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New 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 Web.

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 languages such as HTML and JavaScript, which often prohibits non-programmers from implementing a Web page. Professors can simply fill in a series of fields to create the initial course homepage.

“You really don’t 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 conflict.

“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.”


“Prometheus allows us to share ideas as we have them instead of trying to save them all for the next class period.”

—Judson Laughter, student


“It’s 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 Wollaeger’s 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 said.

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, it’s time consuming because it’s 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 Library’s 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,” Larrieu said.

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 prometheus@vanderbilt.edu.