This article appeared in the September, 1998, issue of Syllabus magazine.  Please contact Syllabus at for reprint permission.

Web-based Instructional Tools

Whether an individual is interested in developing a single course for web-based delivery or charged with implementing web-based instruction for an entire institution, becoming familiar with the web-based instruction (WBI) products is a good first step.  But knowing what questions to ask and what features to look for in assessing such products can prove to be a daunting task. This article describes the standard features that have come to be incorporated in "off-the-shelf" courseware products, and compares the features in ten of these products.

WBI tools generally fall into one or more of the following categories: web-course design, web-course collaboration, or web-course management.  This article will only look at products that integrate all three categories. (Other distinct collaboration or conferencing tools, that are used in conjunction with web-based instruction, such as Allaire Forums, Belvedere, Ceilidh, ClassPoint, Common Space, Connect.Net, CoolTalk, COW, Expressions Interaction Suite, I-Chat, Involv Main, LearnLinc, NetMeeting, Internet Classroom Assistant, Rendezvous, WebBoard, and Web Crossing, will be covered in a future issue.)

While an attempt is being made to compare some of the leading products for facilitating design and delivery of WBI, the list is not all-inclusive.  New products are coming into the market all the time, and established ones are regularly being upgraded in response to user feedback.  While every attempt has been made to assure the accuracy of the assessment, users are encouraged to contact the vendors directly to discuss actual product features.

Course Design Features
Designing web-based course involves working in a new environment.  As such, designing a Web-based course involves thinking through a number of pedagogical considerations, including:

In order to respond to those and other pedagogical issues, instructors need to dialogue with others working with WBI and, ideally, to immerse themselves as a student in a WBI environment. Most of the WBI products allow instructors to experiment with the product as if the instructor were a student.  A familiarity with the various products being designed for WBI, and an appreciation of their similarities and differences will enable an instructor to create a more pedagogically sound Web-based course.  (Convene and LearningSpace provide on-line facilitatorsí class for instructors that stress the pedagogical differences between on-line and traditional teaching.)

The single most useful way an instructor new to WBI can become familiar with WBI tools is spend a few hours creating a sample course on several different Web-based instruction products.  All the products listed here provide instructors an opportunity to "test drive" them.  The process for creating a sample course can range from simply filling in forms (Blackboardís Classroom provides a very easy process for creating a sample course) to downloading client software and running it on your own server (as with WBTís TopClass.)  In all cases, it costs nothing to create some sample courses.  The payoff is well worth the time investment.

Some of the products provide course templates. (Some web-page construction tools, such as Microsoftís FrontPage, MacroMediaís DreamWeaver, and Adobeís PageMill, either have built-in or downloadable course templates.)  While some instructors might find a template too restrictive, templates do serve the purpose of streamlining a good chunk of the process of designing a Web course.  Most of the templates are simply starting points and can be modified and augmented relatively easily.  One advantage of templates is that they serve to provide a common look and feel to courses, and usually insure that a course meets certain graphic design standards.  They also enable an instructor to incorporate options the instructor might not have considered or might have felt were too difficult to incorporate.  In some cases, templates can reduce the server load and access time for dial-up students by frugal use of code.  (Web Course in a Box serves most pages as straight HTML files.) A drawback to templates is the "cookie-cutter" feel and appearance of some Web-based courses.

Instructors might consider including search tools in their courses to ease student navigation through the entire course or through threaded discussions.

Some products allow students to create their own student homepages.  This feature can be useful for posting workgroup or individual projects.

Collaboration Tools
Most WBI products offer a variety of discussion options for incorporating asynchronous (where participants need not communicate at the same time) or synchronous (where participants must be logged into a virtual area and communicate at the same time) discussions into a course. Asynchronous threaded (where replies to postings are indented under the original posting) discussions are most common, although some instructors prefer synchronous ("chat") discussions.  Synchronous discussions, contrary to the "any place, anytime" nature of the Web, require students to be at one (virtual) place at the same time.  Students log in and generally communicate through typed text.  Everyone taking part in the discussion sees on their screens the typed comments of everyone else in the discussion, with each comment usually preceded by the studentís name.  With more than 3-5 students, synchronous discussions take on a chaotic nature, as responses to comments donít appear on othersí screens until the response senderís enter key is pressed.  The original comment to which a student might type a reply could scroll off the screen by the time the reply is typed and entered, and other comments (and even other topics) could fill the lines in between.  Additionally, unless the product has a session log feature, there is no text record of the discussion.  Many faculty have found that asynchronous threaded or e-mail discussions work best for subject matter and classroom work, and are using synchronous discussions for office hours.

A bulletin board allows instructors (and students in some cases)to post announcements.  This feature encourages "attendance" at the course site, something which can be difficult to enforce.

Instructors who have taught Web-based courses often find their e-mail boxes quickly fill up with questions and comments about the course.  Having an e-mail feature built into a course lets the instructor and students have their own e-mail accounts just for that course.  While for some it means having to check more than one e-mail account, it does serve the purpose of keeping communication related to one course separate from personal e-mail or e-mail related to other courses.  It also provides e-mail accessibility for students who might not otherwise have an e-mail account.  Most e-mail components allow students to attach and send files through e-mail. File-sharing can facilitate collaborative work among students and between students and the instructor.  A student can submit an attached paper through e-mail, and the instructor can make written (and, depending upon the word-processing program, voice) comments on the paper and return it to the student via e-mail.

Another collaborative component especially useful in mathematics or science courses where visual representations of formulas and demonstration of problem solving can be helpful, is an electronic whiteboard.  Often used in conjunction with synchronous chat or videoconferencing, electronic whiteboards require users be logged in at the same time to view the visual communication.  (Convene and Web Course in a Box offer this feature in their new releases.)

A high-end is the simultaneous use of shared applications. This is a feature of some computer-conferencing programs and is not yet a standard feature in most WBI products. Users at different locations remotely work together on the same file using a common application.  Each user sees (and can work on) the file which is being edited in real-time by whichever user takes temporary control of it.  Taking control of the file is often as simple as clicking the mouse.   Expect to see this feature in the future.

Some instructors have students collaborate with other students through the use of e-mail to complete joint projects.  To facilitate such collaboration, some WBI tools have built-in workgroup features.  (When an instructor defines a workgroup, CourseInfo automatically creates a homepage, discussion area, and file exchange area for the group.)

Course Management Features
A major selling point for some WBI tools is their ability to integrate database tools for online automated course management.  Faculty at Briar Cliff College, which has gone from not having e-mail four years ago to having nearly 30 "webized" courses, liken teaching a single Web-based course to teaching many independent study courses at once.  Managing an on-line course can be very time and energy consuming for the instructor.  Automating some of the course management tasks can greatly relieve the workload on the instructor, and free the instructor to devote attention to student learning.  Depending upon how assignments are created and administered, student grading can be performed by the WBI tool.  Some products allow students to view their grade.  Depending upon the database interface, some WBI products even allow upload or download of grade and other information directly to or from other software products.  This allows instructors to export and import grades and other information into and out of current institutional administrative systems, and to create summary reports.

Instructors can see when and for how long a student viewed a certain page or area through the use of student tracking features.  Some products can even tell the instructor from which IP address the student accessed the information (as with Avilarís WebMentor Enterprise.)  Student tracking features can also provide detailed student progress information to the instructor.  (WebCTís content-centered tracking indicates the number and duration of hits on each course page, information which can be used to make inferences about the interest and difficulty of the content.)

Built-in assessment tools enable instructors to create and administer tests, quizzes, and other forms of assessment online.  Based upon test question banks created by the instructor, some tools allow random generation of online tests so that no two students get the exact same test.  (This is one way some instructors attempt to reduce the likelihood that students might share answers to tests.)  Immediate feedback for students is another feature built into many WBI assessment tools.  Some products customize content provided to an individual student based upon that particular studentís performance.  (The auto-testing capability in TopClass is one such example.)

 Instructors can further control the testing environment by weighting certain questions, if they wish.  Some WBI products feature extensive post-test statistical analysis (as with Anlonís Intrakal, which provide pair-wise comparison to insure academic integrity.) Another way instructors control the testing environment is through the use of timed quizzes.  The student is given a set amount of time to complete the test from the moment he or she first accesses it.  After the set amount of time is up, the test is no longer accessible by the student.

Designing a Web-based course (including reflecting on the pedagogical issues) and putting the actual content on the Web are easy compared to dealing with the administrative issues of delivering such courses. If an institution is planning to embark on a Web-based instruction program, it may want to create a team to deal with some of the administrative issues that will arise.  A good team might include registrar, financial aid, admissions, and bookstore representatives, as well as computer center, distance education, and academic programs representatives.  If an institution has them, faculty development and instructional design representatives belong on such a team, as well.  Assembling such a team will increase the chances for great results.

Sharon Gray is Director of Instructional Technology at Briar Cliff College in Sioux City, Iowa. [Sharon Gray is now Instructional Technologist at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.]

Copyright 1998, Syllabus

This article appeared in the September, 1998, issue of Syllabus magazine.  Please contact Syllabus at for reprint permission.