Campus & Community

There’s no place like home page: FAS course tools

4 min read

After teaching Microeconomic Theory for 14 years, Jeffrey Wolcowitz, senior lecturer on economics and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ associate dean for undergraduate education, decided in 1998 to rethink his presentation and explore use of the Internet.

He began using an overhead projector occasionally to pose questions and problems for students to discuss with their neighbors during class.

For help using the Web, Wolcowitz turned to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Instructional Computing Group. He put to use the course tools they’d designed to help professors build useful class Websites.

This year, Wolcowitz posted problem sets, old exams, and their answers on the site, along with a calendar of his office hours, due dates, and exam dates. Particularly useful, Wolcowitz said, is the fact that students can use the site to access electronic reserves for articles that illustrate the theory being discussed in class.

“This has become a mechanism for encouraging students to go beyond the course materials and textbook to look at real economic research,” Wolcowitz said.

The course tools used by Wolcowitz to build his Website were designed by the FAS Instructional Computing Group to help professors post lectures, slides, video, and other class-related items on the Web.

The software tools are backed up by a series of face-to-face workshops, technical support via e-mail, as well as walk-in and one-on-one consulting times, according to Paul Bergen, head of the FAS Instructional Computing Group.

At the beginning of a semester, Bergen said, his group gets 200 to 400 people in the workshops and handles thousands of pieces of e-mail.

Though the program was first established in the spring of 1996, Bergen said the breakthrough came in the fall of 1998, when the software was redesigned so that a Website for every undergraduate course in the curriculum could be created at the beginning of each term. Professors need only a Web browser and a self-selected identification number to create a customized Website for their courses.

Those first Websites ranged quite broadly in content, with some created by instructors to augment their work in class while others contained nothing but a default page of information taken from the course catalog.

Bergen said the Faculty of Arts and Sciences offers roughly 1,000 undergraduate courses each year. Half of those are small courses with an enrollment of fewer than 10, where the close attention from instructors provides ample opportunity for the kind of interaction the Web can foster in larger classes.

Of the 500 larger classes, slightly more than half use their course Website.

“Since the fall of 1998, the cumulative total of 1,000 courses have tried using the course Website,” Bergen said. “I’d say, numerically, that we’re doing very well, but could do better. We need to continue developing and adapting tools that make course Websites meaningful to teaching and learning.”

Bergen said he’s looking for ways to make site creation and use of the software tools easier.

“We need to make it easier and more obvious to people how to get started,” he said.

Many instructors, particularly in larger courses, use the Website for administrative purposes, to distribute information and gather feedback from students. Bergen said he’d like to see more sites being used to augment the teaching that’s going on in the classroom.

From year to year, instructors become more proficient at using the Web and their course sites get more sophisticated. Perhaps in the first year, Bergen said, they’d just post a class syllabus on the site, but in later years post lecture notes or additional readings.

“It’s a very common progression. They start with a syllabus,” Bergen said. “Then, over time, the Websites get more interesting.”