The year was 1994 and the Web was in its embryonic stage. The Mosaic Web browser and WebCrawler search engine were the only readily available tools for exploring the new electronic domain we would come to take for granted. Also at about this same time academicians recognized the promise of the Web in higher education. And so began a spate of course Web sites around the country and, indeed, around the world. Unfortunately, many if not most of these sites were ill-conceived, poorly executed and of questionable utility to the courses they were intended to enhance. Time mitigated the situation, but many users still are daunted at the prospect of building and maintaining course Web sites.
It is little surprise, then, that tools designed to largely automate the process of creating course Web sites have appeared in the past couple of years. These tools - variously referred to as course management systems, course management software, courseware and course shells - offer an impressive breadth of functionality including repositories for course content, electronic discussion tools, calendering tools and on-line quizzing, among others. Most of the commercially available products are in their relative infancy and are evolving rapidly. Product offerings from the various vendors tend to be very similar and evolve at similar rates. Pricing generally is very attractive. At the same time, some institutions have elected to build their own course management tools either because commercially available systems lack functionality that is critical to their environment or because they began their development efforts before the commercialized tools became available. Whether purchased "off the shelf" or developed in-house, course management systems are being adopted rapidly by colleges and universities.
While the inherent value of a course management system may seem evident, it usually falls to the individual instructor to discern how best to leverage this new tool within the context of a course. During the short history of course management software there already have emerged exemplars of "good use." This special section of IMEJ is intended to showcase selected successful uses of course management systems as they have been applied to college courses. Two of the articles describe the use of course management systems in a traditional face-to-face course setting. Two others focus upon non-traditional, or distance learning, courses. Course management software has proven useful in both settings but as is described, the derived benefits may be different. The articles in this section also highlight distinctions between commercially available and "homegrown" systems. Flanagan describes a custom course management tool designed to support a small seminar style course with its own unique requirements. Readers already familiar with commercially available tools will particularly benefit from understanding the limitations of those tools within the context of a course like that described by Flanagan and the resulting need to craft a customized solution. Rodriguez, too, describes a system developed in-house. The motivation in his case, however, is to advance the state-of-the-art in course management system design more rapidly than the commercial vendors. He describes an innovative graphical user interface and provides a glimpse of future course management tools as they employ advanced features such as virtual reality.
Among the commercially available tools, BlackBoard’s CourseInfo and WebCT certainly are among the leading products in terms of recognition and installed customer base. These products, while they have their distinguishing characteristics, are very similar. Smith, et al., describe the use of WebCT in an innovative Pharm. D. program that targets practicing pharmacists. The program is delivered almost entirely on-line with WebCT as the touch point for students to gain access to content, interact with the professor(s) and one another, and receive timely feedback on their progress. The authors deftly describe the pedagogical benefits of using a course management system in the delivery of distance education. Finally, Cohn and Stoehr provide a thorough and generalizable analysis of the leverage points for the use of course management systems in traditional courses. As importantly, they creatively present a description of bad practice - those techniques or policies that must be avoided for course management software to make a positive difference in a course.
As a class of products, course management systems are evolving and diffusing rapidly. Discovering not just the efficiency gains they offer, but also their pedagogical justification is becoming more crucial as their use widens. To be sure, these tools present the opportunity to simply "do bad things faster." The question for faculty members must be, How can the learning process be fundamentally improved by leveraging these new tools? I hope as you read the articles in this special section you will see light being shed upon this most important question.