The Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 15, 2000
May 15, 2000
VOL. 29, NO. 36


Software Puts Syllabi, Message Boards and Grades Online

By Leslie Rice
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Whether by posting slides of important works of art, creating links to archived literature or creating an online class bulletin board where students' questions can be asked and answered, faculty members across the disciplines increasingly are finding that they can use the Web to enhance their courses.

Since fall 1998, Hopkins ITS/Research and Instructional Technologies and the Sheridan Libraries' Digital Knowledge Center have been collaborating to offer training sessions for faculty wishing to use a software program called WebCT to design Web-based courses. The software has gained popularity: from two Web-based courses that were offered in spring semester 1998 to 19 that were offered in spring 2000.

Among the wide range of courses that have used WebCT are Cell Biology, Women in French Literature: The 17th and 18th Centuries, Women at Work in America 1780-1980, Calculus III, From the Study to the Stage and Physiological Foundations.

Ian Goh of Research and Instructional Technologies and Brenda Knox of the Digital Knowledge Center confer about WebCT, now in use by many faculty members. The next training sessions are in June.

Next month, Brenda Knox of the Digital Knowledge Center and Ian Goh of Research and Instructional Technologies will offer a training session for faculty interested in using this software for next year. The training will take place on two Wednesday afternoons, June 14 and 21. To sign up for the sessions, log onto

The WebCT software makes putting courses online relatively simple, Knox says, and "there are lots of things you can do with the software without knowing HTML." Faculty can use WebCT in a very minor or very elaborate role in their classes, depending on their needs. All the sites are accessed with passwords.

Wilson Rugh, Edward J. Schaefer Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who has used the Web as a teaching tool for several years on his own, now uses WebCT for his course Signals and Systems. "I decided to use WebCT because it was a framework that the material I had developed fit nicely," he says.

Among the features of his site are displays of homework assignments, course descriptions and calendars, important topics, demonstrations, quotes for inspiration and online links. What he likes most about WebCT, he says, are three of its features.

"First, the bulletin board feature enables students to post questions and comments, and my response is then available to all students," he explains. "Second, the grade spreadsheet facility solves confidentiality problems while permitting students to see their own performance and statistics for the class. Third, I have set up a prerequisites test where students can check their background for the course, and I also have used the WebCT quiz/survey facility to survey the students on certain activities."

Biology professor Michael Edidin uses WebCT for two courses that he team teaches with colleagues: Cell Biology and Immunobiology.

"It's as easy as you want to be," he says. "The three features that attracted us are probably the easiest functions to create: posting grades online, posting the lecture schedule and the software's bulletin board function. Taking it to the next level--posting lecture notes and slides, linking it to archives and so on--requires a little more work, and sometimes you find yourself having to work out little bugs here and there. But if you start simple and add to it as you go on, it's worth the effort."

Edidin says he hopes the sites will eventually form a curriculum with websites building on each other. Students in the higher level immunobiology courses, for example, could go to links on the Cell Biology or Genetics sites if they need to review.

Knox and Goh chose to work with WebCT software after evaluating several software packages. Clearly, it has taken hold.

In addition to 13 academic departments in the schools of Engineering and Arts and Sciences, Knox and Goh are working in various ways with Peabody, the School of Public Health, the Part-Time Engineering Program, the Language Lab and the Center for Talented Youth.

This spring, the Digital Knowledge Center and HITS also found an increased interest in courses offered completely at a distance, both those using WebCT and other courseware packages. Part-Time Engineering offered an entirely distance learning course, Business Law for Engineers. Roger Westgate, William B. Kouwenhoven Professor of Electrical Engineering, is currently preparing another distance learning course, Microwaves and High-Speed Circuits. The School of Professional Studies in Business and Education is working with BlackBoard's CourseInfo software, another package like WebCT. Part-time Arts and Sciences is experimenting with about eight courses hosted by

"In the last year, we have seen an explosion of interest on the part of the faculty and departments," Knox says. "We had more than 40 faculty attend WebCT Overview last November, including people from other divisions of the university. We had to offer two training sessions this January to meet the demand."

As a result, Goh and Knox can offer guidance and training to faculty about how to create their websites but at this time do not have the resources to put the material online for them.

"But Ian and I are here for support though, in case faculty have questions or problems," she says.

For more information about WebCT, see its overview website at