Course Platforms for Teaching Online

by Eleanour Snow, University of South Florida, University of Texas
Perry Sampson, Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, University of Michigan
authored as part of the 2010 workshop, Teaching Geoscience Online - A Workshop for Digital Faculty

Jump down to: Summary of Popular Course Platforms| Common Tools in Course Platforms |Additional Tools

Scope of this Page

The process of offering online and hybrid classes usually requires the use of a course/learning management system. These systems are usually dictated by your institution but most contain elements that enable the delivery of activities to students both in and out of traditional classrooms, are private for your and your students, and contain gradebook functions. Course Management Systems (CMS) include, but not limited to, Blackboard, Angel, WebCT, Sakai, Moodle, and Desire2Learn. Unless you are on the adoption committee at your institution, you probably won't have a choice about which of these to use.

Some instructors have moved content into a public space, allowing it to be used by anyone. This may make it easier for students to use, and it is, of course, available to the public. Faculty may find that there are advantages to that, including meeting the publishing requirements of grants that support course development, and meeting service requirements of their jobs.

In this space, experienced online professors discuss how we do it. Which CMS do we use? How do we use various functions such as discussion boards, wikis, news feeds, and plagiarism detection? How do we develop course websites outside of our schools' CMS, and which features do we use there? Finally what tools have we discovered on the web that make online teaching easier?

ANGEL course management screen shot
Screenshot from ANGEL course platform

Summary of Popular Course Management Systems

Blackboard is one of the first CMS, and one of the most widely used. It has a long history of development and improvement, and in its current version is fairly easy to use. Instructors can create as many tabs as they want to organize material. Within each, they can create multiple folders. Individual pieces (assignments, folders, tests) of the class can be assigned different 'visible' dates, so students cannot access them outside of the range set. Tests are easy to create from a pool of questions, and they can be designed so that each student will have a different set of questions on a test. Assignments can be created that accept uploaded files, and they are easily downloaded as a batch for grading. Grades posted in the gradebook are instantly available to the students. All the standard tools (discussed below) are available in Blackboard. Instructors can also personalize the look of their class website, uploading banners, changing colors, etc.

WebCT: This was one of the original CMS, but has recently merged with Blackboard. Good thing because WebCT had fallen quite far behind in how the system operated and what it could do. I hope, if your institution is using WebCT, that you get the 'Blackboardized" version soon.

The ANGEL Learning Management Suite was also recently purchased by Blackboard and will likely be integrated with Blackboard in the future. It offers a host of features designed to enrich the teaching and learning experience, including:

  • Mashups that make it easy to incorporate rich media content into courses from sources such as the YouTube™ web site and Picasa™ software
  • The ability to incorporate RSS feeds into courses
  • Lesson plans that promote consistent design across the enterprise
  • Grading rubrics that ensure all manually graded submissions are evaluated against the same criteria.
  • A gradebook interface that supports any grading period and provides improved workflow and reporting.
  • Enhanced surveys that improve their effectiveness as pre- and post-course assessment tools

Moodle is a free CMS designed to compete with Blackboard and the others. Some Universities (UCLA, University of Minnesota, San Francisco State, to name a few) are adopting it and dropping commercial CMS. It offers many of the same features as Blackboard. There is a community of moodlers sharing information at various sites. One is Moodle Tutorials, which posts user-created tutorials on how to do things in Moodle. At University of Texas, Moodle proved to be a useful platform for a dual-credit course because the university would not give high school students access to Blackboard.

Sakai is a CMS developed collaboratively by and for universities. Sakai is distributed as free and open source software under the Educational Community License. It lists a number of general collaboration tools, teaching and learning tools, portfolio tools and administrative tools.

Desire2Learn offers similar functionalities.

Tools Common to Course Management Systems

Discussion Pages: Discussion pages in CMS allow you to create threaded discussions. They are very useful for answering general questions of the whole class, allowing students to 'meet,' or having a class discussion on a topic presented by the instructor. In some CMS the discussion board can be linked to the gradebook so that grades can be assigned and recorded, but this is often cumbersome.

Threaded discussions are more useful in small classes than in large classes. When there are too many notes in a thread students stop reading them, and so real discussion is thwarted.

Chat Rooms: Chat rooms are great for office hours. Students know that they can drop in at a certain time and find their instructor there. Like live office hours, sometimes no one shows, but those who do can get an immediate answer to a question, and they make another connection to their instructor.

Group Pages: Group pages are areas where students can communicate with a sub-set of classmates, can share files, and can work collaboratively. Normally the professor has to set the groups up, giving access to the proper students. They then have a private discussion section, a group e-mail, and a private file-sharing space. These are very useful for setting up collaborative projects in online classes.

Gradebook: In most CMS, the gradebook is fairly easy to use. In Blackboard it must be 'resynched' each semester. In WebCT I have a terrible time trying to get it to show what I want it to show. My experience with both Blackboard and WebCT is that the calculations the gradebook can make are limited and often wrong. I usually download the gradebook into Excel to calculate the final grade.

Useful Tools Outside Course Management Systems

LectureTools: An Integrated Learning Environment
LectureTools is a system developed with NSF GeoSciences Education support to meet a need for introductory science courses. It includes the ability to pose a wide range of questions, upload animations and slides and receive questions from students. LectureTools is built around the hypothesis that students learn better when they have opportunities to actively assess their understanding as material is being presented, to pose questions and get feedback during lecture, and to reflect on their learning outside of class.

LectureTools offers a wider range of student response than clickers, including image-based and free response questions. In the geosciences, this allowed the presentation of questions requiring spatial thinking (i.e. where on a map would you expect...?).

The Cons

  1. Not all students will have laptops (though you can add participation credit if non-laptop students hand in their answers to questions on paper at the end of class).
  2. Laptops will run out of power during class (though then they can of course fall back to simple pen and paper as before).
  3. Laptops are a source of distraction. Studies show that student report more time on tasks unrelated to class when they have access to a laptop during class.

The Pros

  1. Independent assessment of multiple classes has shown that LectureTools leads to statistically significant increases in student attentiveness and engagement.
  2. LectureTools can be integrated with most CMS so students need only log into the local CMS to get access.
  3. LectureTools provides content management for instructors so your slides and animations from one semester can be easily retrieved for future semesters or courses.
  4. It can be integrated with on-line textbooks so homework can be assigned through LectureTools.
  5. It's FREE!

Jing is a free-ware program that allows you to make a short screen-capture video demonstrating how to do things to your on-line students. Quick, easy, free. 

WavePad is a free sound-editing program. You can use it to make greetings, or audio instructions for your students. I use it to make audio to embed in power-point mini-lectures. On-line students respond well to audio; it makes them feel more connected. The nice thing about WavePad is that it allows you to edit your wav file, so you don't have to start over every time you mess up your message.

WireCast allows you to both broadcast live material (with a streaming server) and/or record class material from your screen or attached cameras or movies on your computer. It's not cheap (~$300 for academic license at last check) but very powerful. Great for broadcasting in hybrid class.