software key to opening cyber-classrooms
by Amy Pate
Two software programs available to faculty in the College of Arts and
Science, Blair School of Music, the School of Engineering and Peabody
College are allowing faculty to expand their courses to the World Wide
More than 100 faculty members in those schools currently are using
either of the programs Prometheus and WebCT to post class syllabi and
assignments, discussions, and reading materials, according to Bill Longwell,
director of the Microcomputer Laboratories at Vanderbilt. The newest
version of Prometheus has been available since August, and WebCT has
been available since May.
Lots of people want Web pages, but very few want to do them,
Longwell said. Prometheus and WebCT both allow faculty to bypass computer
from implementing a Web page. Professors can simply fill in a series
of fields to create the initial course homepage.
You really dont need to have any special skills to get
any of the basic stuff, including readings, on there, he said.
Longwell, who is also a senior lecturer in history and politics, uses
Prometheus to post information about his freshman seminar on the Arab-Israeli
At its core, Prometheus is an online vehicle for faculty to communicate
with students outside of the classroom and share information,
said Theo Larrieu, a systems administrator at Academic Computing and
Information Services. To this end, Prometheus provides facilities
that make it easy to put the course syllabus, course outline and homework
assignments on the Web where students in the class can easily find them.
allows us to share ideas as we have them instead of trying to save
them all for the next class period.
Its a way of really knitting the class together,
said Mark Wollaeger, a professor of English and the director of the
College Writing Program. Wollaeger uses Prometheus in his honors English
colloquium to deepen and broaden engagement with materials for
the class, he said. He has students in his class go online to
discuss reading materials and then revisit their entries after meeting
as a group in class. Students comments on the Web also become
an archive that they can review throughout the semester.
As director of the College Writing Program, Wollaeger is also promoting
Prometheus to other teachers on campus. I intend to get most of
the writing-intensive classes taught by graduate students in English
on Prometheus next year, he said. Prometheus has been received
well by students in Wollaegers class.
Prometheus allows us to share ideas as we have them instead
of trying to save them all for the next class period, senior Judson
Laughter said. Student Tara Sue Donahue agreed. The discussion
module adds to the class by allowing students to address issues that
confused them in class or by bringing up various points that were not
discussed. [This] serves as an alternate way for students to articulate
their thoughts, she said. Professors can also use this after-class
discussion to see where students are having difficulties or what students
are interested in.
Programs such as Prometheus and WebCT can also be used to free up
valuable class time for professors to teach, according to junior Gayle
Rogers. Having an online syllabus allows professors to change
assignments and due dates as the course progresses, he said. If
professors would commit themselves to updating their class information
on Prometheus often, I think this would eliminate the problems that
arise during crunch time each semester [such as] students using class
time to ask about length of papers, when office hours are, etc.
While the students interviewed generally liked Prometheus, they also
pointed out some of its drawbacks, particularly technical problems.
There have been technical glitches in downloading files at times,
but for the most part it is a wonderful resource tool, Rogers
Donahue, a senior, said she sometimes had to log in a second time to
be able to download files. The other difficulty is figuring out
what messages are a reply to other messages, and what messages are new
thoughts, she said.
Time management is another concern with the classroom expanding into
cyberspace. I think Prometheus is a great way to express ideas
and supplement class discussion, Donahue said. However,
its time consuming because its like writing another paper.
Laughter agreed, noting the newfound ability of professors to conduct
class throughout the week can be problematic.
Access to Web pages created with Prometheus and WebCT is limited to
the professor and the students enrolled in the specific course, and
guests invited by the professor. To log on to any particular page, viewers
have to type in their VUnet ID and password.
Both Prometheus and WebCT offer similar features such as threaded discussion
forums, real-time chat and the ability to use hyperlinks to direct students
to related online materials. Also, each software package offers the
ability for students and professors to share files. Though each application
allows professors to conduct online quizzes, this capability should
be considered experimental, according to Larrieu. Faculty simply can
turn off any features they choose not to use.
On the near horizon are enhancements to integrate Prometheus
with the Librarys electronic course reserves system and nifty
new features such as a Palm Pilot sync that lets students download the
syllabus, assignments and course outline into their handheld devices,
The College of Arts and Science, Blair, Peabody and the School of
Engineering have a limited license which allows faculty of those schools
to post up to 250 courses each semester. At the end of the year, administrators
will evaluate whether to buy an extended license which will allow more
courses to be posted.
Spring semester courses will soon be loaded into the class rolls database
which supports Prometheus, according to Larrieu. Once the data has been
loaded, faculty members can simply go online to prometheus.vanderbilt.edu
and log in with their VUnet ID and password. After they have logged
in, they have a menu option that allows them to create an online course.
An outline of Prometheus' current features can be accessed on the Web,
which also links to a brief online tutorial and the schedule for one-hour
introductory and advanced features training classes available to faculty.
Questions can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.