This article was published in CAUSE/EFFECT journal, Volume 21 Number 4 1998. The copyright is shared by EDUCAUSE and the author. See for additional copyright information.

Building Your Own Web Course: The Case for Off-the-Shelf Component Software
by Howard Kaplan

Kaplan Educational Center plans online law school," "Regis University Internet-based curriculum offers MBA to 50,000 sailors," read the headlines. The mad dash is on in the world of distance ed, where the competition can be stiff, the subject matter ranges from a seminar on James Joyce to a virtual lab for disease diagnosis, and presentation formats run the gamut from text-based, e-mail, correspondence-type classes to full-blown interactive multimedia presentations. With demand so high, faculty and administrators are seeking ways to put courses on the Web that are not only engaging but also easy and inexpensive to create.


There are basically two choices when it comes to software for developing Web courses: (1) component, off-the-shelf software that allows for the creation of audio slide lectures, course materials, discussion forums, animations, synchronous chat groups, quiz creators, e-mail, and so forth, or (2) integrated packages that contain a number of the same features but are lacking in other significant areas. There are learning curves associated with either approach, as well as cost and training issues. More on these later.

Integrated packages

The strength of the integrated packages is that they provide menu-driven front ends that allow for the creation of syllabi, text lectures, assignments, quizzes, and so forth. Web Course in a Box (a free package) is an example of such a product. The multi-featured packages, such as WebCT and TopClass, offer, in addition, student progress tracking, student management tools, grade tools, and other features.1 Integrated packages, however, always provide the same look and feel, and therefore universities or classes hoping to differentiate themselves from one another will find it difficult to do so. Moreover, these packages are text based, and faculty wishing to incorporate audio slide/lectures, video, animations, or other creative endeavors will have to look outside of the program to do so.

Off-the-shelf component software

Off-the-shelf component software allows faculty to mimic the style of the typical classroom, particularly through the use of the audio slide/lecture, course materials, discussion groups, and testing. In addition, faculty are at liberty to choose any of the other components mentioned in this article as well as exploring the vast array of tools in the world of interactive multimedia.2

The lecture
Typical classroom instruction is delivered via a lecturing professor. Oftentimes the lecture is punctuated with overheads, slides, or other visual materials. Replicating this by videotaping the lectures and digitizing them, however, would give us real bandwidth and size problems: a semester's worth of video lectures might outstrip any server's hard drive capabilities. Moreover, on the student-receiving end, the reception might be poor in quality with a choppiness that leaves out key parts of the lecture. Using the audio portion of the lecture, with its smaller footprint, and synchronizing it with slides or scanned images is a good workaround for this problem. Audio slide presentations add multimedia pizzazz to the text-based courses usually found on the World Wide Web. A number of technologies address the issue of capturing audio and making it sound good on even a 28.8 modem. PowerPoint 97 allows for the creation of slides with synchronized audio, using simply a multimedia-equipped PC and a mike. A RealPresenter (RealNetworks) plug-in to PowerPoint 97 (Windows) allows users to export their PowerPoint 97 slide show with accompanying audio to the Web relatively easily.


Text-based lectures and course materials
Face-to-face classrooms feature lectures and course materials: handouts, assignments, syllabi, articles, and so forth. Text-based materials for courses, either distance or supplementary to traditional classrooms, are conveniently handled by the "composer" part of Netscape Communicator 4.0 (Mac, Windows). Composer is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) package that transparently converts text and images into HTML. By clicking on a template, faculty at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, can input text from the keyboard or use the cut-and-paste feature to create lecture notes and course materials. Faculty are given a password-protected spot on the server and an FTP path for sending their work. This shields the instructor from HTML and the many intricacies of FTP.4 This software is free and works on any platform.

Presenting course materials with an expandable outliner and frames
Text-based course materials can also be engagingly presented in an easy-to-use frames format with an expandable course outliner. In this format, the user interface consists of two separate windows or frames on the screen. The narrower one (user adjustable) on the left-hand side of the screen is a listing of the weeks: week 1, week 2, and so forth. Under each heading is an expandable outline listing the individual sessions for that week. Clicking on any one of them produces the relevant text in the second window or frame. Expandable outliners (the software for which is free and works on any platform) save valuable screen real estate and allow professors to present lots of information in a neat and uncluttered manner.5 Course text material can be created in any one of a number of automated text-to-HTML converters such as Microsoft Word 97 or WYSIWYG editors such as Netscape 4.0 and FrontPage 98, and then pasted into the course frames template.

Classroom discussions: synchronous and asynchronous
Classroom discussions are an integral part of any classroom, and their virtual cousins, discussion forums, have proved to be a valuable asset for any online course. Typically, they serve as a compendium for a variety of issues that are part of a semester's work. In a forum, participants post comments about the course, which are then archived on the Web site. Students can post a reply or create a new message. Discussion forums function in an asynchronous fashion. Chat, on the other hand, is synchronous. In the chat room, class members can engage in an ongoing discussion that is typically moderated by the professor. Chat and discussion group software range in price from free (Ewgie, COW, and Hypernews) to several hundred dollars (WebBoard).6

Online quizzes allow for assessing student progress as well as giving feedback to class members. Especially valued are quizzes that are easy to create and inexpensive, that require no HTML or coding, that allow for a variety of questions and formats, that can be timed and offered only at certain times and are password protected. Such a quiz is Test Pilot, from Malcolm Duncan at Purdue University, available for Mac, NT, and UNIX Web servers.7 Also worthwhile are quizzes that are automatically marked and sent directly back to the student for immediate feedback.8

Computer tutorials
When it is important to show users how a certain computer application works, there's nothing like a tutorial that can capture screen movements. Dan Bricklin's Demo-IT, Blue Sky's WinHelp Video Kit, and ScreenCam 97 from Lotus are tools that do this. Screen Cam97 for Windows 95 is the most fully featured of the three. Once a series of moves are captured, sound and captions can be added. In this way users can be shown how to build a spreadsheet in Excel, run a Java program, or watch how a C compiler works.9


There are some significant differences in the costs and training aspects of off-the-shelf components and integrated packages.


Off-the-shelf components discussed here include Netscape Navigator/Composer (free), Web Board 3.0 ($489), Test Pilot ($120), Ewgie (free), PowerPoint97and Word 97 (part of Office 97, $79), RealPresentor plug-in ($40), expandable outliner source code (free), Pop Quiz source code (free), Lotus ScreenCam97 ($110). Prices are for single users in educational institutions (where applicable). Total cost for using all the software, with an unlimited number of students and unlimited amount of time, comes to $838.

In contrast, integrated packages such as WebCT and TopClass, two of the leading packages, are metered and typically have annual costs associated with them. For example, TopClass starts at $1,450 for twenty-five students annually. WebCT costs range from $250 for fifty students for twelve months to $3,000 for an unlimited number of students annually. Web Course in a Box, with fewer features than the above two, is free.


To get a sense of the amount of training faculty need to feel comfortable with a particular package, we looked at two of the most basic programs, Web Course in a Box (integrated package) and either of the Netscape Navigator/Composer templates (modified off-the-shelf component). Their feature sets are similar; both allow faculty to create Web pages for syllabi, course materials, student listing, discussion group, schedule, and resource links. Text is entered from the keyboard by cutting and pasting; no HTML knowledge is necessary. Both programs also shield faculty from FTP. We found that Web Course in a Box needed a full-day workshop, and Netscape Template a half-day workshop. Faculty follow-up calls came to four to five calls for Web Course in a Box compared to one to two for the Netscape product.

Both WebCT and Top Class require more in-depth training efforts. These are large programs with many features and, unlike Web Course in a Box, knowledge of HTML is helpful. In surveying both vendors and practitioners, we found that there was a wide range of viewpoints regarding the amount of faculty training required. Vendors were rather optimistic, noting that only a few hours are necessary. Practitioners, on the other hand, gave a range from three to four all-day workshops to as long as a semester or two to really get to know the program. One practitioner put it this way: "It takes about two semesters, one to try it out and another to learn how to get it to do what you want. Later some advanced users will often find both products limiting because they will want to do original creations beyond the design limits of the package."

Based on our experiences at UML, for the off-the-shelf component training sessions (with the exception of Netscape Composer-see above) each of the following components requires a one-hour workshop plus one to three subsequent follow-up calls as needed:


Compared to the integrated packages, off-the-shelf component software offers faculty a larger set of creative tools for building course Web pages. By and large, costs and training times are less with off-the-shelf component software. Moreover, with its lower overhead, off-the-shelf component software offers administrators and faculty an entree point to the world of online training. They can pick and choose from a wide assortment of free or inexpensive programs and tinker to their hearts' delight, so what they have to offer reflects who they are and what their class is about.

For faculty needing some hand holding before entering the online course world, help is at hand! Many universities offer Web course support services. At the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, for example, the Technology Learning Center (TLC) offers faculty the handholding they might need as well as giving them the tools to work independently. Moreover, populating the contemporary college campus is a savvy group of students who are adept at the technologies mentioned in this article and who can work with faculty to produce world-class applications and programs.10 Lest we forget, it was Marc Andreessen of Netscape fame who honed his skills creating its predecessor, Mosaic, while earning $6.75 an hour as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois. Moreover, art majors have been given a new lease on life with the growth of the Web and often make excellent Web page designers. One need only look at many college home pages to see effective student design work.11

The world of distributed learning is full of wonderful opportunities for faculty to think about the ways they teach and for opening up a vast array of new communications channels. Yes, like the legendary summer camp experience of yore we can only say, "You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll get water up your nose. And for many of you, Web-based teaching will be an invigorating experience."

For Further Reading and Exploration

Kahn, Badrul, editor. Web-Based Instruction. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Educational Technology Publications, 1997.

McCormack, Colin, and David Jones. Building a Web-Based Education System. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998.

See and for a repository of the software mentioned in this article. See also for a repository of cutting-edge training and teaching Web sites (requires requisite plug-ins).


1 For a discussion of features in a variety of integrated packages, see For a detailed look at these packages, a listing of home pages, and worthwhile analyses, see Also see for a description of TeleEducation NB, a province-wide distance education network in New Brunswick, Canada.

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2 See Howard Kaplan, "Interactive Multimedia & the World Wide Web: A New Paradigm for University Teaching and Learning," Educom Review, January/February 1997. This article is online at

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3 For a demonstration of a RealNetworks version of the slide lecture, see

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4 See for a demonstration distance course using Netscape Composer. For supplementary course demo using Netscape Composer, see For an example of a course using Netscape Composer, see

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5 See for an example of an expandable course outline that uses JavaScript. The frame template itself is available on the CD included with the JavaScript Bible by Danny Goodman. Outliner source code can be viewed at A more detailed version of a client-side (and therefore fast) JavaScript expandable outline can be found at

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6 See, for example, O'Reilly & Associates' WebBoard 3.0 (for NT) at This software provides both chat and discussion groups as well as file uploads and downloads. Also worthwhile is Ewgie, a free chat- and whiteboard server that runs on any Java-capable platform (see Free UNIX-based discussion forums include COW (see and Hypernews (see To use these programs one installs them on a server; no knowledge of HTML is required.

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7 Test Pilot information is available at

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8 See the pop quiz in Designing with JavaScript by Nick Heinle (Sebastopol, Calif.: O'Reilly and Associates, 1997) and try it out yourself at This software is free.

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9 For Screen Cam97 examples see The Screen Cam 97 Recorder costs $110.00; the Player is free. This software works only on Windows 3.1, Windows 95, and Windows NT.

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10 See, for example, a Shockwave-based tutorial on Archimedes at

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11 See

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Dr. Howard Kaplan ([email protected]), as Director of Educational Computing and the Technology Learning Center at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, has worked with numerous faculty on creating course Web sites. the table of contents

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