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Editor’s NoteContemporary university educators who are striving to improve their student’s use instructional of technology will benefit from the excellent work of Moti Frank and Abigail Barzilai. Educators who have designed a course web site or plan to build one in the near future will find valuable insights that will help them to create a pedagogically sound site. The authors share research based advice on the kind of web site resources that will encourage meaningful student learning.


Designing course web sites for supporting
lecture-based courses in higher education
– some pedagogical aspects

Moti Frank, Abigail Barzilai


This paper discusses the benefits that may be derived from a course web site that accompanies a lecture-based course given in higher education institutions. The organizational and operational issues are presented first, following by a discussion of pedagogical aspects. Three pedagogical issues related to course web sites are discussed in detail – active learning, computerized feedback, and the effects on learning of using multimedia. Some findings, based on collected data and the authors’ experiences, are also presented and discussed. The conclusions are that the advanced technology exists but it seems that instructors in higher education still tend to build course web sites that underutilize the technology’s potential. On the other hand, using technology simply because it is there does not assure effective learning. Technology must be a means – not the aim. The pedagogical considerations and the ways of using the technology to achieve the pedagogical benefits are what is important.

Keywords: Learning; Course web site; Course support site; Pedagogy; Active learning; Computerized feedback; Multimedia; Constructivism; WebCT; Higher Education; Asynchronous Learning; Distance Learning.

1. Introduction

Over the past few years, with the rapid development of technology, we see crystallization of three approaches for using e-learning in higher education. The first approach is a lecture-based course also available through a web site (course-support site). In other words, lectures are given in the traditional manner but in parallel a web site is built on behalf of the course for exercises and practice drills, supplement, enrichment, and in-depth study of the subject. The second approach – a fully on-line asynchronous course – requires only a very limited number of classroom sessions. The primary teaching is conducted through the course web site. This contrasts with the third approach – synchronous distance learning. In this approach, teaching resembles, in some of its features traditional teaching yet nevertheless, the teacher and his or her students are physically distant from one another.

This paper focuses on the first approach - creating a course web site for face-to-face-based course (course-support site) – and discusses the advantages and challenges that this approach offers lecturers. The aim of the paper is to consider issues associated with teaching and learning when using course-support sites. Various options of teaching and learning strategies that can be used in web-based learning environments will be discussed. Some findings, based on collected data and the authors' experience will be presented and discussed.

2. Developing a course web site for lecture-based course
     (course-support site)

2.1 Introduction

This section discusses pedagogical and other aspects of a learning environment that integrates traditional teaching methods and the use of a course web site. For hundreds of years now the lecture method (sometimes called frontal teaching or face-to-face-teaching) has been considered to be the primary teaching method. The lecture has its benefits and limitations. Many teachers think that the lecture is still the most efficient teaching method for delivering the basic content of a given subject matter with the teacher having control over what is happening in the classroom. This teaching method is sometimes perceived as the most convenient and ‘economic’ method for delivering ample material to a large number of students. Participating in the lessons, asking questions, making notes, and discussing issues with the teacher, will probably continue to be among the major characteristics of teaching in the coming years. The main criticism about lectures as a teaching method is that students are allocated a passive role and thus their studying efficiency is low.

Nevertheless, the use of innovative educational technologies is growing. In recent years we have been witnessing considerable growth in the number of courses with web sites meant to serve as tools for augmenting traditional teaching. A well designed course web site will function as a complementary tool to the classroom lessons and raise the learning effectiveness through active and interactive studying. In many Learning Management Systems (packaged software for building course web sites) active and interactive learning tools are intrinsic and web site designers can use them for applying active learning principles.

An enormous amount of books, articles, papers and chapters deal with the internet as a learning environment in education. In much of the research, no significant differences were found between an e-teaching/learning environment and the traditional teaching/learning environment in relation to the variables that were examined. Yet, many other studies did find significant differences. It seems that the real question is not whether it is possible to elicit benefits from a course web site in learning environment that integrates traditional teaching methods with the use of a course web site, but under what conditions can this be achieved. 

2.2 Some benefits that may be derived from course web site

Planning and designing a course web site is not an easy task. It requires investment of a lot of effort and usually consumes a great deal of time. Many researchers refer to organizational and operational advantages that may be achieved from a course web site such as accessibility and flexibility.

Building course web site by using Learning Management System is relatively simple. Learning Management Systems allow course designers to choose among many options for organizing courses and applying pedagogical principles.

Using the internet as a delivery medium can lead to a tendency to design instruction based only on the technological capabilities, rather than on pedagogy considerations, core instructional elements, the needs of the learner, and the achievement of independent learning strategies. Technology can provide not only presentational and organizational functions, but can also support communication, feedback and interaction between students and teachers. The instruction strategy of such courses needs to be based on theories about learning and how knowledge is constructed (Oliver & McLoughlin, 1999). 

However, one inherent advantage of a course web site is the ability to implement four dimensions of “good teaching” – applying active and interactive learning principles, using multimedia, organizing the course and its lessons, and providing immediate feedback to students about their progress. Students must be active and interactive; teachers must organize their courses and the material for the lessons in advance through “trees” that make orientation easy; the software enables easy transmission of feedback, and the web site should be able to assist by providing an option for using multimedia and multiple representation means such as text, charts, graphs, tables, illustrations, pictures, sketches, animations, simulations, equations, light, color, and sound. The rest of the “good teaching” dimensions (Hativa, 2000) – the ability to give (written) clear and interesting presentations and explanations, and the capacity to build a supportive learning environment – depend on the course teacher.

A well-designed course web site should provide (automatic) immediate feedback to students as well as hints and directions on how to continue in case of mistakes. Through the web site, the learner can be exposed to multiple realities. The teacher can place challenging inquiry tasks, present and discuss paradoxes and contradictions, and initiate reflection on the learning processes.

A course web site may nurture development of independent learning. The learning through the course web site is according to the pace, style and level that is suitable for each learner. By using the course web site, if well designed, learning can reach a depth unlikely to be attained in the face-to-face lessons, since students can invest as much time and effort as required, each according to his or her learning tempo. This contrasts with synchronous and frontal teaching classes, which have a time limit and progress at a uniform pace that is not necessarily suitable for each student. When the teacher assigns questions/tasks through the course web site students have enough time to think before giving their answers – a luxury not always available in frontal or synchronous classes (Bhattacharya, 1999; Branon and Essex, 2001).

2.3 Challenges when using a course website

Lister (1999) noted that in certain cases the problem of motivation in asynchronous lessons may arise. Lacking a serious incentive, students may not make the effort needed to learn through the web site. 

In asynchronous lessons the teacher cannot see the students’ reactions to the study material. He or she may miss out on facial expressions or body language, for instance (Wolcott, 1995; Hill, 1997). In fact, several researchers related to the difficulties arising from lack of eye-contact between teacher and student, as in distance learning. Willis and Dickinson (1997), for example, wondered whether teachers can be effectual if they are unable to maintain eye-contact with their students, or to observe students’ non-verbal behavior. In order to create a course web site teachers must invest great effort in writing up the course content (in the case that these were not prepared beforehand).

3. Three pedagogical issues related to course web sites:
      active learning, computerized feedback, and multimedia

3.1 Active learning: The constructivist approach and its implementations for teaching

The main pedagogical basis for e-learning is active learning. Many elements of the active learning approach are derived from principles of the constructivist teaching approach. This section outlines in brief the principles of the latter approach and their application to teaching.

Constructivism is a theory that regarding learning and knowledge that suggests that human beings are active learners who construct their knowledge both from personal experiences and their efforts to give meaning to these experiences. According to this approach, the learning environment should enable students to construct their knowledge through active learning and trial and error.

Constructivism suggests that learners learn concepts or construct meaning about ideas through their interaction with others, with their world, and through interpretations of that world by actively constructing meaning. They cannot do this by passively absorbing knowledge imparted by a teacher. Learners relate new knowledge to their previous knowledge and experience. A constructivist model of teaching has five characteristic features: active engagement, use and application of knowledge, multiple representations, use of learning communities, and authentic tasks (Krajcik, Czerniak & Berger, 1999).

 The teacher’s task, according to this approach, is to tutor students and teach them how to learn. He/she is not a mere ‘purveyor of knowledge’ or ‘provider of facts’, but is, rather, a mentor, facilitator, helper and mediator for learning. The teacher must create a learning environment that will allow the student to construct his/her own knowledge by experiencing and interacting with the environment (Hill, 1997). An e-learning strategy, if designed correctly, may provide precisely such a learning environment.

Many researchers testify to the efficiency of active learning. For example, Hake (1998) examined 6542 students who participated in physics courses. He found that the conceptual understanding and the problem solving ability of students who applied interactive-engagement methods in their studies was significantly higher than students who studied in traditional methods.

3.2 Visualization and multimedia: Images, animations, and simulations

Introduction. The term “multimedia” refers to a combination of multiple technical resources for the purpose of presenting information represented in multiple formats via multiple sensory modalities (Schnotz & Lowe, 2003). Accordingly, multimedia resources can be considered on three different levels: the technical level (i.e., computers, networks, displays, etc.); the semiotic level, referring to the representational format (i.e., texts, pictures, sound, etc.); and the sensory level (i.e. visual or auditory modality).

Here, we will relate mainly to the sensory and semiotic levels. Many educators assume that creating learning environments that contain visual and auditory effects while using tools such as animations and videos is sufficient for promoting cognitive processing and constructing elaborate knowledge structures. However, in many research studies it was found out that the use of visual and auditory effects does not necessarily improve learning and, thus, using technology per se does not guarantee success. In order to improve learning processes, the instructor has to plan correctly the manner in which the information is presented and to refer to its sensory and semiotic aspects. 

The effects on learning of using illustrations. In a series of four laboratory experiments, Mayer (2003) checked under which conditions the addition of illustrations to a text, written or vocal, fosters meaningful learning. It was found that students learn more deeply: from words and pictures than from words alone; when extraneous material is excluded rather than included; printed words are placed near rather than far from corresponding pictures; and when words are presented in a conversational rather than formal style. A possible explanation for these findings is that learning is more meaningful when the information is absorbed via two channels – auditory and visual, when learners pay high attention both to words as well as to pictures, and when they integrate the verbal representations with the visual representations, and between them and prior knowledge.

In another lab experiment (Schnotz & Bannert, 2003) it was found that presenting graphics is not always beneficial for the acquisition of knowledge. Whereas task-appropriate graphics may support learning, task-inappropriate graphics may interfere with mental model construction. Pictures facilitate learning only if the learners have low prior knowledge and if the subject matter is visualized in a task-appropriate way. If good readers with high prior knowledge receive a text with pictures in which the subject matter is visualized in a task-inappropriate way, then these pictures may interfere with the construction of a task-appropriate mental model. The researchers behind this experiment concluded that the structure of graphics affects the structure of the mental model. In the design of instructional material including texts and pictures, the form of visualization used in the pictures should be considered very carefully.    

Animations effects on learning. Animation is a dynamic depiction that can be used to make change processes explicit to the learner (Schnotz & Lowe, 2003). Many educators believe that animations are superior to static illustrations as tools for learning. In order to comprehend a dynamic situation that is externally represented by a static graphic, the learner must first construct a dynamic mental model from the static information provided. In contrast, animations can offer the learner an explicit dynamic representation of the situation. On the other hand, the transitory nature of dynamic visuals may cause higher cognitive load because learners have less control of their speed of processing. Lowe (2003) and Lewalter (2003) showed that merely providing learners with the dynamic information in an explicit form does not necessarily result in better learning.

An experimental study with 60 physics students, conducted by Lewalter (2003), investigated the effects of including static or dynamic visuals in an expository text on a learning outcome. She found that either adding animations or adding static illustrations can result in better learning. However, she found no difference between animations and static illustrations with respect to knowledge acquisition about facts, and only a small non-significant difference in favor of the animation group with respect to comprehension. Kozma (2003) found that with regard to the use of representations, such as animations and video segments showing lab experiments, chemistry experts may extract more benefits than chemistry novices. Lowe (2003) found that explicit presentation of the dynamic aspects of the content in a multimedia learning environment does not necessarily have a positive impact on learning. In many cases, the use of static visuals including conventional signs for motion, such as arrows, or the use of a series of frames may be sufficient for learning.

To review, the use of advanced educational technology as such does not assure a positive effect on learning. In order to improve learning, the instructor has to thoroughly plan the use of pictures and animations according to the following principles: students learn more deeply from words and pictures than from words alone; pictures facilitate learning only if the learners have low prior knowledge and if the subject matter is visualized in a task-appropriate way; animations are more effective when the learner can control the pace and the direction; even animations allowing a high degree of user control should incorporate considerably more support and direction if they are to function as effective tools for learning; and in science teaching, it is not sufficient to present virtual experiments. Students must participate in hands-on experiments as well. 

3.3 The Effects of Computerized Feedback Intervention on Learning

Definition. “Feedback interventions are defined as actions taken by (an) external agent(s) to provide information regarding some aspect (s) of one’s task performance” (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996). This definition excludes several areas of investigation: (1) natural feedback processes such as homeostasis, intrinsic feedback, or the negative-feedback-loop of a control system that operates without an external intervention; (2) task-generated feedback which is obtained without intervention; (3) personal feedback that does not relate to task performance; and (4) self-initiated feedback-seeking behavior. We concentrate here on feedback intervention given to the student by an external agent (the teacher) as regards certain aspects and outcomes of the learning process. The feedback could also be automatic – the computer, both in SDL and asynchronous on-line courses returns feedback, which is prepared by the teacher in advance.

Following a literature review it seems that the question on which we should focus is not whether feedback should be given, but how it should be designed in order to improve learning. Based on research findings, a short discussion about the conditions under which computerized feedback has a positive effect on learning is presented below.

The effects of feedback on performance. Many organizational psychology research studies show that feedback has a positive effect on performance level. Thus, for example, according to Locke and Latham (1990), a meta-analysis of 33 investigations showd that in relation to pre-defined goals feedback is more efficient than in a situation where goals were defined and feedback was not given or a situation in which feedback was given but no goals were defined.

The educational literature has plenty of evidence showing that well-designed feedback given by teachers has a positive effect on learning (Cronbach, 1977; Natrielo, 1987; Crooks, 1988; Black & William, 1998; William, 2002). For example, according to Cronbach (1977), “... feedback or knowledge of results ... [is] the strongest, most important variable controlling performance and learning ... It has been shown repeatedly that there is no improvement without knowledge of results, progressive improvement with it, and deterioration after its withdrawal” (p. 404). And William (2002) summarizes, “After a year, we found significant improvements in the attainment (as measured by external tests) of students taught by teachers using formative assessment, compared with controls in the same schools”.

Since this section focuses on feedback provided (automatically) by the computer, let’s examine if there is a significant difference between regular teacher feedback and computerized feedback in relation to the effect on learning. Early (1988) found that immediate feedback given by the computer stimulates more confidence, leads to better self-efficacy, and improves performance compared to feedback given by the teacher, verbally or in writing. A possible explanation could be that feedback given by the teacher might detour the student’s attention to “him/herself” (i.e., the student will attempt to understand the teacher’s intentions, compare him/herself to others, perceive the feedback as something that is being subjectively aimed at him/her personally, perceive the feedback as a threat or even as offensive in certain cases). On the other hand, feedback given by the computer focuses the attention on the task. Jackson (1988) and Kumar and Helgeson (2000) also found that immediate feedback given by a computer is more efficient than feedback provided through traditional methods.

Does feedback always have a positive effect on performance? Kluger and DeNisi (1996) argued that feedback could cause various effects on performance –– in certain situations feedback improves the performance level, in others there is no significant effect, and at times there is a negative effect. That is why just providing feedback is insufficient. In order for feedback to have a positive effect, one should plan it properly. The following are a few aspects to be taken into consideration when planning to provide feedback.

Negative feedback. Here, the term “negative feedback” refers to feedback about a mistake made by a student. According to Kluger and DeNisi (1996), feedback influences the student’s feelings of well being and alertness and, therefore, performance as well. Negative feedback could also have an unintended emotional influence. When an individual is given negative feedback, he/she evaluates the level of his/her performance in relation to the goal, and accordingly, he/she can proceed using one of four strategies: redouble the effort in order to meet the goal; decrease the goal level to one that can be achieved; reject the feedback; or give up and “run away” (physically or mentally) from the situation. Repetitive negative feedback might induce a reaction of learned helplessness.

Of course, the teacher must create a learning environment that leads the student to choose the first strategy – redouble the effort in order to achieve the goal. Practically, feedback about a mistake that directs the learner to interpret the mistake and challenges him/her toward additional thinking paths would be more efficient than laconic negative feedback, such as “you made a mistake, try again!”

Positive feedback. Surprisingly, positive feedback does not necessarily results in better learning. Many researchers (see Kluger & DeNisi, 1996) found that praise could also harm performance. For example, feedback that is “too good” may encourage low effort by the student. A teacher, who is effusive with his/her commendation, even when there is no justification for it, might cause nonconfidence (why exert oneself if the teacher praises everything anyway in order to form an positive climate in the classroom or in order to encourage students). So, in order to improve performance positive feedback and praise should relate directly to the task.

Positive feedback, just as negative feedback, should be as detailed and informative as possible. It is not always sufficient to react with a “yes” or “untrue”. It is advisable to add an explanation such as: your answer is not correct because…; or “the right answer is B since …; answers A and D are wrong because …; answer C is wrong because …, etc.

In short, immediate feedback given by the computer could, if it is correctly designed, stimulate more confidence, lead to better self-efficacy, and improve learning compared to feedback given by the teacher, verbally or in writing. Through the investment of little effort it is possible to design feedback provided by the computer through the course web site so that a positive effect on learning is achieved.  The feedback must: be focused and specific to the task; contain relevant and detailed information; be given immediately; direct the learner to understand his/her mistake; challenge the learner toward additional thinking paths; and point at other possible solutions. The teacher should also present the aims of the course and the learning goals.

4. Method

The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology is Israel’s leading technology university. It has 19 engineering and science faculties, in which approximately 13,500 students are enrolled. About 10,000 of these are undergraduates. The remainder are graduates. Over 800 courses are open to students each semester.

The Technion’s e-learning policy is that undergraduate and graduate studies must continue to be taught in the traditional fashion of lectures and tutorials. Nevertheless, the Technion encourages its teaching staff to build course web sites for their courses for enrichment, in-depth study, review and practice. When the Technion inaugurated its e-learning project, the WebCT system was selected as its Learning Management System (LMS). However, the Technion administration allowed interested faculties to develop Content Management Systems (CMS) on their own for internal faculty purposes.

Already at the start of the project it was clear that the process would be a gradual one. Therefore, two stages for building the course web sites were delineated. It was decided that in the first stage a standard web site would include administrative information and course content. Administrative information comprised the course syllabus, objectives, goals, policy and requirements; how the course grade would be calculated; information about the teaching staff and their office hours; various instructions; the course timetable; weekly program; exam and quiz schedules and so forth. Course content meant the teaching material for the course, including articles, texts, Power Point presentations, copies of slides, homework assignments and their solutions, past exams and their solutions, links to different relevant web sites, and links to pictures, printouts, and relevant video clips. In addition, the web site had to include basic communication media (for instance, a bulletin board, and discussion groups).

In the second stage course instructors were asked to add interactive components, such as tutorial exercises (usually in the form of multiple-choice questions) for practice on one’s own, with immediate feedback, simulations and animations, management games, model building and running, execution of team projects, material for self-study combined with questions and immediate feedback. Likewise, the web site had to have a frequently asked questions (FAQ) page, as well as an option for allowing students to build their own web pages.

By the year 2000, a limited number of course web sites had been built, under the initiative of lone lecturers who knew how to build internet sites. At that point (the beginning of 2000), the Technion initiated its e-learning project, in its present form, and up to the moment of writing this paper (mid 2004), about 1,300 course web sites have been built. Around 600 of the web sites are based on the WebCT platform; the other sites were built by teaching staff as independent web sites or using the content management systems developed in-house by the respective faculties.

In order to see how much the Technion’s course web sites, the WebCT features and the local content management systems are being used, four surveys were conducted. In the framework of the first survey all the web sites – both WebCT-based and local CMS-based – were reviewed. The reviewers examined the content and the tools being used on each web site. The types of tools were divided into four categories: content tools, communication tools, management tools, and interactive tools. During the second survey a questionnaire was distributed to a sample of about 400 students who had taken the courses for which web sites had been built using WebCT. The third survey was actually an analysis of the students’ responses to the teaching survey that related to the course web site. In the framework of the fourth survey, another questionnaire, which included open and set questions, was distributed to students who had taken the Technion-wide basic courses in calculus and physics.

5. Major findings and discussion

5.1 Web sites based on WebCT

WebCT is a Learning Management System that was designed with a view to supporting interactive features and offering enhanced support to teachers and learners in using the Internet as a medium of learning (Burgess, 2003). WebCT, as other web-based course support systems, provides tools to enroll learners, deliver the course materials to the learners, and administer and manage the learning (Oliver & McLoughlin, 1999).

WebCT integrates communication tools, including a bulletin board, chat room/s, private e-mail, and a calendar. In addition, text, graphics, video, and audio files can be incorporated into a WebCT site. Such features facilitate interaction between faculty and students (Burgess, 2003). WebCT also provides instructional tools to support course content such as a glossary, references, self-tests, and quiz modules. Students, too, can submit assignments and other materials through WebCT for courses in which they are enrolled. WebCT also gives the instructors tools for grading, tracking student interaction, and monitoring class progress.

From an analysis of the findings it was clear that in six faculties – civil engineering, chemical engineering, biotechnology and food engineering, industrial engineering and management, materials engineering and medicine – the majority of sites are WebCT-based. Nonetheless, there are WebCT-based sites in other faculties also. In total, as previously mentioned, approximately 600 WebCT-based course web sites were identified. In all these sites, administrative data and course content were available. However, only about 15% of the lecturers used the interactive features of quizzes; 10% operated discussion groups; 5% added links to other relevant sites; and only 1% used the glossary feature.

Thus, we see that most instructors used their course web sites as a means to enable accessibility to course material and content and to place messages on the bulletin board rather than utilizing the available interactive features. These findings are corroborated in the literature. For example, Burgess (2003) found that: “Usage patterns reveal that most WebCT users have not taken full advantage of WebCT capabilities. WebCT as well as other web-based platform were used as a supplement to traditional teaching methods”. Dehoney and Reeves (1999) reported on a study that found that the predominant form of web resources among universities were static web pages containing course information and syllabus material. He championed the need for more “pedagogical reengineering” of course materials for web delivery in place of simply enriching conventional courses with web materials.

Students are interested in having course web sites that complement the courses in which they are enrolled. An analysis of the questionnaire completed by around 400 students who participated in courses that had WebCT-based web sites found that 57% of the students believed that WebCT web sites should be built for all Technion courses. In general, it may be said that the students were satisfied with the WebCT system. Fifty-five percent of them thought that using the system contributed “a lot to a great extent” to learning; 50% believed the reaction time of WebCT was “good to excellent”; 50% felt that the system was easy to use to “a great extent”: and 48% of the students believed that the technical and pedagogical support of the helpdesk was “very good to excellent”.

5.2 Web sites not based on WebCT

Ten faculties developed Content Management Systems. In three of these, the systems offered the following features: in aeronautical and space engineering – syllabus, information about the teaching staff, a bulletin board, lecture content, tutorial content, homework assignments and solutions; computer science – syllabus, information about the teaching staff, a bulletin board, lecture content, tutorial content, FAQs, group discussion, options for getting a grade, list of resources and text books; agricultural engineering –  syllabus, information about the teaching staff, a bulletin board, lecture content, tutorial content, homework assignments and solutions, and exams from previous years and their solutions.

The other seven faculties that built CMSs were: mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, mathematics, physics, biology, biomedical engineering, and humanity studies. The remaining three faculties – chemistry, architecture and town planning and education in technology and science – built different kinds of course web sites. To summarize, six faculties set up WebCT-based web sites. Ten faculties used local CMSs and three used other types of systems.

The thirteen faculties that did not use WebCT had 688 web sites. All the sites included syllabi and information about the course teaching staff. In 65% teaching material was offered; in 60% homework assignment pages were available; in 50% there was information about resources and links to recommended sites; 43% made exams from previous years with their solutions available to students; 31% had bulletin boards; 20% gave solutions to homework assignments; 13% had a feature called “find a partner”; in 11% students could find manuals for programs relevant to the course; 7% had set up group discussions; 7% had FAQs; 4% offered formula sheets and a glossary; and only 3% had interactive self-study practice exercises.

5.3 Teaching assessment survey

As in many other academic institutions, the Technion also carries out end-of-semester surveys among its students in order to measure their degree of satisfaction from the teaching. In the last survey, the pollsters inserted an open question that asked the students to write down their comments about the course web sites (if any). After analysis of their answers, researchers found that the comments related to six categories – accessibility and availability, integration of multimedia, bulletin boards, group discussions, solutions to home assignments and supplementing lecture material.

The following are several typical comments.

Accessibility and availability:

  •  “It is a big help to have the presentations available on the web site before the lecture…”

  • “It would be worthwhile uploading all the lecture and tutorial material to the web site.”

  • “How wonderful to have copies of the lectures on the web site…”

Integration of multimedia:

  • “…more pictures and video clips that actually illustrate the lecture material.”

  • “…in this course there is a lot more room for use of more advanced teaching methods than simply chalk and a blackboard. I am sure that it is possible to find a large number of simulations and animations on the Internet that would illustrate the lecture material.”

Supplementing lecture material:

  • “…the mathematical part of the course was not presented…a full presentation of the mathematical development, even if not given in the lecture, but through the Internet, gives the students who are interested a better understanding.”

  • “…it would be worthwhile putting the development of the mathematical formulae on the Internet site, saving the time in the lectures…”

Homework assignment solutions:

  • “it would be valuable to add solved exercises to the course web site so as to instill an understanding of the material”

  • “preferably, the solutions of exams from previous years should be on the web site”

Group discussions:

  • “…the forum gave me a lot…it helped me to better understand the material…after I learned using the forum I was able to solve by myself the homework assignments”

To summarize, from an analysis of the raw data that was collected by the survey, it appears that, in general, the course web sites helped the students’ learning. In the courses that had web sites, to a large extent students used them mainly to prepare for lectures, to review lecture material, to deepen their understanding (through the multimedia, for instance), to submit homework assignments, to get feedback and communicate among themselves and with the teaching staff.

5.4 Special self-developed course web sites

Two faculties developed interactive systems dedicated to practice exercises. The mathematics faculty developed Mathnet, a system for doing exercises in subjects such as calculus. The physics faculty developed Physweb for submission of homework assignments in physics. These systems serve thousands of students from different faculties who take Technion-wide core courses. Mathnet has three main modules. The first module allows students to prepare for lectures. Prior to every lecture students are presented with informal background material, followed by several interactive exercises. The second module permits student to receive and submit homework assignments. The third module includes tutorial classes that replace classes given in the past in frontal classroom settings. The system allows students to submit exercises, get grades and receive feedback easily. Students can also address questions to the support staff. Physweb is intended for online submission of homework assignments and receipt of immediate feedback.

5.5 Implications

Given the essential difference between the two types of systems – LMS and CMS, it is obvious that course web sites built as content sites will not have interactive components. A comparison of WebCT-based web sites and CMS-based web sites shows that the availability of interactive tools occasionally leads, sometimes only, to the use of these tools. Specifically, it seems that the discussion group tool is a less appropriate learning tool in the basic science courses such as mathematics and physics.

Likewise, among lecturers who used the WebCT system, only some added interactive features. Too often the instructional designs that were employed were attempts to apply traditional learning approaches to this new domain. We see, thus, that using features that have pedagogical benefits (such as active learning, immediate feedback, and use of visualization as explained in section 2, above) is still low. The scope of the use of interactive and multimedia applications is still limited. The work program for the Center for e-Learning must stress this area and encourage the addition of interactive features to course web sites. The implementation team should take action and provide additional training to expose the instructors to unused WebCT capabilities.

Taking our findings into consideration and based on the literature review we recommend to consider the following guidelines. The guidelines are classified to four categories according to four dimensions of "good teaching" – organize the course and its content, apply active and interactive learning principles, provide feedback, and use multiple modes of presentation. Web site designers should review the list given below, to decide, taking into account the course objectives, what is relevant for their course.

Organize the course and its content

  • Provide an overview and an orientation of the entire course web site. Provide information about course objectives, priorities, timelines, and responsibilities. Explain how to use the course web site and how the course content is organized. Specify the instructions regarding exams and quizzes.

  • Provide links to relevant programs (such as Autocad or Matlab), including examples and manuals.

  • Specify the prior knowledge (prerequisite) that is required for the course. Give short summaries of (or links to) relevant resources.

  • Present short summaries of learning material that seems to be hard for students to grasp during the lectures.

  • Engage and guide students through the course web site by including elements such as weekly announcement, task-lists, new materials, and forums.

Apply active and interactive learning principles, provide feedback

  • Use discussion groups for peer and/or group assessment and to encourage student expression and reflection.

  • Use an FAQ mechanism for handling students’ questions. Encourage students to use it.

  • Provide self-assessment quizzes to help students monitor their progress. Give the student feedback and guidance.

Use multiple modes of presentation.

  • Plan the use of pictures, images, simulations and animations according to the following principles: students learn more deeply from words and pictures than from words alone; pictures facilitate learning only if the learners have low prior knowledge and if the subject matter is visualized in a task-appropriate way; animations are more effective when the learner can control the pace and the direction.

6. Conclusion

This paper reviews the benefits and challenges of using course web sites in lecture-based teaching. The advanced technology exists but using technology simply because it is there does not assure effective learning. Technology must be a means – not the aim. More important are the pedagogical considerations and the ways of using the technology to extract more of the pedagogical benefits.

The technology should be used to drive active learning, give immediate feedback, and present external and internal multiple representations in multimedia learning. In using discussion groups, other interactive features, and inquiry-based approaches, teachers can nurture a learning environment that enables students to create their own meaning, and organize and rationalize their personal experiences. Examining experience fosters learning (Fosnot, 1996). Technology should be used to serve pedagogical needs and to enable meaningful learning.

Many examples exist to guide instructors in the design of more innovative and dynamic course web sites. Yet, there is still a tendency for instructors in engineering education to build course web sites that underutilize the technology’s potential. This tendency can be seen to stem from difficulties that teachers face in moving from teacher-centered to resource-based learning (Oliver & McLoughlin, 1999). While motivational issues should be taken into consideration, teacher should use technology for creating a learning environment that assures: “Overall, students find electronic interaction a meaningful, enjoyable experience" (LaMaster & Morley, 1999).


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About the Authors

Dr. Moti Frank is the head of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and a senior lecturer in the Department of Education in Technology and Science. His research interests are Educational Technology; E-Learning; Computers in Education, Systems Thinking, and Engineering Education.

Mailing address: Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Ullmann building, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Technion city, Haifa 32000, Israel.
Phone (office): +972-4-8293212  Email:

Dr. Abigail Barzilai is a teaching consultant for faculty staff in the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and an adjacent lecturer in the Department of Education in Technology and Science. Her research interests are Higher Education, E-Learning, and Biology Teaching.

Mailing address: Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Ullmann building, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Technion city, Haifa 32000, Israel. Phone (office): +972-4-8292275  Email:

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