July/August 2002 // Commentary
What's Your Problem?
Web-enhancement in the Humanities Classroom
by Susan Hussein
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Susan Hussein "What's Your Problem?
Web-enhancement in the Humanities Classroom" The Technology Source, July/August 2002. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Will educators seize the opportunity offered by new technologies to renew and reinvent the educational process? Or will the daunting process of adaptation to unfamiliar educational modes only discourage thinking about the model? Referring to previous work by Bereiter and Scardamalia, Brown (2000) sees this as a danger, suggesting that the attractions of "comfort and simplicity" will encourage instructors who cannot face up to the challenges of growth to adopt "strategies characterized by systematic problem minimization and, ultimately, less effective teaching and learning."

The dangers of problem minimization, however, lie not in the desire to reduce stress, but in systematic elimination from consideration of potentially troublesome new strategies and techniques. Humanities instructors in particular need to be helped to see that technological advances, and especially those provided by a robust Course Management System (CMS) such as Blackboard or WebCT, can be applied to stressful areas in ways that lead to creative problem solving and new educational models. New users should not be discouraged from thinking in terms of problems. They should be reminded instead to make use of the flexibility and feedback offered by a CMS to find fresh and more effective ways of addressing student needs. The sections below describe a few of my experiences with a CMS, in this case WebCT version 2.1, for enhancement of face-to-face humanities classes. All my examples, which illustrate how a willingness to experiment has led to significant changes and improvements in my ability to help students learn, can be implemented by a single instructor. On campuses where funding permits the employment of an instructional design team the educational payoff should be proportionately greater.

Problem No. 1: A Fresh Approach to Discovering Who Needs Help, and What Kind, and Who Just Needs a Little Kick in the Pants

The 13,000 or so students at Montclair State University (MSU), represent a broad spectrum of family and educational backgrounds. Under the old, lecture/reading/writing model—as well as newer variations—most students manage to cope, and a few do extremely well, but too many others get lost along the way. Finding out if and why this or that student is dropping aside or failing is time-consuming but possible. By the time the effort has been made, however, it is likely to be too late. Using a CMS can change everything.

My most pressing initial concern, however, focused on access problems for students with little computer or internet experience. I decided the best thing would be to sign up a lab and walk students through the sign-in process. By the end of the lab every student, helped by me, the lab assistant, or helpful labmates, was signed in. Most were already working on a bulletin board assignment. Everyone went away with a sheet of directions. The model was analogous to handing out a syllabus, explaining it, perhaps giving a quiz on it, and then expecting students to use it to do what they needed to do. I thought things were wonderful. What a mistake!

Because I was using a CMS I could see that many students never returned to the online portion of the course. I didn't know why and I didn't have time to find out—I was too busy working with the more motivated and savvy students, the ones who read the syllabus and succeed on a regular basis, but had forgotten their passwords or other details in the rush and social stress of the lab situation. I realized I would have to rethink the model.

I eliminated the lab and set up a hurdle. Now students get written directions for signing in and doing a required assignment. I sit back and wait for problems to show up: Students with browser or computer access issues, inadequately motivated students, students who forget to read the syllabus, those who can't make much sense of it—all reveal themselves. They are not different from the students who have trouble in non-enhanced courses; they merely surface earlier in the course.

Beginning to address individual student needs in the first week actually saves time later, and pays off in retention rates as well as student outcomes. Figure 1 shows retention rates in Mythology sections over a number of semesters, where the righthand column reflects the two most recent sections. The columns labeled 00/01F (Fall) and 00/01S (Spring) represent the four sections in which the policy described was consciously applied. The figures for 97/98, before the adoption of a CMS, include one evening section, where students tend to be older, and drop rates typically lower.

Problem No. 2: You Have Unearthed Students with Difficulties. Now What?

Here is where the wide-ranging flexibility and power of a CMS really shines. I will mention only a few techniques I have found useful. Most of them, of course, could be implemented without a CMS, but the new technology is what led me to venture on these new paths. Using a packaged system also makes it easier to do something once, make it available indefinitely for revision and reuse, and keep track of all the details, including student access.

Getting weak students to ask for help, or sometimes even realize that they need help, is an effective way of improving academic progress, but difficult to achieve using the lecture/discussion model. The initial sign-in exercise, as described above, allows the instructor to identify at-risk students right away and collar them for emergency help. I have been surprised at how often such students will return during the semester for a quick question and a little reassurance—they now know where the instructor's office is, and feel they have a personal relationship. They are "engaged."

Engaging students and keeping them involved is aided by efforts to capture their attention as often as possible. The frequent addition of "news" items to the calendar, or new extra credit puzzles, appealing to a variety of learning styles, will draw students to check in regularly. This type of variety is difficult to implement without some kind of web presence, and the CMS makes a menu of enticements easier to manage. For an example, Figure 2 shows an extra credit item that appeals to visual learners. The solution requires careful analysis of the scene and possibly consultation of a plan.

Students with attendance problems, who often have life issues that interfere with academic activities, can be supported in several ways. Email and/or the CMS bulletin board make student/student and student/instructor communication easy. This is based an old-model technique, and replaces the circulation of telephone lists. Posting of brief class summaries, on the other hand, addresses the needs of absent students in a way that did not occur to me before I began to use a CMS. I put these these very brief summaries, when I have time to produce them, on a "Path" page where they are listed by date, and students can review them at any time after they are made available. I also link them to the calendar, making use of a handy WebCT feature that alerts students to new entries. In this way, all students are encouraged to consult the summaries as they appear, and can subsequently find them still available, organized chronologically, when it comes time to review.

Occasional summaries of this sort, describing activities and summarizing main points, are often mentioned by my students as the best thing about WebCT. Subjective evaluation indicates that by helping absent students maintain psychological involvement in the course, summaries encourage rather than discourage further attendance and promote positive outcomes.

Problem No. #3: Developing a New Approach to Latin Language Drills.

Language students need drill and practice, and workbooks are intended to provide this. Workbooks cannot provide immediate feedback, however, an essential element of good practice stressed by Chickering and Gamson, as referred to by Graham et al (2001). In any case, the laboriously produced workbook feedback my students used to get never seemed to motivate anyone to redo a weak section. With the online drills, by comparison, students will do an exercise over and over until they "get" it, thus increasing time on task—another basic element of good practice (ibid.). I set up the drills to record best scores, rather than an average or the most recent. This encourages efforts to improve relatively good work as well as weaker attempts, while very rapid learners can go on to something else. To replace more of the important types of drill previously provided by workbooks, I use these online exercises in conjunction with a Windows program, MasterLatin, that trains students to do English to Latin translation (Wooley, 1994).

Students may occasionally redo a drill 10 or 15 times, until they are satisfied with their progress. Grading takes place automatically, and all previous responses are available if they or I need to consult them. The program makes it easy pick out problems and individual student weaknesses. Figure 3 shows a series of student responses to one drill item, where students were required to list four nouns introduced in the related lesson. It is easy to see that the student represented by the entries on the second line is entering endings rather than whole words, and may need help.

Figure 4 shows the all elements of the same item with this same student's responses. As can be seen, several correct responses are allowed, any one of which will be accepted by the program. This view also shows the feedback that students get. In this case, since the item was an easy one (for all except this one confused student), the feedback is intended to lead students onwards rather than help them troubleshoot what they did. Having this type of "enriching" feedback helps students think of the exercises as drills rather than tests, and focus on learning more than on grades.

Outcomes have been extremely favorable over two semesters so far, and I have been able to handle twice the number of students with less work. Once again I started off with an idea of "systematic problem elimination." In this case I was eager to shift the burden of workbook correction to the computer, and at the same time shift my heaviest efforts from the overloaded semester into the preparation period. Doing this, however, has enabled me to take a new mastery-based approach that was not possible before.


On the whole, web-enhancement with a CMS has helped me spread out and manage my own workload. It keeps me apprised of student needs in a timely fashion, and facilitates student engagement. Just seeing the many tools that are available within the program has encouraged me to look for innovative ways of dealing with problems, and increased my confidence in the possibility of dealing creatively with issues that stand in the way of student progress.

Author's note: I would like to take this opportunity to thank the anonymous reviewers, whose comments were extremely helpful in helping me focus my paper more appropriately.

Editor's note: This paper is modified from a presentation at the 3rd Annual WebCT User Conference in Vancouver, June 2001.


Brown, G. (2000 January/February). Where do we go from here? The Technology Source. Retrieved April 1, 2001 from the World Wide Web: http://technologysource.org/?view=article&id=425

Graham C., Cagiltay, K., Lim, B., Craner, J., and Duffy, T.M., (2001 March/April) Seven principles of effective teaching: A practical lens for evaluating online courses, The Technology Source. Retrieved April 1, 2001 from the World Wide Web: http://technologysource.org/?view=article&id=274

Wooley, A., (1994) rev., MasterLatin, New England Classical Journal, XXI.3. Retrieved April 1, 2001 from the World Wide Web: http://www.humanities.uci.edu/classics/cane/masterlatin.html

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