WebCT at MMU: progress and possibilities
Developing Links Using Online Learning
Of Mice and Pen
Developments in Lecture Theatre Technology
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Rachel Forsyth, Learning and Teaching Unit
WebCT at Manchester Metropolitan University: progress and possibilities
The Story So Far
WebCT is software which allows lecturers to create and manage online learning materials without being programmers. It can create advanced web features such as discussion boards, online assessments and interactive glossaries to complement or replace traditional methods of face to face teaching. In this article, I'll provide an overview of the ways in which WebCT is used at Manchester Metropolitan University and give some indication of the likely developments associated with the software.
First, a little history. In 1996 the academic staff in what was then Educational Services launched some online units as part of the Crewe School of Education's postgraduate provision. These units used a 'home grown' system which had web pages, discussion areas (or bulletin boards), and a simple way of letting students produce their own web pages. IT worked well, but there was a problem: each time a new course needed to be created, the programmer needed to go through every part of the course and edit it. It wasn't going to be practical to extend it to other courses. The development team then began looking for a commercial alternative. Several products were evaluated (most of which have now disappeared from the market), and in May 1998 WebCT was selected and installed. The first version went into immediate use with the Departments of Exercise and Sport Science and Sociology and Interdisciplinary Studies. There were many bugs, and people clamoured for more options, but it was useable and it was easy to administer and to add courses.
Between 1998 and 2000, a programme of online learning development fellowships1 gave WebCT use a flying start, with 22 members of staff being given 8 weeks of release from teaching to develop materials. This process taught both the fellows and the WebCT development team a lot about the organisation and support of online learning materials, which has been invaluable as more and more MMU staff have begun to use the software. Fellows have gone on to mentor and support colleagues, and the development team have had to work out ways of supporting large numbers of staff and student numbers from a very small resource base.
Where are we now?
Figures 1 and 2 show how the use of WebCT has increased since it was first installed. The software is currently supported by a small team from Media Services and the Learning and Teaching Unit, providing the technical, administrative and academic support needed to keep the system working.
WebCT course areas are available to any member of staff by simple request to the support team 2. A programme of staff development3 is offered (online, of course) which aims to take staff from a basic tour of the software to advanced practice.
The team keeps the use and support of the software under constant review. There is now serious competition to the software from other manufacturers such as Blackboard, as well as a developing Open Source initiative which seeks to provide similar resources free. Some people get very frustrated by the limitations of the software and the fact that it doesn't always work intuitively, while others find it tremendous fun and are prepared to overlook its idiosyncrasies. WebCT is like any other complex software: it takes time to familiarise oneself with it and to learn what it can do. Whilst not everyone who tries it out goes on to use it with students, the team is encouraged by the fact that most lecturers who use it add at least one course a year to their portfolio. There must be benefits if they are prepared to invest time and effort in further development!
More systematically, student views are of course incorporated into the annual monitoring and review cycle and their reactions have been generally positive and accompanied by constructive comments for improvement (see the papers by Margaret Kendall, Mike Cole and Rachel Harradine in this issue for some examples).
During the 2001/02 academic year, the WebCT team has tried to collect the views of students on a more general basis, using a survey available to all student users. 311 respondents have completed the survey, of whom 240 identified themselves as full-time students. The results are interesting in terms of helping to indicate areas where development might be required, even though the group was self-selecting (it was available to 8315 students). 69% of the respondents viewed the WebCT materials as an additional resource, with 22% considering that it replaced classroom work and 9% thinking that it replaced other forms of independent study. The full results can be viewed online4 . The question in figure 3 was included to try to find out if tutors were putting pages and pages of notes online which might be best given out in a printed pack - clearly, from the responses, this is happening in some cases, and we realise that we need to provide further guidance and support on this topic. The answers to the question in figure 4 were very heartening, as this is exactly the kind of thing which online learning can support, as were the responses indicating whether the students would like to see WebCT used more (figure 5). Although there is work to be done to improve the way in which WebCT is used with students, a majority were in favour of seeing it used more. The following comments5 give plenty of food for thought:
"I like the long term factor. By that I mean that a discussion from session 1 can continue during session 4 and can be linked to session 7 by looking back at session 2. Although you receive each unit in chronological order, there is plenty of scope for debate and discussion which you don't have with normal lessons because once a seminar is finished that's it. With WebCT you can return again and again."
"...Generally, though, it's reasonably intuitive and I'm enjoying the course (particularly the ability to work flexibly, which as a part-time student is a refreshing change)."
" I think it has many advantages, but I am a great supporter of a lecturer/student relationship. You cannot form any relationship with a piece of equipment."
The exercise will be repeated next year, accompanied by an inducement to fill it in, in the hope that it has more respondents!
The team also collects statistics on the way in which the WebCT system is being used. This also shows some interesting trends. In the period September 2000 - January 2001, 33.7% of users were off-campus. For the same period in this academic year, this figure had increased to 38.3%, even though many campus facilities had improved. The actual use of the system increased by 77% for the same period.
Now that about 25% of the University's students have access to course materials which use WebCT, the development team is starting to look at ways of extending and enhancing the service. From September 2002, we hope to be able to enable students to log in using their normal network password; at the moment, they have to remember a second password for WebCT. The technology to do this is already available, but we have to resolve various support issues before we implement this.
Also from September, we plan to offer integration with HEMIS, the student database. All registered students will get WebCT accounts automatically, and staff will enrol those students who should have access by entering the registered course code. As well as simplifying access to WebCT, this will allow staff to give students access to pre-course materials before they arrive on campus, and it will make adding late arrivals a much simpler process. Looking ahead, we'll be working on ways of passing assessment data saved in WebCT back to HEMIS, to help with the production of progress files. We'll also be looking at ways of linking more effectively with other personalised online services, such as the library accounts and the Business School Intranet so that students can move seamlessly between WebCT and these other systems, whether they are off or on campus.
As far as academic support is concerned, there is a constant need to learn from our experiences and to disseminate good practice. The University now has a solid base of expertise in this area, spread widely across the faculties, as you will see from other papers in this issue. The challenge for us now is to integrate online learning as a mainstream learning and teaching activity, to be considered, costed and taken for granted in the same way as we treat lectures or laboratory classes. Watch this space!
1See http://www.celt.mmu.ac.uk/oldf/ for more about these.