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Online ease

Instructors weigh in: WebCT versus Blackboard
Thursday, October 23, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:30 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

When MU biochemistry instructor Shari Freyermuth signed up her 100-plus students for discussion groups, a few juniors and seniors with jobs just never could attend.

So Freyermuth used WebCT, one of two market-leading, Web-based learning systems used at MU, to move the discussion groups to her class Web site. Now, students can share information in a virtual space. “They don’t all have to be together,” Freyermuth said. “People can do it on their own time.”

Freyermuth is one of more than 600 MU instructors using either Blackboard or WebCT for a range of features including posting and maintaining grades online, posting documents to the Web for students to download, and establishing lines of communication with students via e-mail, bulletin boards and discussion groups. All are offered by each system.

WebCT was the first of the two offered at MU. But since winter 2001, instructors have had a choice. Blackboard is now used by 416 instructors at MU for 531 courses, an increase of more than 200 courses from winter semester 2003. WebCT is used by 242 instructors for 342 courses at MU, which is 39 courses more than last winter.

Eighty-three percent of MU students now take courses that use Blackboard or WebCT, said Danna Vessell, learning technologies coordinator of Educational Technologies at Missouri, or ET@MO, which offers faculty support for the systems. The tools can make faculty more organized and have made communicating with students easier, Vessell said.

Centralizing Blackboard and WebCT to one department and incorporating them into courses have saved MU money and even brought in revenue, said Andrew White, director of ET@MO. But as the competing products’ features grow increasingly similar, instructors might one day face the prospect of no longer having a choice between the two.

No plans are in place to phase out either of the two systems. But features of the two are increasingly similar as the products mature, and “it’s something that has come up,” White said.

The two systems cost MU $80,000 per year in licensing fees: $50,000 for Blackboard and $30,000 for WebCT. The systems help save and even bring in revenue. Fewer photocopies need to be made when documents are available online. And about one of five MU graduate students is enrolled in a program taught exclusively online, White said. “That is a revenue source for the university that relies heavily on the Blackboard and WebCT infrastructure.”

White said the benefits of having two systems might outweigh the additional cost.

Washington, D.C.-based Blackboard Inc. leads in the U.S. college and university markets. Among postsecondary schools using single-course management systems, Blackboard claims 46 percent of the course management system market, and WebCT claims 35 percent, according to a report from Market Data Retrieval of Shelton, Conn.

Both Blackboard and Lynnfield, Mass.-based WebCT say standardizing to one system makes sense. Both companies recently landed exclusive contracts for statewide university systems — WebCT with the University System of Georgia and Blackboard with the California State University system.

WebCT was first offered at MU as part of an Information and Technology Services pilot program for “tech-savvy” faculty who were “early adopters,” White said. As more students asked for resources online, several departments began adopting Blackboard on their own servers, each paying separate licensing fees.

Despite WebCT’s flexibility, some instructors were reluctant to “invest that level of technological effort that WebCT requires,” White said. “WebCT is a very powerful program, but the perception is that it is more difficult than Blackboard.” In contrast, “Blackboard is very template-driven... Think of it in terms of filling in the blank,” White said.

Cindy Russell, an assistant professor who uses WebCT to teach an online course for the MU Sinclair School of Nursing, said that although she does not put her own course online, she has heard from other nursing instructors that Dreamweaver, the authoring language used to put courses on WebCT, has been “a big headache” for some to grasp.

WebCT and Blackboard were moved to two central servers in 2001. ET@MO was formed the same year, in partnership with Information and Technology Services, which keeps the servers running.

Some instructors prefer WebCT.

“WebCT offers you a little more creativity. You set it up how you want it to be set up,” said Jacquelyn Sandone, coordinator of Elementary Spanish for the Romance Languages department.

WebCT’s grading system and internal e-mail features appeal to many instructors who teach large-enrollment courses. Freyermuth, who has used WebCT in her 110-student biotechnology course for almost four years, likes the fact that students can access WebCT grades from home. “They don’t have to call me to find out how (their) quiz went or how many points (they) have,” she said.

Freyermuth also prefers WebCT’s e-mail service. “When you e-mail from Blackboard, you’re just sending it to (students’) campus e-mail account,” she said. But in WebCT, students send and receive internal e-mail on an account from the course Web site. “I like that feature, and Blackboard doesn’t do that.”

Other instructors praise Blackboard’s e-mail capabilities. Lt. Col. Tery Donelson, assistant professor of aerospace studies in the ROTC program at MU, said, “Blackboard saves me the trouble of having to e-mail a bunch of people.” Like WebCT, Blackboard offers students access to grades.

Instructors often stick with the system they learn first. Donelson tried Blackboard at a workshop and sees no need to change to WebCT. Russell and Freyermuth both said that after starting with WebCT, they tried Blackboard but did not switch. Freyermuth said, “Once you take the time to learn one platform, why switch over?”

Student reactions to the two systems are mixed. Rachel Kelly, a journalism student, uses both Blackboard and WebCT for different classes. She said WebCT is “pretty much for the teacher’s benefit,” but it helps students because “a lot of assignments would get lost if you had hundreds of loose papers.”

John Osbourne, a first-year law student, has taken courses with both systems. He said WebCT is “more intuitive” and “seems to be a lot easier to use.” With Blackboard, “even if I know where to go, some of the steps I have to go through seem confusing.”

As the products mature, Blackboard and WebCT “keep fine-tuning their products and they keep getting closer together,” White said. “WebCT is getting a little easier. Blackboard is starting to get a little more robust in terms of some of the features that WebCT offers.” But key differences lie in behind-the-scenes features such as system compatibility that rarely affect daily users.

ET@MO will likely weigh the value of consolidating to one system “at some time in the future,” White said. “How long the time period is, I don’t know.”

For now, the growing enrollment and usage of the systems is straining MU’s staff. By the end of the spring, ET@MO plans to look at Blackboard’s latest version, 6.1, which will “give us our best sense” of whether there is a need to consolidate the systems, White said.

But “if and when that ever does happen,” the decision would not be made without considering what a consolidation might take away from the needs of faculty and students, White said. “These tools have allowed things to happen that couldn’t have happened before.”


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