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Getting all of our courses online
a euphoric state case study

By Howard Strauss / October 2001

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It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times

For some time now, Euphoric State University has been trying to get all of its courses online. Many of us here at Euphoric State are not certain why we should have courses online or even if it is a very good idea. The administration knows we spend a fortune on information technology (IT) and is reluctant to see us spend more without an appropriate return on investment. But what value can you put on a student learning a little better or faster?

Many faculty members are also skeptical. In the end learning is a very personal internal thing, and it has been going on since the first humans walked the face of the Earth and will continue to happen long after the Web is just a distant memory. Moses, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Nelson Mandela never learned anything from a PowerPoint presentation and they did just fine. So will our students. And past attempts at the use of technology—remember TV in the classrooms—were just expensive diversions.

On the other hand, all of our peer institutions seem to be far advanced on programs of distance education and courses online. In fact, MIT claims they will have all their courses online and available free to everyone. Our students insist that everything be on the Web. For them, if something is not on the Web it does not exist. Euphoric State's ability to attract the best students and instructors may be compromised if we don't keep up with the latest technology.

Even though we can't be certain that getting all of our courses online is critical to the university, the probability that it is compels us to move ahead. At least it appears very likely that the use of information technology in teaching, learning, and research could be a very good thing if only we could get it right and if the faculty members would embrace it. And of course our IT staff keeps up the pressure to have us stay on the cutting edge of technology.

An IT Prospective

As a consultant for the IT department at Euphoric State, I found that most of the faculty have been very slow to accept any information technology at all except for e-mail. When pushed, the more adventuresome among them are willing to take their old, dull photocopied handouts and put them up as equally dull Web pages to save the time and trouble of making and distributing copies. Our IT staff's expectations are that the teaching staff will create interactive, multimedia, pedagogically advanced tour de force networks of Web pages that would allow the IT staff to showcase their most advanced technology. More realistically, our IT staff would be ecstatic to at least have the faculty include an image or a bit of color in their online offerings.

Euphoric State has spent a fortune on the application of IT to instruction with little to show for it. The faculty and financial folks have taken notice of this as well. It has been noted that if Ben Franklin showed up here today he would be baffled and amazed by the activities in an airport, hospital operating room, or modern office. But if he stepped into most classrooms here at Euphoric State, he'd understand immediately what was happening and could probably even pick up a piece of chalk and continue some lectures.

IT staffs have promised to revolutionize teaching and learning, but most faculty members believe they have delivered little more than e-mail and Web browsers with personality disorders. A major problem in getting the faculty to adopt IT is that information technology is still much too hard to use. In a recent meeting of our IT departmental managers, every manager's presentation was done from some paper notes—without a single PowerPoint slide or the use of any other technology later than the invention of the light bulb. How can we expect the school staff to use technology that the IT staff itself doesn't routinely use?

To have the faculty build the kind of Web presence we really expect, they would have to learn HTML, FrontPage, XML, Java, DreamWeaver and so forth, and become experts in online design and pedagogy. While most of us understand the impossibility of getting the faculty—or even most IT professionals—to be experts in all these areas, some folks at Euphoric State have plunged ahead and started to teach faculty members many of these technologies anyway.

Custom Building an Online Course

Despite these obstacles, IT folks and others have worked with instructors to create some world-class instructional Web pages. One faculty member, for example, has the world's best Web page on knot theory. Anyone interested in this topic would find that his Web site provides countless hours of enlightenment and enjoyment and that it can quickly turn a knot theory novice into a knot theory guru. But this site, like most of our other best sites, was custom built by the IT staff at a cost that is shockingly high. Even using our most talented IT people takes at least a person-year to put a single quality course on the Web. Our knot theory course took over four person-years to build which is unfortunately not that uncommon.

Once a course is built it has to be maintained and eventually rebuilt in the future as hardware, software, pedagogy, and course content changes. Having hundreds of courses online soon becomes an enormous maintenance burden. For the one thousand courses we offer each year at Euphoric State it would takes our ten person Web design group about 200 years to put all courses online. And that assumes they did nothing else. Almost no one here believes this is a viable approach though we continue to devote considerable staff to the effort. Ultimately, this approach will only be possible in very special cases.

Automatic Web Page Building

A few years ago we decided to build an automatic Web page generator for our courses. Our plan was to give the faculty a simple tool that they could use to build basic course Web pages without IT staff involvement. We advertised the software, rushed off to faculty offices to offer personalized training, taught seminars about it, and trained our help desk to answer the questions about it. But questions rarely came. Even after the enormous effort to create a program that was easy to use, plus countless hours promoting it, only a few faculty members ever built Web pages with it.

Our software could only build very basic Web pages and making simple modifications to those Web pages was even harder than modifying Web pages that were hand-built. Faculty immediately wanted new features, many of which were very difficult to add. This tied up our IT staff doing work that was harder and more time consuming than building the simple pages ourselves—a suggestion that was often heard from our harried staff. After three years we had built fewer than 50 simple Web pages, but we could not drop support for the software since the faculty members that did use it were very important and insisted on our continued support.

Course Management Systems

We knew we needed something better than our home-grown Web page creation software. We decided to explore Course Management Systems (CMS) as some promising software that would fulfill our dream of universal online courses. The vendors of CMS assured us that any faculty member who could master the most basic word processor and use the simplest Web browser would be able to create magnificent online courses with almost no effort. We invited all of the CMS vendors to Euphoric State to show their wares to student, faculty, and IT committees hastily constituted to evaluate these systems. A clear winner quickly emerged and we installed it.

We also launched an extensive program to train faculty in the use of our CMS and turned off our automatic Web page building system, converting all those Web pages to work as part of our new CMS. We knew that the faculty wanted one-on-one training in their own offices and on their own computers, and in fact we agreed that this was the best—though the most expensive—way to do training. But most faculty members did not want the techno-nerdy IT staff to do the training. There was not enough IT staff to train the faculty anyway, and using highly paid system staff to train the school staff made no economic sense. Instead we recruited graduate students from many departments and trained them to train the faculty. A faculty member in the physics department had a physics graduate student teach them our CMS while a professor of romance languages was trained by a romance languages graduate student. When a graduate student did the training in her own department she knew the faculty and knew the subject matter. She was an insider who was welcomed—unlike a member of the IT staff who never would have been gladly admitted—and was a continual CMS resource to the department.

However, after extensive marketing and training plus the expense of the CMS itself, the results fell far short of our expectations. At the end of two years of use, only 20 percent of our courses were on the CMS, with use increasing very slowly. Of those courses, only a dozen or so were much more than course descriptions, reading lists, syllabi, and the like. It was still too hard for the faculty members to begin putting their courses online.

To solve that problem we took all of the relevant course data from our student systems and built a CMS online course for 100 percent of our courses before the start of each semester. We also built an e-mail list for each class, which we kept up-to-date daily as students moved into and out of each course. The faculty were given the option of opting out of having their courses put online automatically, but none did.

For our students, having all of our courses online meant that for every course they took there was the same online interface in the same place and the same powerful communications infrastructure that included e-mail lists, discussion groups, chat rooms, electronic forums, and electronic drop boxes. Our faculty also had the advantage of an automatically built electronic infrastructure for every course taught at Euphoric State. While there was not a great deal of material in each of these electronic courses, there was a starting point. No faculty member would ever have to create an electronic course again. Instead, the school staff were faced with the much less daunting task of editing and adding to an existing course, which they could do as little or as much as they wished.

At Last All of Our Courses Are Online

We had finally gotten all of our courses online, but we knew there was much more to do. In fact, having finally declared online pedagogic victory, we realized that the hardest work was still ahead of us—as it still is today. Only a third of our faculty members modified the small amount of material that we automatically generated. Of those, most additions did not include a single image or change of font. A few of the faculty individuals borrowed and inserted some audio and video clips, but they were more window dressing than something pedagogically sound.

We were forced to take a closer look at what an online course really was. We knew it was more than a book or any printed stuff online, or even an electronic version of the now discredited "sage on the stage" which so many online courses seem to want to be. Instead we wanted an online course to be the "guide on the side"—something that creates an interactive learning experience where the student is in control, can go at her own pace, and can freely explore where the learning experience takes her. We wanted something that could coach, cajole, and comfort a student struggling with a cornucopia of new ideas until she developed real mastery of the subject.

But we were back to our original problem of how to create courses such as those online. And our only workable solution still seemed to be to have our IT staff create custom courses one at a time at great expense. While we could do this for a few courses, this technique would have to be reserved for a very small proportion of courses. At very least we need to identify and use some standardized software modules in these custom Web sites.

Even faculty members trained on our course management system have few good options in creating good online course material. They can type or paste text into online documents, but this technique does not allow any formatting at all. No bold or italic text. No bulleted lists. No color and definitely no images. The faculty can also link to documents that they created with their favorite text processors. This should allow fairly good Web pages since today's text processors (e.g., Word 2000) can create almost all the Web content that could be created with HTML. But virtually no faculty members have any real facility with their text processors. MS Word can create a pretty background with a few clicks of the mouse, but most people have never heard of the feature. Word documents can include hypertext links, mail to links, Web forms, images as hypertext links, animated images, sounds, video, and much more. This is all a standard part of Word. With a click of the mouse Word can turn almost any Word document into a Web page, or with some inexpensive software installed, into a PDF document. Most faculty have the power to build fairly good Web pages on their desks already, but few know it. If we could just teach our faculty how to use the text processing software they already have it would go a long way to getting better online course material on the Web.

Faculty can also enter HTML directly into our course management system. Anyone clever enough to use a word processor can probably eventually learn that the following:

<b>this is a<i>big</i> red <font> color=red size=7>tree </font></b>

puts the words "this is a" and "red tree" into bold type, the word "big" into bold italic type, and the word "tree" into big red letters, but it is the very rare faculty member that will build an interesting Web page using this arcane notation.

Several textbook publishers have taken their text books and converted them to electronic formats suitable for inclusion into a course management system. This is a great solution, and where such material is available and affordable it should be used. But it allows little customization and very little of this material is available today. While Euphoric State uses thousands of different books for its courses, fewer than 100 suitable electronic sources are now available.


Pedagogically, the most powerful part of an online course is not reading text—or even images—online. If pressed, we could probably get our faculty or our IT staff using MS Word or similar text processors to get all the necessary text and images online. To take real advantage of the functionality of computers we need to offer our students interactive simulations. Whether these are about the quantum mechanics of atoms or the workings of a democracy, they would allow students to learn by experimenting, asking "what-if" questions, and trying the thinkable and unthinkable. Using simulations students could develop quantum mechanics intuition. They could anticipate what's likely to happen in some new situation because they would have experienced dozens of similar situations. Unfortunately, simulations are also the hardest things to write. Simulations, the most important part of online pedagogy, is beyond the reach of virtually all faculty outside of engineering and computer science to create.

One solution is to use simulations written by other people. Many collections of interesting material exist, but they need to be used with care. One of the best collections of course material for higher education is Merlot at With considerable work material from Merlot could be incorporated into a faculty Web site, but since this can be very difficult, most faculty are likely to just link to it, though that is not the best choice.

Another solution is to convince text book publishers to build and license a large library of online simulations. These publishers are creating many specialized simulations of superb quality for use with their online offerings, but currently the simulations are only available as part of a complete online textbook. Many of the simulations would be useful in courses where text books from other publishers were being used, or where faculty were using their own material. A common simulation library would enable faculty to select the right simulation in a context of their own choosing without being tied to the use of a particular textbook with its imposed use of the simulation.

Textbook publishers show no signs of embracing this idea. It would require cooperation among many publishers and with other online content providers. A simulation library would find a small market of universities with tight budgets. If publishers did decide to create such a library they would have to cooperate on making inclusion of the simulations into Web sites by ordinary faculty very easy. Since commercial vendors have a stake in faculty members using commercially supplied courseware and not building their own course Web sites, it is unlikely that vendors would put much effort in making it easy for the faculty to bypass their offerings in exchange for meager licensing fees for a simulation library.

MESA—Bringing Simulations to a Higher Level

One last possibility is for universities to build a simulation library themselves. No one university could afford to do it or would even the have the expertise to do it. Euphoric State, for example, has no medical school and would therefore not be able to contribute to building surgical simulations, but we do have great expertise in physics and math. But why would these simulations be any easier to use than those found at Merlot or at a textbook publishing company? Because the consortium of universities that creates the Multidisciplinary Educational Simulation Archive or MESA would have planned for its usability by ordinary faculty members from the start. All MESA simulations would have the same Web interface (called an API by our IT folks) and would be able to be inserted into a Word document with just a click or two of the mouse. Go to the Insert menu, click on MESA Simulation, and the simulation would be added at the insertion point in a Word document. Right click on the simulation, select properties, and customize the simulation as necessary. That's how easy it needs to be.

By sharing the work among many universities, having universities work in areas where they have the greatest expertise, and by sharing the common MESA library—free for K-12 and higher education—we could quickly create a large and growing library of interesting online content that anyone could include in their Web site. This would also lower the cost of custom Web sites since they could use MESA material too.

All Euphoric State faculty need to be able to publish their courses on the Web. Building custom Web sites is prohibitively expensive. We should encourage the use of material available from sites such as Merlot and text book publishers. We should see to it that faculty members really know how to use their word processors for creating documents and Web pages and try to avoid teaching them new software packages just for Web page building. And we should form a university consortium to build a MESA library. Now that all our courses are online, Euphoric State believes that these are the next reasonable steps. Are there other universities that will join us in making MESA a reality?


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