Contributor: Sally Chandler
School Affiliation: Kean University
Developed in the mid-nineties, WebCT was one of the first commercially available course delivery systems. ( see the following list of similar e-learning platforms). At institutions which own a license for WebCT software, instructors can request and design sites for their courses. Sites are password protected, so they are available only to the instructor, students enrolled in the course, and administrative personnel. With respect to other course management systems, WebCt is generally considered one of the more powerful but difficult to use platforms. A WebCT site provides a course homepage with multiple options for linking to information and functions. Designers create information pages and modules to present course content, and choose among functions or tools such as a calendar, email, discussion boards and chat. They can also select options for setting up student homepages, tracking grades and attendance, and offering online quizzes. Instructors can use as many or as few of WebCT's features as they choose. Some instructors use WebCT to post a syllabus and nothing else; others use it to post all course materials, conduct interactive discussions, collect and return assignments, administer tests and post grades. To see how other instructors have used the WebCT, you might look at WebCT's examplary coursesor at Melane McCuller's course on scientific writing,an exemplary course from 2004.
I teach at Kean University, an urban commuter school in northern New Jersey. A significant number of our students begin college with little or no experience using computers for academic purposes. I use WebCT in f2f freshman composition classes to ease some of the organization and communication issues that inevitably arise with students who are both learning how to be students and who have jobs and family responsibilities that complicate class attendance. The story I want to tell is about K., one of about 20 students in an evening freshman composition course during Spring, 2005. The WebCT site for K.'s course included the syllabus, a calendar, and a page for handouts (organized by category) that provided assignment sheets, guidelines, readings not available in their textbooks, and sample essays. I also created a NEWS page that was updated after every class. I used NEWS to re-state what we did in class and to post brainstorming or notes developed during class discussions. I also used it to provide detailed explanations of student responsibilities for the next class. One of my primary purposes for using WebCT was to make visible the work of tracking, planning and managing course materials and assignments. Because many of my students were new to technology and more than a few had dial-up at home, I kept the site simple.
Students were required to turn in all assignments through WebCT email, and except for asking an occasional question, most students used their email primarily for that purpose. Except for K. K. used WebCT email for his own purposes, and this story is about what I learned about WebCT through thinking about why K. used his email the way he did. K. is profoundly deaf but as he pointed out in an email toward the middle of the term, "believe it or not . . . somehow with the hearing aid, I can hear pretty good. I do not hear like a normal hearing person. I grew up with speech therapy, so the combination of reading lips and hearing sounds helped me identify certain words as well as accents." K. sent these remarks in response to Rosina Lippi-Green's writing about issues surrounding the teaching of "standard" English. He added, "I can hear well with the hearing aid and this is how I learned to listen to accents. I was the only Deaf person to be casted in the stage play, 'Young Frankenstein' because I could do both British and German accents." His message did not request information nor was it directed toward completing an assignment associated with the reading. I received this email, toward the end of March, and by this time I was well aware that K. used WebCT's email differently than his classmates, but I didn't understand why.
At first I considered K.'s extra communications as something he needed to move away from. For this particular course, I conceived of WebCT as an interactive space where students could practice finding, interpreting, and responding to the kinds of academic directions students need to master. I thought of NEWs as providing a model to help students track assignments, and identify the important concepts we covered in the classroom. My assumption was that if they sent me lots of email asking questions, they were not using the site effectively, and I needed to help them work more independently. Because WebCT allowed me to store and classify student email, by the end of the term, I had a database of student correspondence which showed that K. and I had exchanged 91 emails during the term, 58 of which were in a folder designated "Questions," my file for communications not directed toward completing a particular assignment. K. generated about 30 - 40 more emails more than most of his classmates, and he was the unqualified champion for the most emails in the questions folder.
K.s' patterns for using email prompted me to think more deeply about how students interact with the site and why. In a conversation with one of his interpreters I learned that the kind of overdetermination represented by K.'s correspondence is common, if not essential, in deaf culture. Many of our exchanges clarified ideas or sharpened the focus of an assignment. But overdetermination was only part of what was going on, as the conclusion to the email on Lippi-Green made clear. K. closed with a discussion of why he needed an interpreter even though he could read lips and speak quite well. "Interpreters help me get the entire message. If the interpreters were not there for me, then I may pick up maybe half of what you're saying and even worse, almost none of what my classmates are saying. That's because they're behind me and they talk in bunches. No way I can understand anything. Hope this little 'education' helps!" So there it was: K.'s emails were clearly motivated by a wish both to make me aware of his specific needs for the course, and to educate me about deaf culture. For K., WebCT email was a private, non-aural, interactive space to share and explain, as well as to receive and interpret information. It was a place where he could get my attention - where "talk" slowed down, accumulated in writing, and waited until it could become real communication.
Since working with K. I pay closer attention to how students use the site. WebCT can document a range of interactions between students, between students and instructors, and between students and the site. I have found that this information can help me to listen to students, especially non-traditional students who are learning to use technology for academic purposes. For example, I have begun to look more carefully at how often students access the site. Unsurprisingly, students who access the site least frequently almost invariably do poorly. Surprisingly, the opposite does not necessarily hold true: frequent access does not necessarily correlate with success. Rather it often correlates with students' age. In my courses, returning adult students almost always set the curve for the highest number of visits to the site. These same adult students, with several notable exceptions, have about the same number or fewer emails in the questions folder as their classmates. This pattern suggests that even though returning adult students are not asking for help via email, they may be having problems using the site. It also suggests I might need to provide them with some extra attention in class, or to connect them to a tech savvy classmate.
WebCT was primarily designed to make course materials available to students. Whether or not it enhances pedagogical practice will depend on how it is used not only by instructors but also by students. I have just begun exploring how to use WebCT to "listen" to students and I am interested in hearing what other instructors have noticed, or what they track and how they set up the tracking. I am certain course management software provides many more possibilities than I have even imagined.