of the structure left to the individual instructor. The ‘Vista’ version of the product represented an attempt to derive a more even balance between flexibility and ease of use, and while it has been successful in some ways, it still suffers from being more flexible but less easy to use than some of its competitors. Some WebCT criticisms which were apparent include problems using it in multiple tabs or browser windows, heavy reliance on Java for its user experience (LSEPS, 2006), usage of too many browser, issues with some features requiring pop-up blockers to be turned-off and problems using standard browser navigation tools (i.e. the Back and Forward commands). In addition, organisations that have bought licences for the non-vista version of this product have no rights to re-write script and experience ‘bugs’ which they cannot resolve themselves and which often seem to cascade from ‘fixes’ written by the Blackboard programmers. Despite the critics WebCT is known as one of the best course management systems. WebCT provides a number of learning tools, including an online Discussion Board, course content searches, a course calendar, electronic mail, auto-marked quizzes, navigation tools, access control, grade maintenance and distribution, student progress tracking, etc. (Clark, 2002). Like some other learning systems, it provides a standard way to organize course materials and integrate multimedia presentations in course delivery. More important, it is designed to support collaborative learning, knowledge building, and multiple representations of ideas and knowledge structure. The literature indicates that cooperation, coordination, and collective approaches are all desirable characteristics. Learners in a cooperative environment have been found to outperform other work groups. In addition, student learning and satisfaction can be significantly enhanced when a collaborative assessment approach is taken (Yip, 2004). Design of e-learning course in WebCT environment Design of an e-learning course can be divided into several steps.

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The first step in this process is to determine the target group of the course and it’s level of knowledge in the field of the course. After that the next step – design must take place. It is a very complicated process. The designer must point out the objectives of the course, find the most suitable tools to gain the objectives and decide how to control the results of learning process. These decisions depend on the type of the e-course – either is it a completely online course without face-to-face interaction or is it a faceto-face course with integrated web-based support materials and activities or is it something else. The next step – development is the phase where syllabus, teaching materials and the means of control are created in LMS. Usually these two steps are more or less integrated. Before the implementation of the e-course in real learning process it is advisable that the e-course is tested by colleagues or by a small group of students. Evaluation of the course must take place at the end of the e-learning course to determine the effectiveness of the learning process. Usually it follows that some changes must be taken in the e-course. It seems that ‘finally ready’ e-course is a ‘dead’ course. Design of an e-learning course of ‘Operations Research’ in WebCT environment Designing of an e-learning course of ‘Operations Research’ in WebCT environment consist of different steps: • The first step in this process is to compose the course content file, that provides course name (Operations Research), determines the target group of the course (students in the Institute of Economics and Social Sciences), it’s level of knowledge in the field of the course, course environment (a face-to-face course with integrated web-based support materials and activities) and course assessment (tests and final exam). • Next step is the design the learning modules folder of the WebCT. In that case it provides syllabus, lecture notes (in PDF format) and PowerPoint presentations for 12 lectures. • Next step is the design the assignments folder of the WebCT (provides assignments, exercises and problems for the students to solve (in PDF format) and the answers for multiple choice questions for self control. The course includes 30 assignments). • Next step is the design the assessments folder of the WebCT (provides tests for the students to solve (in PDF format) and the answers for multiple choice questions. The course includes 8 tests. Each test contains 10 questions, problems). Most time consuming steps were the design of assignments folder and assessment folder. Discussion First generation e-learning systems tend to focus almost entirely on the management and measurement of training processes. They add little or no value to the learning process. The missing ingredients from most e-learning programs are clear and measurable objectives and cohesive strategies. Before an organization can evaluate any offerings from an e-learning provider or implement any internal initiative, it must first create a cohesive strategy that clearly defines and documents the value each program must deliver – before any program moves beyond the concept stage. The role and importance of technology in the development of e-learning systems is often overstated by technology providers. Instead, designers should seek to understand the basic components of what constitutes an e-learning ‘‘ecosystem.’’

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The framework will specify a learning systems architecture for pedagogical development and systems integration. Learning and the needs associated with supporting learning evolve and change over time, and so should learning systems. Once the systems framework has been adopted by an organization, the next step is to identify the actual applications that can be developed or acquired. As can be seen from discussion, the management of learning is but one component of the Learning Systems Framework. Consequently, cohesive strategy should clearly defined, designers should seek to understand the basic components of what constitutes an e-learning project, learning evolve and, and learning systems should change over time. E-learning does not imply that all learners will be individually advancing at their own pace, rather, most organizations will tend to provide online learning support to traditional instructor-led programs. Instead of reducing interaction between learners as was originally feared, effective e-learning programs will tend to increase collaboration and communication between learners and instructors. Next some comments from our experience on using WebCT. First, positive conclusions: • using WebCT improves accessibility of learning materials; • learners will be individually advancing at their own pace; • learners do not need to wait until a class is available (flexible time consuming); • learners can complete training when it is least disruptive to their schedule; • using WebCT can increase learner’s interesting; • solving exercises and problems purposed to make students work all the term round, not only during their examination sessions; • automatic assessment (control) during the term; • outline of student attendance in learning process. Next comments to negative observations: • Automatic assessment using multiple choice questions has only limited implementation. For self control in solving assignments (exercises) the automatic assessment is wholly acceptable, but for assessment of tests and exams automatic assessment using multiple choice has limited implementation. Our experience shows, that the answers spread very quickly amid learners, and the questions must be often renewed. • When automatic assessment (control) is in principle unacceptable (the answers are texts), the visual control is very time consuming (especially using feedback instruments). Our experience shows, that the visual control requires more time than control handwritten exams. • As mentioned above learning systems should change over time. The updating of learning objects should be simple. Conclusions The efforts reported in this paper show that creating an accessible distance learning courses is an ongoing effort, not a one-time project. E-learning using WebCT environment improves learner’s skill and knowledge and has the following advantages: space is not needed, learners do not need to wait until a class is available, learners can complete training when it is least disruptive to their schedule, and the methods can increase learner’s interesting, deliver contents clearly, and feedback students easily. Discussion showed that using WebCT have for learners many advantages, the management and measurement of learning processes is automatic, but the automatic assessment should be improved.

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References
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