Short Paper to be presented at:
World Conference on Educational Multimedia/Hypermedia & Educational Telecommunication
June 19-24, 1999
Seattle, Washington

The Learning Web: A Technical Evaluation of WebCT in Concurrent Classroom and Distance Education Sections of a Software Engineering Graduate Course

Niek J.E. Wijngaards
D. Michele Jacobsen
Rob Kremer
Mildred L.G. Shaw

Department of Computer Science
University of Calgary


The Software Engineering Research Network (SERN) is funded by industry and administered by the Industrial Software Engineering Chair at the University of Calgary to support the dissemination of good practice in software engineering. One component of SERN's activities is a thesis-based masters program with a specialization in software engineering targeted at students with industrial experience in full-time employment. This program has dual objectives: to develop highly qualified personnel, and to encourage industry-based software engineering research with a focus on good practice.

The coursework component of the MSc includes required courses which have been developed in consultation with the industry partners. The learning environment for these required courses is unconventional and reflects the industrial experience of the students. After the first background lecture the students take over much of the responsibility for presentations on the various topics in each course. The instructors' role is that of facilitator managing a process of debate and exploration rather than attempting to be an authority in the domain.

The overall aim of MSc program is to provide a supportive and nurturing learning environment in which experience and knowledge can be shared and ignorance displayed and errors made without censure but with ready access to diagnostic help. It becomes clear to the students that, while there are no easy answers to the core questions of industrial practice in software engineering, there are many useful perspectives and that simplistic answers generally have very limited applicability.

Student assignments are submitted on the World Wide Web making them accessible to others. A list server is used for continuing discussion of the course topics outside the class environment. These two features have made it possible for students whose companies allocate them to work in other locations, or who change jobs to companies in other locations world-wide, to continue to participate in the courses. Remote students who have already come to know their colleagues can continue to present and share material through the web and participate in discussion through the list server.

Steps Toward A Distance Education Model

We are currently addressing the challenge of making the MSc program formally available to remote students while maintaining effective ongoing participation. A first step has been to develop and offer parallel sections of SENG 611, a six-week graduate course in Requirements Engineering. One section of SENG 611 was delivered on campus, and the other delivered at a distance using facilities provided by WebCT.

The option of participating in the course using a distance model was offered to students during the first of six lectures. Of the 21 students in the course, 7 chose to participate in the distance section, and 14 on campus in a conventional face-to-face learning environment with two instructors. All students completed a major group project in addition to their individual assignments which they presented during the final lecture. The four on-campus groups were assigned the additional task of recording and summarizing the in-class discussions which were posted on the Web for the two distance groups.

A series of three papers will describe the extent to which we achieved our original objectives with a distance-based learning model. The approach taken to compare and analyze the two learning environments includes evaluations from three perspectives: 1) the instructors, 2) the students, and 3) technical support.

This paper will address the third perspective by reporting on experiences from a technical support perspective. An available software product, WebCT, was customized in order to meet the requirements of SENG611, and a report on the efficacy of this tool for a graduate software engineering course is provided. The overall results of the present investigation have implications for the design and delivery of distance education courses by faculty in higher education.

Evaluation from Perspective of Technical Support

The requirements on technical support for SENG611 were mainly concerned with supporting the organisation of the course, and minimising the differences in student participation.

Although the course material already existed as web-pages, a web-based course tool was employed in this experiment. Such a tool offered encapsualation and paths through the existing course content, student presentation areas for groups of students, individual student tools for making notes, and an environment for chat facilities. WebCT was chosen as the web-based software tool to support the dissimination of course related information. WebCT was the preferred choice for a number of reasons, including free testing of WebCT with full functionality, cheap licences, large customer base, proximity of developers, ease of access via common web-browsers, and ease of customisation (if necessary).

In Spring 1998 a local WebCT server was installed and many of the features of WebCT were experimented with. This lead to enough confidence in WebCT for its application to the SENG611 course. Technical support and one of the course instructors are well-versed in HTML, scripting, and other computer-related activities which influences the evaluation and usage of WebCT. Based on these experiences with WebCT the following observations are made. In WebCT it was:

Lessons Learned

The current evaluation of WebCT is:

On the basis of other comparisons of web-based course tools, it is to be expected that other web-based course tools are also not 100% applicable and require customisation.

Evaluations by students and instructors contained a number of criticisms on technical aspects of the experiment. Evaluations by students showed that accessability of the course material was not always optimal (which is related to network access to our course server) and students had difficulties with handing in assignments as web-pages (related to problems with generating and publishing HTML-pages). Evaluation of WebCT by the instructors showed that WebCT is geared for non-technical course designers; this hampered the instructor in building and maintaining the course material.

The results of the SENG611-experiment are used for the design of another experiment in which both local and distance students participate.

Page created: October 22nd, 1998