Untangling a Tangled Web: An Overview of Web-based Instruction Programs


Over the past several years, many college and university faculty have developed courses or course components for delivery to students over the Web. Most of these faculty had expertise or interests that included developing Web pages and Web-based activities prior to commencing their development of Web-based courses. Many of these faculty were highly skilled in using HTML, Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) or similar scripting and authoring programs. Many of these technology-using faculty enjoyed the creative aspect of developing their own Web sites for use with their classes and were willing to expend the time and effort that was required to develop these courses. However, many other faculty did not and do not have the expertise, the time or the inclination to develop the requisite skills that were needed to create Web-based courses.

In the mid-1990s, Web-based instruction programs started being developed by institutions and commercial establishments to address the need for faculty to create Web-based courses without necessarily having to invest large quantities of time to learn HTML or similar programs. As more of the Web-based instruction programs were developed, additional faculty began using them to deliver a wide variety of courses, from engineering to Italian to geography to art. This migration by many colleges and universities from traditionally delivered and distance-delivered courses to Web-based courses has created a snowball effect. The more courses being offered over the Web, the more Web-based instruction (WBI) programs are developed, leading to more courses on the Web. With the proliferation of WBI programs, many institutions are in a quandary concerning which program to use.

Each program included in this analysis was used to the fullest extent in a demonstration setting. This author made two decisions prior to examining the WBI programs. The first was to not focus on price. Although price certainly will be a consideration when a WBI program is purchased, it was deemed unacceptable to allow price to color the decisions and evaluations at this point. The second decision was that instructors must be able to use both major desktop platforms to create, manage and run the programs and students needed to be able to interact with the program regardless of their equipment. Each of the following sections will describe the program, key features, and perceived strengths and weaknesses.


Created by the University of Delaware, Serf is a powerful program. It allows five types of users: System Administrators; Administrators, whose primary functions are to maintain various lists and objects and assign "classes" to the instructors; Instructors, who can be given the option by the administrators to create and edit courses; Teaching Assistants, who have some, but not all of the privileges of the instructors; and Students. This particular program seemed to require passwords or "tickets" on almost every screen. Although the security factor is strong, it was a bit cumbersome to continually have to stop and retype your user ID and password. Also, different sections required different passwords and IDs. This author finished evaluating Serf with four or five different IDs and passwords. If he returned to the program, the likelihood of remembering all the passwords and IDs (which the system required to be different) is low.

After entering the program as an instructor, one could "insert," "add," "move," or "delete" a syllabus. Since directions were not present, it was initially assumed that the insert function would import a previously created syllabus from a word processor into the program. Therefore edit was selected and a syllabus could not be created. One actually must select insert to create the initial syllabus. A change in the name of the "insert" button to the "create" button would be an improvement.

To add students, one g'es into the "roster" section and simply types them in. Again, there are no directions about how to do that and the instructor is required to put in a student "ticket." Creating classes turned out to be a fairly straightforward process, but the lack of on-screen directions hindered the process.

The Serf program is colorful, attractive, powerful and has several good features. It has in-program e-mail, so faculty and students can interact without having to exit the program and go to their own e-mail programs. There are discussion forums, which allow asynchronous discussions to take place. It maintains grades, administers tests and has a built-in searching feature. The grades are exportable to most institutions' student information systems. A calendar allows the instructor to schedule events, announcements and the like. Serf allows the instructor to select different "look and feel" sets, including creating icons, names of items and so forth. Multimedia projects can be imported and displayed in Serf.

Summary: Serf is powerful and robust enough for all disciplines. It has all the features that a good WBI program should have. The drawbacks to this program are the multiple user IDs and passwords, which are required, and it seems to run a little slower than most of its peer programs.


TopClass allows announcements, e-mail, and discussion groups, which facilitates many student-to-student and student-to-teacher interactions. However, it d'es not have a synchronous discussion feature or whiteboard functions, nor d'es it allow for students to have their own Web pages as part of the program. It uses icons for student course navigation and lets the instructor control all aspects of the course. It d'es have a grading feature and allows for timed tests and student tracking, in addition to allowing students to have multi-course access. The instructor can set up "valid dates" so assignments and tests have to be completed during or before specified dates and times. The interface is bright, colorful and attractive.

One of the program's problems is that it is not very intuitive and lacks online directions. For example, if a user name with a space, such as J'e Bob, is created, the program simply indicates that an invalid character was inputted without indicating what the exact problem is. There is also a "create/edit course" area and a "create/edit class" area and no explanation as to the difference. Perhaps WBT Systems provides documentation or training upon request, but end users will need something like that to function properly or they will spend a lot of time spinning their wheels. This author's institution purchased a copy of TopClass from a grant project and did not receive any documentation with the program. Of a more serious nature, we encountered customer service problems with WBT Systems. They were contacted by the purchaser concerning setting up the system and were asked several questions. They never responded to the questions, although they did eventually talk with the Computer Service folks on campus.

Summary: TopClass is a fairly easy to use system, is powerful and can provide most of the features one might want with a WBI program. The company needs to improve its communication and tech support.


Convene provides a complete turnkey system, which runs the gamut from helping instructors convert their current courses to Web-based courses to providing the server the courses run on. Convene has a variety of search tools and allows students to create home pages or profiles, as they are called in some programs. It has synchronous and asynchronous discussion ability, a whiteboard, student tracking, assessment and grading features and allows working in workgroups. This is a great product for institutions that essentially want to turn the work over to Convene and have it done for them.

FirstClass Collaborative Classroom

The first time this author had any personal contact with FirstClass, they were providers of e-mail. Their WBI product, Collaborative Classroom, certainly suffers and benefits from that heritage. This program is an outstanding conferencing and e-mail program, but falls short of what good WBI programs should include. It has wonderful communication tools, it allows file sharing, and it has a very robust e-mail and synchronous and asynchronous discussions, but d'es not include a whiteboard component, which seems odd. It allows tracking a message's history, the creation of electronic forms and a search engine for electronic mail. However, it d'es not have a grading component, a quiz or test section nor any assessment tools. When an instructor wants to have any content besides e-mail, such as readings, activities or handouts, a Web site must be developed. The instructor will have to work in HTML, Java, ActiveX and the like. Not many instructors are going to want to invest the time and effort to create their own Web site in this manner.

Summary: As an add-on component to a traditional or distance delivered class, the e-mail and conferencing system is unsurpassed. As a self-contained WBI program, it d'esn't match the others' features.

Learning Space

Learning Space has very strong collaboration and messaging abilities. It has built in templates, so instructors can essentially "fill in the blanks;" a scheduling database that links students with assignments; readings and quizzes; search tools; assessment tools; timed and dated examinations; a whiteboard; and allows groups of students to be assigned to a team in order to work together on various projects. It maintains students' grades and tracking, allows student to perform self-assessments and lets them create their profiles or homepages. Students can also create portfolios to store completed assignments and other items in. It allows scheduling of events by lessons or by date and has excellent context-sensitive help. The CourseRoom is an interactive, facilitated environment for asynchronous discussion groups, which can be either public or private.

Learning Space is owned by Lotus Notes, so all of Notes' interfaces and features work. One can spell check, change fonts, add color and bring in attachments with the same menu items and icons as are in Lotus Notes. Learning Space has a very attractive and colorful interface.

In the discussion groups, the person posting the comment can select one of four types of comments: a discussion comment, to which all other students and the instructor can respond; an answer comment, when a specific question will solicit a particular response from a limited number of responders; a none comment, when no response is necessary; and a vote comment, when an issue requires a vote from members. Discussion items, as with most programs of this nature, can be public or private. The discussion capabilities are the most powerful this author has ever seen in any similar products. Assignments can be worked on and submitted or one can continue to work on them at a later time.

The downside of this program is it tends to be slower than many others and, for evaluations, there is not a "hands-on" demonstration one can try out. If students access this program from non-networked machines, the access times are rather lengthy and it requires extensive hard drive space on the server. It is also weak in the multimedia creation department. In addition, an institution must have a Lotus Domino Server.

Summary: Learning Space is one of the top WBI programs currently available. It is very extensive and will meet the needs of almost all faculty, and is not that difficult to learn.

CourseInfo 2.0

CourseInfo is another example of an outstanding program. It has an easy-to-follow interface and the use of it is very intuitive. It has a hands-on demonstration version that prospective purchasers can use to create classes that the Classroom folks will allow to stay online for a semester. It has a student-created homepage section, synchronous and asynchronous discussions, test generation and grading components. It also has built-in e-mail.

CourseInfo is the easiest to use program of its type that this author has seen or worked with. Without documentation or training, novice faculty can be creating courses in 30 minutes. It allows instructors to select various color attributes and create very professional looking online courses, and allows the importation of previously created files.

One of the features of the discussion forums, which has not been found on other systems, allows students to have synchronous and asynchronous discussions with the entire class. Then they can enter into their "team areas" and have both discussion types with just their other team members. They also have whiteboards in their team areas and in the entire class setting.

Other nice features include: content reordering and searching; course calendar; Blackboard; Emblaze multimedia capabilities; enhanced systems administration tools; support for Windows NT; faster and more scalable; greater flexibility and customization; and improved navigation.

Summary: This is another premiere WBI program. Due to its ease of use, the various discussion forums and intuitive interface, it is without peer in Web-based instruction programs.

Web Course in A Box

Web Course in a Box was developed at Virginia Commonwealth University. It has a colorful, attractive interface with an announcement symbol that pops up when there is an important announcement, class information, a scheduling component, learning links and online help. It has an e-mail component, both synchronous and asynchronous discussion forums, a whiteboard, team grouping and allows filesharing. It also has assessment components that allow instructors to both create and administer various assessment items and to perform student tracking. It has a student sign in and out section to help the instructor monitor student involvement and a student portfolio and profile section.

This program has a tutor section where students can ask and receive feedback on questions, problems and assignments. It also archives information for later use, if needed. The whiteboard has a variety of features built into it, such as ready-made graphing, formulas and the like. To assist in training on using the system, there is a presentation with streaming audio and something similar to PowerPoint slides, which presents lots of useful information and discusses the features of the program.

The Learning Link feature is a section that has links to instructor-noted important data. It could be links to various Web sites, or links to certain points in the syllabus. The Web Course in a Box also has five different templates from which instructors can select in order to create their classes: full screen without a border; half screen; list with and list without graphics; and, small graphics. It allows for extremely easy Web-based instruction creation, custom icon selection and easy font substitution. Like most WBI programs, the instructor can cut and paste from other applications into this one.

Summary: This is another outstanding WBI program designed for minimal technology-using faculty. It is fast, clean, attractive and powerful. It allows very easy course creation, editing and managing and has built-in "training" on the product.


WebCT was developed by the University of British Columbia for course material presentation. It is a full service program with everything one might require except for a whiteboard. It has both types of discussion groups, in-house e-mail, filesharing, student grading, automatic index generation, course content searches, student assessment, course use tracking by the instructor, external links to references and is multimedia capable. It also has a searchable image feature, a student self-evaluation component, a student presentation area, note-taking and page annotation abilities and team grouping ability.

The testing/quiz section is strong; however, for the demonstration version it asks only questions about hockey. It will not be held against the program that this author scored a whopping 6 percent on questions about ice hockey. Perhaps the demonstration version should consider questions on the NFL and the rating this program received might be higher!

Instructor tools is another program strength. Student progress data is generated showing the instructor the amount of time each student spent on each section, the last time the student visited, the percent of pages visited and similar data. A nifty feature of the student progress section is the ability to sort and print data on a variety of fields. It also has timed online quizzes. An interesting feature that raises some unresolved issues is the instructor has the ability to allow students to create their own accounts on the system. The advantage of that, obviously, is the instructor can save a lot of time not having to create student accounts. The disadvantage is the instructor also loses some control, and for control freaks, such as this author, that is a minor problem. It also raises questions concerning program security. The instructor also has a lot of tool integration in this program. A list can be generated of all students scoring, say, 90% on a certain assignment or test. Then a congratulatory message can be sent out to each of the students with that score. A neat feature that has been missing from the other programs is a "tip of the day" that is presented when the user first enters the system. Many word-processing programs and other applications use this feature, but it is the first time it has been included in a WBI program to the knowledge of the reviewer.

A minor problem with WebCT is this program only runs on UNIX boxes. Instructors and students can access it from any platform, but if the institution d'es not have a UNIX server or is unwilling to devote space on its server, it cannot operate on other any other server. The last problem is this program is heavily frame-dependent. A question an institution would have to answer prior to selecting WebCT is will their students have the necessary computing power.

Summary: This is a very powerful and versatile Web-based instruction program. It is fairly easy to use and has many nice features. Currently, it is free to non-profit organizations, but may not stay that way.

Web-based Instruction Program



Calendar, e-mail, asynchronous discussions features, grading and testing functions, multimedia projects can be imported


Grading and timed tests functions, e-mail, asynchronous discussion features, student web pages


Turn key system

FirstClass Collaborative

E-mail, asynchronous and synchronous Classroom discussion features, tracking of messages

Learning Space

Outstanding asynchronous discussion features, collaboration abilities, scheduling database, grading and testing functions, e-mail


Ease of use, e-mail, asynchronous and synchronous discussion features, whiteboard, testing and grading components, calendar, searching, multimedia capabilities

Web Course in a Box

Scheduling components, learning links, synchronous and asynchronous discussion features, ready-made graphing functions, student portfolio, student tutor section


Asynchronous and synchronous discussion features, e-mail, presentation features and streaming audio, multimedia capabilities, student self-evaluation component


E-mail, synchronous and asynchronous discussion features, statistical record keeping


Maintains grades, newsgroups, e-mail from students to instructor


ClassNet is the program that this author had the most fun with. It is not nearly as powerful or easy to use as many of the others, but it d'es a nice job. Two graduate assistants developed it at the University of Iowa. It has e-mail, synchronous and asynchronous discussion groups, and can keep statistics for the instructor. It d'es not have the "look and feel" of a professionally created program, but it d'es a very nice job of providing links to information. During synchronous discussions the chat room is updated every ten seconds which, during a heated discussion, could be frustrating. However, during the time it was in use for this evaluation, the time lag was trivial.

ClassNet is in the process of being updated and rewritten in Java; so additional features are expected to be included. Currently, there is no cost to use the program and faculty from a variety of campus, including the University of Minnesota, Florida State, University of Northern Alabama and a variety of high schools are using it. The two drawbacks with using this program are that it is a little slow and there is not much customizing that one can do to it.

Summary: It is an inexpensive, first-generation WBI program that is easy to use and can do most of what beginning users of WBI will need to use. However, the current version is probably not powerful enough for long-term use or for experienced Web-based course designers.


Mallard is a product of the University of Illinois. When it was first evaluated, there were several problems that did not appear in the program when it was reevaluated. This indicates that the Mallard people are ensuring the program is updated and includes many necessary features. Mallard is mainly text-based and simply d'es not have the robust look and feel that some of the other WBI programs do. It d'es have an icon-driven interface, which is not very intuitive. It has an internal e-mail feature, so students can send messages and assignments to the instructor, but they cannot receive messages from the instructor. This is a very serious fault. Mallard maintains grades and has a newsgroup feature, but d'es not allow synchronous discussion groups.

Mallard allows test generation and formulas to be used for answers, which is a unique feature. For example, if the question was what is 21/7, responses could be 3, or 1+1+1 or 6/2.

Summary: An interesting WBI program that continues to be upgraded and improved. It is very inexpensive compared to most programs, but has many of the features that are rapidly becoming requirements for such programs. It is not as robust and powerful as some other programs, but it is easy to use and can be used quickly by non-technicians.


Fortunately for faculty wishing to begin using Web-based instruction, one no longer needs to be highly skilled and proficient with using authoring programs, scripting languages or designing Web-based instruction. The programs currently on the market and the new ones, which will be appearing, tend to handle the design factors, the scripting and the all rest for the instructor. Faculty simply have to input their content, resources and other data into the program and they will produce professional looking, effective Web-based courses. It is recommended that most faculty start using these programs as "add on components" to their current classes, rather than jumping in and creating an entire course with little experience. However, effective results can be obtained even with neophyte course developers using these programs for the first time.

The pressure from higher education administration to develop online courses is not going to decline. Indeed, several institutions have already set goals of having a certain percentage of their classes online by a specific deadline. As more administrators come to understand the additional student markets that are reachable via the Web, even more pressure will be put on faculty to convert their courses to this medium. With the fine Web-based instruction programs available to faculty now, that conversion will be easier and the product will continue to be outstanding courses.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.