March/April 2002 // Case Studies
Using a Course Management System for Large Classes: Support, Infrastructure, and Policy Issues
by Douglas F. Johnson
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Douglas F. Johnson "Using a Course Management System for Large Classes: Support, Infrastructure, and Policy Issues" The Technology Source, March/April 2002. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

In fall 2000, the University of Florida implemented two large undergraduate "gateway" classes in pre-calculus and general chemistry using the WebCT course management system. Pre-calculus and chemistry are required for most majors in the sciences. As a result, pre-calculus enrollment was 2,689 students, while chemistry enrolled 1,644 students. Both of these courses are face-to-face classes with multiple sections.

In consultation with the UF Office of Instructional Resources (OIR), the two lead instructors decided to use a course management system (CMS), seeking greater efficiency in quiz administration and grade management as well as enhanced communication with and among their students. The instructors and OIR representatives further sought to achieve the greatest efficiency by combining all course sections into a single course account for each class, creating online classes of unusually large size.

The problems that resulted from these large CMS course accounts and the ways the UF support providers addressed those problems have important implications for other institutions that may be considering using course management systems to support high-demand/high-enrollment courses.


The University of Florida is in a somewhat paradoxical position. On one hand, UF has been an early adopter of many technologies. On the other hand, its technology implementation has been ad hoc, with various colleges and departments making significantly different commitments. As a result, a recent UF Report noted that "the most important issue identified by the committee is that UF technology efforts in many areas are uncoordinated and inefficient because of the lack of clear leadership and authority to bring the University's 'bigger picture' into focus" (The University of Florida Office of the Provost and Academic Affairs, 2001). Despite the lack of coordination, support for technological innovation is widespread and, in particular, the number of CMS course accounts—used for online teaching and for providing resources to students via the Internet—has grown at a rate of nearly 25% per semester.

The pre-calculus and chemistry classes were implemented on a small server that was already pushing its peak capabilities by supporting 355 course accounts and more than 13,000 user accounts. In addition to the CMS accounts, that server also processed a UF node called "plaza" that provides Web space for faculty, staff, and student Web pages and file storage. Hence, a single server box was serving two high-demand purposes even before implementation of the large classes.

Problems Experienced

The majority of problems experienced during the fall semester were simply scaled-up versions of traditional CMS support problems: lack of familiarity with different UF services that are accessible online, confusion among various login IDs, forgotten passwords and IDs, and other similar user difficulties. Furthermore, an additional level of complexity was created because UF supported three course management systems and multiple versions of the WebCT CSM; thus users had to find courses that were distributed across multiple servers and different versions and types of course management systems. However, three problems resulted that were specifically related to implementation of the large classes.

The first problem was a server hang-up on a Friday evening. The hang-up occurred when, according to the server log, more than 1,100 users tried to simultaneously access the chemistry course to take an online quiz. This "stampede" exceeded the capabilities of the server, already under pressure due to high weekend demand for student Web accounts and file sharing. Unfortunately, this hang-up also revealed a flaw in UF's 24/7 CMS support system. The server outage was reported to the appropriate system administrator early Saturday morning and he immediately e-mailed the support technician, but that e-mail was not read until late the following Monday morning. As a result, the hundreds of courses on that server were unavailable to a large number of users, many frantic about missing a quiz, over the weekend.

A second problem was severe server slow downs during high demand periods. Of course, with such large classes involved, any time these classes were online was high demand time. This was particularly an issue with the chemistry class and its online quizzes; when quiz times coincided with other online classes unacceptable download times resulted for all users.

The final problem related to installing and maintaining student records. Student rosters formatted for upload into the CMS were prepared by UF personnel and delivered to the instructors who uploaded the files. Both instructors experienced difficulties related to the upload process; specifically, incomplete course rosters that resulted from server processes timing out due to the large file sizes involved. After repeated upload attempts, class rosters appeared to be complete. However, numerous problems surfaced, particularly in the largest class of 2,600+ students; many students could enter the course but not access certain functions, such as viewing grades. These problems resulted from incomplete synchronization of the course and global databases used in the CMS. These two databases synchronize based on a "thumbprint": seven points of connection. Where some of the connections fail, certain features of a CMS will not be available to that user. As a result of incomplete thumbprints, some users could not access their course at all, some could access certain features but not others, while other users had normal access. Likewise, some partially installed students failed to appear in the course roster but could not be added to the course account because the system recognized them as "already there."

Problem Solving

The server hang-up was, quite simply, the result of hardware that was being asked to exceed its capabilities. The fact that it was serving two high-demand functions was resolved by moving the CMS to its own server box. The move was implemented over a UF holiday weekend to minimize user inconvenience and nearly all users experienced a seamless transition. However, this did require a significant investment of "off hour" work by support personnel. Likewise, it was immediately clear that this was only a temporary solution. Demand on the CMS, particularly in light of the implementation of ultra-large classes, required a higher level of support than a small server box could provide.

Moving the CMS to its own dedicated server box also partly ameliorated the server speed problem. Additionally, the CMS administrator implemented an active notification process to keep users apprised of when the large classes were likely to be hitting the CMS in substantial numbers. In addition, the CMS administrator worked with the chemistry instructor in particular to establish a process that divided the class into groups that were assigned different days and times for quiz access. Quiz times were chosen to avoid periods of traditionally high-bandwidth use, effectively distributing server demand such that no more shutdowns were experienced, though speed remained an issue.

The server problems also prompted the creation of a formal CMS Support Group. This workgroup, representing all involved departments, has since established a defined process for 24/7 support and engages in cross-training so that the absence of one or two people at any given time will not prevent effective support. This committee is also taking a proactive approach to making recommendations to UF administrators regarding support needs (hardware, software, personnel) and policies as well as establishing a program to upgrade and consolidate the various CMS versions.

The problem with student records was more complicated to resolve and involved significant assistance from the CMS manufacturer. The incomplete synchronization of global and course databases required that server-side scripts be run to delete incomplete records. This process was implemented only on the pre-calculus course; however, the roughly 600 incomplete entries then had to be manually re-installed into the course, requiring extensive time by the instructor and the CMS administrator. In the process, it became clear that uploading class files needs to be controlled by UF CMS Support to ensure that the process completed properly and that a second attempt would not simply be superimposed on top of a failed earlier attempt.

Policy Implications of Support for Large Classes

From these experiences, it became clear that a number of major policy decisions and commitments related to support of a course management system were necessary. Chief among these issues was the fact that rapidly increasing demand for online course accounts meant that server capabilities had been exceeded and needed to be upgraded. UF's decision to allow extremely large class accounts only compounded this problem.

Any institution considering using a CMS to support extremely large classes needs to ensure that the hardware and network infrastructure, as well as user support personnel, are in place to accommodate increased demand. In the summer of 2001, the UF Office of Instructional Resources purchased a Sun Solaris 4500 Enterprise system with four 400MHz UltraSPARC processors, 2 GB RAM, and a 36+ GD hard drive. This system also has the capacity for future processor, RAM, and hard drive upgrades to accommodate increasing demand. There are, of course, significant costs associated with implementing this kind of support; therefore, the purchase of this hardware represents a major investment in distance and distributed education at the University of Florida.

The value of the CMS Support Group is also now widely recognized at UF. Such a team needs to be empowered to develop policies related to CMS support and to make recommendations to university administration regarding hardware, software, and human resources needs for effective support. Upgrade processes need to be clearly specified to maintain a seamless flow of use as well as continuing improvement of users' online experience. At UF this support group includes representatives from all support divisions as well as administrative decision makers, all of whom engage in three primary tasks: providing support, engaging in cross-training to establish redundancy, and making policy recommendations. With administrators on board, decision-making can be efficient and responsive to "real time" considerations.

Finally, the issue of control needs to be addressed. For the UF experience, this issue revolves particularly around the upload of class rosters. The decision whether or not to allow faculty to upload class rosters has important implications for the smooth operation of a CMS server. However, taking that upload capability away from faculty has control implications as well as implications related to the popular process of using CMS as an online gradebook where students can continually monitor their progress. UF is currently addressing these problems by linking the CMS authentication process to the UF "Gatorlink" database, taking one more significant step toward a "single sign-on" campus.


Despite the problems experienced in the fall of 2000, the instructors and students of the pre-calculus and chemistry classes judged the experiment to be a success. Reports from students particularly appreciate the ready access to grades and other progress monitoring information, as well as the availability of course notes and review information. Likewise, both instructors have continued using the CMS to support their massive classes and have given formal and information presentations recommending the CMS to faculty peers and to other departments. As a result of their endorsement, the UF Graduate School decided to use a CMS to enhance communication among graduate students; thus, more than 7,000 students were uploaded into one course account. Additionally, numerous other colleges and departments are now making plans to use a CMS for their high-demand/high-enrollment courses.

The University of Florida is not alone in looking at aspects of distance education to achieve increased efficiency and economies of scale and it seems clear that using course management systems to support increasingly large classes will be an important part of that process. This has serious implications not only for higher education institutions, but for CMS providers as well. Higher education must begin to adopt and adapt e-business thinking in terms of scalability, redundancy, reliability, and customer service. Failure to accommodate those issues is likely to result in failure to effectively implement any courseware solution. Likewise, CMS providers need to recognize and address the issue of scalability for increasingly large class sizes and other high-demand settings.

Editor's note: This paper is modified from a presentation at the 2001 WebCT conference in Vancouver.


The University of Florida Office of the Provost and Academic Affairs, (2001). Report of the IT review committee. Retrieved March 23, 2001, from

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