This article was published in CAUSE/EFFECT journal, Volume 22 Number 3 1999. The copyright is shared by EDUCAUSE and the author. See for additional copyright information.

An Online Teaching and Learning Environment at Indiana University
by Garland C. Elmore

Oncourse is an online course management application developed at Indiana University that permits faculty and students to create, integrate, use, and maintain Web-based teaching and learning resources. For students, Oncourse offers content and learning tools through a single, consistent Web interface. For faculty, Oncourse provides a framework for building teaching materials without requiring knowledge of programming or HTML. A unique feature is that course and individual user Web sites are automatically generated as information is updated in university databases. The system was developed, prototyped, and beta-tested at IU in the WebLab, a component of the Advanced Information Technology Laboratory (AITL), and offered by University Information Technology Services (UITS) as a full-production service in July of 1999. This article describes several critical decisions and milestones in the Oncourse experience and summarizes what we learned.

Make versus buy

The UITS philosophy is to acquire commercially available products and to adapt them to the university environment whenever possible. Occasionally it is necessary to render major adaptation of an application to make it conform to the environment or to develop a system when there are no commercial products to meet university needs. Therefore, the approach to creating an online teaching and learning environment began by evaluating commercial Web-based course authoring and management tools. The AITL and the centers for teaching and learning on the Indianapolis and Bloomington campuses conducted these reviews. Several commercial products were eventually selected to meet different requirements of schools and departments.

In late 1997 a re-evaluation of commercial products was motivated by the need to design and develop a Web-based Chemistry 101 course. This course became the focus of a project team of faculty and staff who helped define goals for a distributed learning environment that was recommended as part of the university�s comprehensive information technology strategic plan. The WebLab first identified technical and functional requirements for the course. The major considerations were ease of use, scalability, and the potential to leverage legacy systems. Other considerations included alignment with university messaging strategies and the need to simplify individual Web-site publishing procedures. None of the off-the-shelf products could meet these requirements. Chemistry C101 was developed, therefore, using Java with a database backend. This experience helped establish a set of system requirements and tools that resulted in the development of Oncourse.

How Oncourse works

Oncourse uses university databases to populate course templates that faculty and enrolled students access via their university NT domain usernames and passwords. Each dynamically generated course section appears as a unique Web site with an up-to-date class roster of all registered students. User profiles, which are predefined individual Web sites that include their own tool set, are automatically created for everyone associated with the class.

Web site creation and publication do not require any intervention by users. The course sites and profiles initially include public information uploaded from several university databases. Tools are provided within Oncourse for faculty and students to edit their own information and add materials and resources, with privileges authorized during login. Synchronous communication, e-mail, conferencing, and file management are included for all users. Faculty and students determine who may view course and user information. The faculty activate courses, import settings and content from one semester to another, change default settings, and edit all aspects of the course.


The Oncourse concept was presented to campus and university groups in the spring of 1998. Prototype development and full-scale testing on the Indianapolis campus followed. By summer, a beta version was completed and offered to a selected group of faculty. Although only a few experimental courses were to be hosted on the WebLab servers, more than 300 course accounts were generated in the first three months. Faculty interest grew quickly and the original intent to limit the number of users had to be reconsidered. The WebLab found itself in the uncomfortable position of serving an ever-increasing number of students, which grew to 9,000 by the end of the fall semester. The transition from the lab setting to a production environment was accelerated. A comprehensive process that followed standard operating and project management procedures of UITS was completed in July 1999.

Beginning with the fall 1999 semester, all scheduled sections of classes offered on the Indianapolis and Bloomington campuses were automatically available for content development and management by faculty. The Indianapolis campus elected to generate and publish Web sites for each of its 6,433 course sections. The Bloomington campus elected to have its faculty first activate their respective sections before they would be viewed or accessed by others. Because automatic data population is not yet available on all the regional campuses, varying levels of manual data entry are still required. Full automation is dependent on completion of a global directory service, discussed in the next section.

Issues and lessons

A number of issues arose in the process of developing and implementing the Oncourse application.

Pedagogical and technical support. New uses of technology in teaching and learning offer faculty an opportunity to rethink course objectives, goals, and strategies. As in the past, faculty on the Indianapolis and Bloomington campuses find Oncourse assistance at their centers for teaching and learning. On the smaller campuses, pedagogical and technical support is being expanded and enhanced as part of the overall strategic planning initiative. The Oncourse experience demonstrated that teaching and learning systems require a major commitment by campuses, schools, and departments to work together to define requirements and support central applications.

Impact on other services. Oncourse was not designed to replace existing applications but to maximize use of university legacy systems and integration with a new student information system. While Oncourse takes advantage of existing commercial and university resources, it does not preclude the use of other tools. Nevertheless, Oncourse has the potential to impact other UITS services substantially. For example, the profile feature could replace the need for personal home page (PHP) services. Similarly, Oncourse impacts central storage strategies, especially IU�s student bookbag/file locker services.1 As file uploading/downloading utilities in Oncourse are further expanded, the bookbag and locker services could be eliminated with these resources reallocated to meet the student file needs within the online teaching and learning environment.

Global directory service. Before there was university-wide coordination of information technology, many of the eight campuses developed their own domain name service. The Oncourse experience demonstrated a critical need for a global directory service (GDS) to provide uniform identification, authentication, and authorization. Without GDS, users on some campuses are unable to be authenticated, and data for their Oncourse templates cannot be uploaded dynamically.

Usability. The usability data collected during the beta test demonstrated clearly that such testing should be integral to subsequent Oncourse development. Independent usability experts play an important role in identifying issues and recommending revisions.

Privacy and copyright. These are not issues unique to Oncourse, but awareness was heightened during implementation. University legal counsel and the Copyright Management Center provided useful perspective and advice. In difficult decisions, such as automated posting of photographs from the ID database, these organizations were able to navigate uncharted territory.

Oncourse was developed uniquely to fit the IU environment. It takes advantage of university legacy systems to populate student and course templates automatically from existing information sources. Oncourse provides a shell for other university and commercial applications through a common interface. By its design, Oncourse facilitates dynamic creation of a personal Web site or profile for faculty and students. The current release features a new front door at From the Oncourse home page, users can select the campus and semester for specific courses or explore, as guests, publicly available courses and course content. The Oncourse home page includes links to news and information about Oncourse, user documentation, hardware/software requirements, and application updates.


1 The terms �bookbag� and �file locker� refer to disk space on a central server where users store files and software they want to access from more than one location. The default capacity for students is 40 megabytes.

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Garland C. Elmore ([email protected]) is associate vice president for teaching and learning information technologies at Indiana University and dean of information technology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. the table of contents