Using the Web to Enhance a Traditional Course

by Jennifer Merlic and Kristina Kauffman

The Web and Your Class



The Report of the Commission on Technology and Adult Learning (2001) entitled, A Vision of e-learning for America's Workforce, recently defined e-learning as, "instructional content or learning experiences delivered or enabled by electronic technology.  Functionally, e-learning can include a wide variety of learning strategies and technologies, from CD-ROMS and computer based instruction to video conferencing, satellite-delivered learning and virtual educational networks."   Our work in this section addresses the use of web based information in your classes.  For purposes of clarity we use the following definitions to describe the use of the web in your class:

  • Web presence
    • information about the course that has traditionally been in the course catalog is placed online
    • information about the faculty who generally teach the course, course outlines, bibliographies, and course requirements appear in a website
    • comments and evaluations from students who have taken the course may be included in the website

  • Web-enhanced course
    • class continues to meet during regular classroom time, but has significant ancillary materials on the web
    • makes use of Web technology and services to support distribution of course materials and student access to the resources on the Web
    • may employ online discussion software for virtual office hours

  • Web-centric course (hybrid course)
    • makes significant use of Web technology to facilitate access to class materials and support communication between faculty and students, among students, and between students and resources
    • the communication hub of a course may have shifted from the physical classroom to the Web through the use of a asynchronous discussion board or real time chat
    • Options for structure: 
      • courses can be cohort-based,
      • courses can be limited to a geographic area, such as a campus or a city, but attract more students with needs for flexible schedules and fewer class room meetings.
        • intensive location-based launching activities, weekend seminars, and other special events
      • courses can meet 50% online and 50% in the classroom (or use another division)

  • Web course (also commonly called an Online Course)
    • A full Web course is a course that can be accessed anywhere and anytime via the Internet and a Web browser (please see module 3 "Distance Learning for more on web courses")
    • These courses do not typically meet face-to-face at any point during the course.  Students may, however, be required to take a final exam on campus (or have it proctored elsewhere)

Define your goaltwo people climbing up an arrow on a chart

If you are intrigued by the learning opportunities now available using the Internet, you may wish to consider one of the form of web courses above.  It is important to keep in mind that the web has two key educational purposes:

  1. To improve the quality of education by providing resources or learning processes not available in the traditional classroom
  2. To improve access to education for those who might not be able to advance their educations without ease of access and the absence of time constraints.

If your purpose is to improve access you will likely wish to think about creating a fully online course.  If you purpose is to improve the quality of your course you will most likely be interested in web enhanced or hybrid course.  If you are uncertain of the value of the web for your course, begin with a web enhanced course.  

  • Create an online syllabus
  • Make your handout available online
  • Offer recommended links for future research
  • If you are interested in enhancing communication add an e-mail or discussion board option.  Keep in mind that you will have to monitor the bulletin board and answer e-mail questions.  You may wish to carefully define the limits of discussion, and tell students that you answer e-mail three times per week to avoid creating a 24/7 course that also meets face-to-face as it traditionally has.

If you are interested in creating a class that utilizes the web as an important means of instruction you may wish to consider a hybrid course.  A hybrid class should retain the best of what you do in the face-to-face environment in the classroom.  If you are a brilliant lecturer who keeps students hanging on every word don't put your lectures on line, move your discussion online instead.  If students fidget during your lecture and you recognize that monotone is a good word to describe your speaking style moving it online as written material, a PowerPoint with audio (be sure to consider the deaf if you do this and create explanations of the slides), or editing streamed video.   This will allow you to use class time to focus on discussion, group projects or presentations.  

In short, it is often wise to think about what you would most like to improve about your course and then ask yourself how you might do that using the web.    Since a hybrid course meets only part of class time face-to-face it offers you the time released from the classroom to answer the discussion board or plan new lectures.  It does take more time to design and update a hybrid course than a traditional course, but it may be well worth the effort for you and your students if the course is carefully designed.  

If you are having trouble imagining what you might do with your hybrid course, think about some of the features of this class that have worked effectively for you.  Could you put those same aspects online for your students?  Yes, there is a learning curve and significant time investment upfront, but the payoff in terms of your increased skills, options and job satisfaction in the long run can make that investment well worth it.  

picture of toolsChoose your tools  

Course management tools

With the increasing popularity of online learning has come a new breed of software packages.  Course Management Software (CMS) is now available from dozens of vendors.  Most of this software was developed to support online distance education courses so they tend to include web-based versions of all the functions provided to students in traditional courses.  However, many faculty use CMS packages to enhance their traditional courses, picking and choosing from the variety of features offered until they find the right blend of live and online resources to suit their needs.  

A typical CMS package includes the tools that most instructors use in teaching online courses:  syllabus, calendar, gradebook, email, discussion forums (both synchronous and asynchronous--see below for the distinctions), student enrollment and tracking facilities, mechanisms to link to other sites or to modules on CD or DVD, mechanisms for including streamed audio and/or video, online assessment tools, and some sort of system for organizing content including file uploads and a mechanism for organizing content according to a course outline or schedule.  Other features are often available as well.

The University of Illinois has prepared a basic introduction to course management packages, their features, administrative issues, and examples at

Tools that improve communication

Communication tools fall into two categories:  synchronous and asynchronous.  Synchronous tools require that the participants be logged in to their computers at the same time.  Thus, geographic constraints are removed, but not scheduling issues.  Synchronous tools can be very powerful when you want your students to respond to each other's ideas promptly or "think on their feet", but you must schedule them into your class prior to the first meeting, just as you would for any mandatory classroom time.  Asynchronous tools do not require simultaneous participation and are available to students and instructor at their convenience.  This eliminates scheduling issues and has the additional benefit that students can take as long as they need to compose their responses.  Many instructors have noted that students who are timid about participating in live discussions often blossom into active participants when online. 

1)      Email

AOL Mail symbolMany of us now use email as frequently and comfortably as we use a telephone.  Email software is now so well-developed and user-friendly that even new users need very little training to get started.  The widespread use of email makes it a common first step for instructors venturing into the world of online communication with their students.  Unfortunately, many faculty suddenly find themselves swamped with email messages from students and the time required to read and respond to them all becomes overwhelming.  There are, however, strategies that experienced email users have developed to manage their email:

    • Use email only for confidential communication!  Many faculty instruct their students to use an alternate communication method such as a discussion board or listserv for all questions or comments that are not too private to share with the rest of the class.  If a student sends a nonconfidential message to your email, simply reply with a brief request that the student post the question to the discussion forum or listserv instead.  In case of urgent but nonconfidential questions (i.e.  what's on the exam tomorrow?!), you can also copy and paste the message from the student's email to the discussion forum and answer it there, sending a quick message instructing the student to check the forum for his/her answer.  Either method will quickly teach the students not to send you email unless a private issue arises, and use of the bulletin board or listserv will eliminate redundant questions and comments.
    • Organize email using folders!  Many email systems will allow you to have incoming email automatically routed to a special folder based upon what the sender has entered in the subject line.  This is especially helpful if you are using email to receive assignments.  By requiring that students' use a particular subject line (i.e.  assignment 3), you can have your class-related email organized into folders automatically, keeping your inbox free for your other messages.
    • Set limits!  Feel free to set limits, and indicate them right on your syllabus.  For example, you may wish to check email messages only on certain days or at certain times (i.e. MWF at 9:00 a.m.).  If you stick to your schedule reliably, students will learn not to expect responses until your posted times.  They may also save up their questions for a day or two and send them all in one message just prior to your posted time for email.

     Email Proís and Conís

  • easy to use--most students already know how
  • in common use already, so students and instructor receive messages any time they check email--they don't have to make any extra effort to check for new messages.
  • asynchronous
  • instructor often receives redundant questions since students don't necessarily see each other's messages
  • time consuming to write individual responses to students
  • administratively cumbersome to keep list of email addresses up to date
  • topics are often not well organized so it can be hard to find older information

Recommended uses for email include personal communications and, for those who do not have access to course management software with an assignment drop box, receipt of electronic documents from students.  Other uses tend to require overwhelming amounts of the instructor's time except in the case of very small classes.

image of a list

2)     Listservs

Listservs are really another form of email, but they address the entire class so the instructor is less likely to receive redundant messages from students.  There are many manufacturers of listserv software and it is likely, though by no means assured, that your college supports listservs of some type.  Listserv software allows you to create an email address for a list, similar to an email distribution list that you might set up in your own email address book except that all members of the list have access to the address for the list.  Thus, any time a member of a listserv posts a message to the list, all the other members receive it.  While listservs have the advantage of addressing the entire class and allowing each member to do so as well, they do not provide a mechanism for organizing the messages by subject.  In fact, listserv messages usually appear in your email box along with all your regular email.  For that reason, most instructors find discussion forums preferable to listservs.  It is worthy to note, however, that one benefit of listservs is that they are hard to ignore.  The participants must make an effort to visit a threaded discussion forum, but listserv messages just show up in their email whether they are working on the class at that moment or not.

Listserv Proís and Conís

Pros Cons
  • all messages appear in email--no need to check website for new postings
  • everyone receives every message
  • asynchronous
  • everyone receives every message
  • some students have difficulty if self-subscription is necessary. 
  • administratively cumbersome to keep list of email addresses up to date if instructor handles subscriptions

Recommended uses for listservs include classes where students are computer-savvy and can easily set up email folders to organize their messages, and when the members are particularly busy (or traveling and limiting their time online to downloaded email) and might not take the time to check an asynchronous discussion forum regularly.  

picture of bulletin board

3)      Threaded Discussions and Bulletin Boards

Threaded discussions and bulletin boards are both examples of asynchronous discussion forums.  An online bulletin board is simply a web page where viewers are able to post comments of their own.  A threaded discussion is one specific type of bulletin board--the type is that is used most commonly by educators.  In a threaded discussion, each "thread" is a distinct topic.  Rather than posting all comments in the order received, they are organized by topic or thread.  Thus, an instructor can have several simultaneous discussions going on--maybe one on general course questions, one on a current reading assignment, and a third dealing with a specific question the instructor has posed.  The threaded discussion software keeps the threads separate so it's easy for the participants to read through the discussions topic by topic.  For those of you who are avid email users, it's a bit like having your messages organized into folders based upon their subject.

Asynchronous discussion forums are currently the most popular means of communication in online and web-enhanced courses, and for good reason.  Because they are asynchronous, there are no scheduling issues to consider and everyone can participate as long as they have Internet access.  Most are text based so even those with slower modem connections can participate comfortably.  Participants can also take as much time as they like to read the comments of others and compose their own replies.  Students who feel inhibited about participating in live class discussions often bloom in asynchronous discussion forums where only their words count, not voice, appearance, or other potentially biasing attributes.  It is also notable that many instructors often prefer online discussion forums over email because all students in the class have access to the discussions, reducing redundancy, saving time for the instructor, and benefiting all students in the class, not just those who actually ask the questions.

Threaded Discussion Proís and Conís

Pros Cons
  • topics are well-organized into threads
  • all students in the class can benefit from each exchange of information
  • asynchronous
  • participants must remember to check the web site regularly for new postings--there is often no notification of new postings via email.

    Recommended uses for asynchronous discussion forums include:

    • virtual office hours (general "ask the professor" types of questions)
    • small group discussions (organize your class into groups, then create a discussion thread for each group, then pose a discussion question or even ask the students to do so)
    • full class discussions (if your class is relatively small, you can involve them all in your favorite discussion topics)
    • peer-to-peer evaluation or support (create a thread where students help each other--have them post a writing sample and ask others to provide constructive criticism, or simply ask them to share their favorite study techniques)
    • study groups (allow students to create their own threads for studying, then stay out of it!)


    A tip for any of these applications--you'll probably find that you have a handful of students who will jump right into your discussion forums simply because they are "webbies", but many will not participate unless you encourage it.  Instructors often make posting to discussion forums a required part of the class by creating assignments that involve posting comments.  This is a great way to give credit for class participation since each student's comments are there in writing for you to evaluate at your leisure.

To see examples and learn more about discussion boards click here.

cartoon of people accessing chat rooms

4)      Chatrooms & Whiteboards

Chatrooms and whiteboards are synchronous communication tools that allow members of a small group to have a "live" discussion without having to be in the same place.  Chat rooms require the participants type all of their comments and questions, while a whiteboard also allows them to draw pictures with a mouse, or specially designed pen.  pen for the computerChat rooms are very common, much more so than whiteboards.  Chat rooms are a component in every major course management system and are available for free on many web sites.  Whiteboards are usually seen only in some course management software packages.  This discussion focuses primarily on chat rooms simply because they are in much more widespread use.

In a chat room or whiteboard, all participants plan in advance to go to the same web address at the same time.  The address must be for a chat facility of some sort.  Some chat rooms are open to all, while others require a password.  Most educational chat rooms do use password protection to ensure that only registered students are participating.  

Each participant in a chat room sees a window where all comments and questions from all participants appear.  In addition, each individual has a field in which s/he can enter comments or questions of his or her own.  When the participant finishes typing a comment, s/he must then click a submit button.  At this time, the comment is sent to the window where all comments are displayed.  Since it takes some time to type a comment, and then another moment or two for it to appear after the submit button is pressed, it is easy for the conversation to be a bit confusing.  People tend to interrupt each other simply because they are typing and submitting at the same time.  Therefore, some simple rules of etiquette for chat room use have been developed and are demonstrated at the dig deeper link below.

Many chat software packages allow the instructor to set up several simultaneous chat rooms.  The students can then be organized into small discussion groups and each group assigned to its own room.  Later, they may regroup in one room where a spokesperson for each group can share a summary of that group's discussion.  Because most chat software maintains a log of each discussion, the instructor can review each student's contributions to a discussion.  This is a very valuable tool for instructors who wish to grade student's participation in discussions.

Because chat rooms are popular on commercial and social websites, some people think of them as vehicles for frivolous discussions or worse.  It should be noted, however, that they are simply a means for communication and that the instructor can control the content of the discussion just as s/he would do in a live classroom discussion.  Many instructors have found chat to be a very valuable tool!

Chatroom Proís and Conís

  • synchronous - requires that students remain actively engaged, "think on their feet"
  • allows a written log of participation in discussion for use in student assessment or for students to review
  • students are not seen by peers, so sometimes feel relieved from biases of others (i.e. due to physical appearance, gender, or ethnicity).
  • synchronous - limits scheduling flexibility
  • can intimidate students who respond more slowly - limited time to compose thoughts

 Recommended uses for chatrooms and other synchronous discussion tools:

Chat rooms are most valuable when the instructor wants the students to engage in a lively, fast-paced discussion or debate.  They are an excellent way to simulate a face-to-face discussion when people cannot be in the same place.  In fact, the written logs of all comments and questions even give them some advantages over face-to-face discussions.  

Virtual office hours are another popular use for chat, though asynchronous tools can also be used effectively here, too.  The advantage of the synchronous chat rooms for office hours is that students can count on immediate responses from the instructor.  In  an asynchronous discussion, students need to wait for the next time the instructor logs in.  Thus, chat is preferrable for last minute questions--i.e. the night before the big exam!

To see examples of effective use of chat rooms click here.

5)      e-Conferencing

E-conferencing allows faculty to collaborate with students or other colleagues online using voice, data and video. E-conferences are usually established in advance via e-mail, or through the course syllabus. Participants are given a URL and a password to the conference which occurs in real time. Most participants connect through their computers. Using either telephone or voice over IP technology, they can participate in an audible conversation. Those with net cams can be seen during the conference. Those connected via telephone, without benefit of computer can hear the entire conference. Often their phone call is to an 800 number that provides free access to the conference regardless of their location. Participants with older computer systems that have speakers can hear and see the conference, but their participation is limited to typing in their comments.

PowerPoint presentations can be given with the use of an online "chalk board" which can allow freehand drawings to be seen. In short, anything you can do on your computer can be done in the e-conference and viewed by all participants. At this writing e-conferencing is in limited use in the California Community Colleges and tends to be limited to administrative and economic development venues. Palomar College was awarded an e-conferencing grant by the Chancellor's Office in early 2001. If you are interested in using e-conferencing as part of your class look for announcements from Palomar in 2002.

b)      Proís and Conís

Pros Cons
  • synchronous - requires that students remain actively engaged
  • allows a written log of participation in discussion for use in student assessment
  • Allows for voice, net cam and telephone participations
  • Allows for viewing of documents and online editing
  • synchronous - limits scheduling flexibility
  • can intimidate students who respond more slowly - limited time to compose thoughts
  • advanced features may be problematic for those with old systems, or for visually or hearing impaired students.

The use of e-Conferencing in education is very new.  Check back for more information on this topic.  In the meantime you can explore e-Conferencing sites in the Explore section.

Tools that Increase Student Access to Learning Resources

woman at a computer1)  Publisher prepared materials (CD or website)

There is already a wealth of publisher-prepared materials ready for you and your students to use.  Much of it is located online and organized according to:

  • textbook--many textbooks have websites and/or CD ROM's available containing practice quizzes, problems to solve, discussion topics, animations, simulations, tutorials, and even discussion forums with the textbook author(s).  
  • discipline--in addition to textbook supplements, many publishers offer websites to support entire disciplines.  The homepages of such sites generally direct students to appropriate level materials, then provide links to online resources that may help them with drill and practice, research, and supplementary information. 
  • course management software--publishers have been very busy partnering with the most popular course management software packages (such as WebCT, BlackBoard, Prometheus, eCollege, and many others).  On these sites, you'll find content related to your discipline that has already been formatted to "plug-in" to the course management system your college is using.

As a final note on publisher-prepared materials, it should be mentioned that some academics view publisher content as being inferior to that generated by the instructor.  However, this view is rapidly fading and rightly so.  Just as with textbooks, some are very good and some are not.  Instructors should exercise the same care when selecting publisher-prepared electronic content that they do when selecting the text itself.  And don't assume that it's always better to build it yourself.  Remember that publishers have entire teams of graphic artists, instructional designers, and programmers who work with faculty to develop their supplemental materials.  If you're in the market for a good simulation of a complex process, or high quality streamed video/audio, you may find that your publisher has what you need in a quality that you cannot match using your campus resources.  Save your time and effort for those topics that publishers have not yet tackled.  See the Apply section for more ideas.

2) Instructor prepared course materials

A great way to help your students find additional learning resources is to create your own webpage where you can provide links to the resources you've already created, and others you find on the web and really like.  This gives your students a "one-stop shop" for information to help them in your course.   The design and content of faculty homepages varies as much as faculty do, but they do have a few things in common.  They usually have a homepage that gives the instructor's contact information and links to each course he or she teaches.  It is on these course pages that syllabi and other course-specific information is posted.  They also usually contain a list of links to websites that the instructor recommends.  These may be on the instructor's homepage if they are relevant to all the courses s/he teaches, or may be listed on the course-specific pages instead.  For many wonderful examples (and to submit your own) see the explore section.

Faculty Webpage - Sample Template
 (To save this template, right-click on the link and select "Save Target As" or "Save link as".  You may use and edit this template to create your own webpage.)

Given the availability of WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) web editors like FrontPage and Dreamweaver, creating a website is now a relatively simple process.  Check to see if either package is licensed for your campus (most colleges have a license to Frontpage thanks to a great deal on the software that was negotiated by CollegeBuys and Microsoft) and, if so, ask to have a copy installed on your computer if you don't have it already.  In the Apply section you will find information about ordering software for your home computer.

3)   Interactive tutorials, animations, simulations, and real audio and video content

The power of the computer for learning is truly captured by well-designed interactive multimedia modules.  Animation and simulation can make complex, dynamic, three-dimensional, abstract concepts tangible for students.  A complex mental image you may have spent years refining can be brought to life with the right tools.  Dangerous and/or inaccessible processes and equipment can be made available to students virtually without risk or tremendous expense.  How else can a student perform experiments using high energy particle accelerators, or perform a risky medical procedure?  

Multimedia, including audio and video, is also capable of capturing the attention of your students in ways that traditional lecturing or text-based materials cannot.  Interactivity makes the learner a participant, rather than a passive observer.  Audio and video appeal to those who learn best by these methods and who find reading less effective.

So why don't we all use these "techie," cutting-edge techniques for all of our teaching?  There are a few key drawbacks that you must understand.  First, producing such materials takes a lot of technical know how and a lot of time.  Many campuses have created teams of instructional designers, graphic artists, and programmers to assist faculty in such endeavors, but the production of one learning module can take weeks and is certainly not practical for every lesson.  You need to seek out those topics that are the best candidates for these approaches--typically, those that are difficult for your students to understand or remember, dull to teach by conventional methods, or very abstract and therefore difficult to teach by conventional methods.  Second, once you've got a great interactive, multimedia module to share with your students, you need to consider an effective means to deliver it.  If you put it on the web, students with slower Internet connections may have trouble viewing it.  If you show it in class, you'll need a projection system and students won't have the opportunity to view it again later.  Burning it onto a CD is a popular option, but will likely require assistance from your technical staff to make enough copies for all of your students.

Remember that much of the material being produced by publishers involves this high-end technology and instructional design.  Many faculty are finding an increasingly broad array of modules ready for use in the ancillary materials provided by their textbook publisher.  Often, student materials are placed on a CD and sold along with the book.  When bandwidth permits (Internet connection speed), many of these materials are also available on the Web.

Universal Web Accessibility

handicap symbolAll Community Colleges have a legal and ethical mandate to ensure their courses are accessible to all students. This includes universal access to web-based resources. Achieving universal web access demands our attention because web pages can inadvertently create accessibility obstacles for students with disabilities. For example, websites with no audio equivalent for information presented visually (e.g. images, graphs, videos) exclude people who are blind. Similarly, web sites with audio content exclude people who are hearing impaired if there is no text equivalent for the audio files.

We can provide universal access web access if we design our web pages according to universal design principles. This means we design our pages to accommodate the broadest range of users regardless of disabilities. This often means implementing electronic curb cuts, i.e., methods of enabling people with disabilities to access electronic information. Whenever possible, these electronic curb cuts should be thoughtfully incorporated at the inception of every aspect of course design, not added as an afterthought. These electronic curb cuts will eventually be as ubiquitous and universally appreciated as physical curb cuts in our streets.

Please refer to the High Tech Center Training Unit's Resources for Designing Accessible Web Pages for links to more information on universal web design.

For more information and support on creating accessible web pages, contact the Disabled Students Programs and Services (DSPS) office on your campus.