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CourseWare Applications:  An Evaluation  of

BlackBoard First Class, and WebCT


Judith Nuņo


UCLA Extension 396.01     Introduction to Online Technologies      Winter 2000

..To me, a product like WebCT is simply a classroom. My students should be able to make some assumptions about the classroom they enter. They should be able to easily find the classroom, easily enter the door, easily navigate between the desks, find me in the room, hear what I say, see what I write, etc. Do most of our classrooms look the same? Probably yes. Is this a good thing? For the most part, yes. The students can begin to ignore their location and concentrate on the more important aspects--the content. The classroom itself becomes a non-issue. Does the similarity of our classrooms mean we teach the same? Clearly not.:-) And may it ever be so. (Lacefield, 2000)

..First Class, though we do not use it as courseware, provides a solid, somewhat easy-to-use tool to create class conferences, to correspond with students and colleagues, and to provide access to files on a server. Its user interface requires a great deal of familiarity, but its intranet and extranet web capabilities promise a great deal. (Lynch, P. 2000)

...the total impact of using CourseInfo [BlackBoard] was greater than the sum of its parts. At least for this class, [an onsite MBA class with an online component at the University of Wisconsin] CourseInfo radically changed the nature of the learning experience. Students were used to having a one-night a week class 'meeting,' with perhaps one outside team meeting every two weeks to prepare assignments. The addition of CourseInfo metamorphosed the more traditional experience into an ongoing, interactive community of learners....literally active on a daily basis. (More, 1999)

The complementary fields of web conferencing, online education, and web course applications are growing at a remarkable rate. Only six years ago, in 1994, only two products of web conferencing software packages were available, both as primitive freeware products (Woolley, 1996). In 1996, there were over 60 simple to sophisticated freeware and commercial products (Woolley, 1996), and undoubtedly more are available today, in 2000. I was introduced to the "concept" of courseware two years ago, when I joined the faculty of Marymount High School, a private girls college preparatory school in Los Angeles, California. The school had just received a grant to "wire" the school and they chose First Class for the school's intranet, conferencing, and email requirements. This was my first use of email, other than sending a few messages via my son's email account. I soon became an email convert, not to mention a web surfer, easy to do if the school has a open online connection. I investigated and set up class conferences, posted course documents, and solicited email from my students, but not in a consistent manner. I knew somehow that it was a powerful tool, with untapped potential, but my computer skills were really at the level of an advanced word processor. Then I discovered Power Point. And then I introduced my students to Power Point. I posted my Power Point lectures on the class conferences so my students could preview, review, and copy them. They posted their Power Point presentations in the class conferences so their friends could see them. Soon they will discuss each other's presentations in a discussion forum.

I was having "so much fun" exploring the computer~classroom connection that I enrolled in an online education course at UCLA extension and discovered conferencing, synchronous and asynchronous discussion, a new vocabulary, and an entirely different education~interface appearance, very different from the First Class user interface. It looked and felt like a classroom; it even had a "whiteboard" that I could draw a graph on! And then I was give a courseware evaluation assignment, so I chose to write about two applications that I know, First Class and BlackBoard., and one that I didn't know, WebCT. First Class I know as an instructor and as a user, BlackBoard as a student, and WebCT as an outsider. Of course, during the evaluation process I have taken advantage of demonstration versions of all three courseware applications and have visited several online courses that use them.

Marshall University's comparison of online course deliver software products uses over 125 rating categories and the Landon's online evaluation tool for webcourse and conferencing applications uses about 60 categories. I chose to evaluate the applications according to 23 categories that are important to me as an instructor and a student. These categories are summarized in Table 1. I did not focus on technical aspects on the software, because my assumption is that "superior" technological minds can understand that particular vocabulary set. I'm interested in how the courseware applications look, how they work, what they can and cannot do, ease of navigation, and simplicity or difficulty of learning. Online promotional materials for all three courseware applications provide links to testimonials, demonstration areas, and schools using the products. To get some "actual user" input, I solicited comments from the faculty, students, and staff at my high school about First Class use, and I compiled responses in a discussion thread on WebCT from DEOS-L , a mailing list provided to the Distance Education community by The American Center for the Study of Distance Education, a mailing list I have recently joined. I did not request nor find "actual user" comments for BlackBoard, other than promotional testimonials, but I was impressed by list of about 400 individual CourseSitesTM supported by BlackBoard that can be accessed and explored via the web.

Each of the three courseware applications that I reviewed have an attractive presentation that can be modified by the instructor and are supported by both MAC and IBM platforms~PC, provide e-mail, message threading and sorting, file-attachment, online chat, multimedia support, and entry security. My experience with First Class is primarily with its email function. I conducted my my First Class survey via First Class a function I had not previously considered and received 22 responses, not bad considering the time frame. Interestingly, although many of the instructors Marymount High School have class conferences, the responses from 12 teachers and 3 administrators focused on the email function of the system, its utility in storage of course and college documents and faculty and administration forms and messages, and the security of the system. Two of the teachers mentioned the security function of First Class. All three courseware applications provide security, but only First Class and BlackBoard provide variable levels. The seven students who responded liked the email function and the ability of retrieving their homework assignments from the web. Its utility as an actual asynchronous conference was not mentioned, nor was its chat function. I intend to remedy this situation in the near future, at least for my biology and chemistry classes.

First Class email does have an advantage the other two evaluated applications do not: Public email. The email function of both BlackBoard and WebCT are solely for instructor~student and student~communication, while that of First Class allows for mailing and receiving messages and attached documents and files from anyone, separation of private and public messages, and the ability to use a single application for communication. An annoying thing about BlackBoard email has been the separation of public and private email messages. I can send a private email about course work or collaboration to the instructor or anyone in my class and even to the entire class or collaborative group, but these messages to their private email, necessitating opening two applications to find, read, and respond to messages. First Class also allows for the separation and organization of messages in separate sub-folders, an advantage in keeping my UCLA course messages separated from other messages.First Class also allows message searching and summarization of selected messages or message threads. WebCT also allows message searching, but BlackBoard does not, according to both evaluation reports (Landon and Marshal University).

Fortuitously, this week the DEOS-L, an online contained a thread in response to a email about the "cumbersome" nature of WebCT. Two of 18 responses criticized WebCT for lack of integration and difficulty of use, but the other 16 responses praised its consistency, ease of use and learning, flexibility, and good high-end interactivity. I liked the appearance of the several WebCT sites I visited, especially the presentation of graphics on a login page. The entry page of both WebCT and BlackBoard provide the semblance of a classroom: I know that I am in a classroom. The First Class entry desktop can be configured to resemble a classroom, but the format used at Marymount High School highlights its email function! All three courseware applications have design controls, but my impression is that those of WebCT and BlackBoard are more flexible. Both WebCT and BlackBoard also have instructional design support, a function lacking in First Class. All have word processing ability, editing tools, and HTML support, but only First Class has a separate document component. Presentations are an important function for me. WebCT has a built in presentation function. The promotional materials for BlackBoard state that it has a presentation function, but I have not found it! I know from personal experience that presentations can be created elsewhere, sent as an attachment to, and stored in First Class; I imagine this can be done for BlackBoard as well as WebCT. Testing, grading, and student tracking is included with both WebCT and BlackBoard packages but only as an ad-on in First Class. In my opinion, the test appearance is more attractive in WebCT and BlackBoard than in First Class. Several types of test questions can be used and all applications allow for graphics in the tests. I have little experience in online testing, so I am really not able to evaluate this function well. I also hope to remedy this situation in the near future!

Navigation ease is, for me, a key function for a courseware application. If navigation is easy, the learning curve for both students and instructors should not be too steep, thus decreasing anxiety and fostering a sense of accomplishment. I found navigation very easy throughout WebCT and BlackBoard. I have always considered navigation through First Class awkward, but did not realize how awkward until I experienced the navigation ease with the other two applications. I'm curious how my fellow classmates feel about navigation in BlackBoard. Navigation in the whiteboard~chat in BlackBoard area is a separate issue. A perusal of the initial virtual chat archives for this UCLA extension course indicates some difficulty in entering the chat and in figuring out how to use the whiteboard. All three applications provide BlackBoard as well as First Class provide an online student manual, that can be downloaded and printed, and an online help feature. WebCT provides an instructor manual, as do the other two applications, but only provides online help for its email and conference functions and short descriptions for its other tools.

Overall, I prefer WebCT and BlackBoard to First Classfor providing online education opportunities and onsite education support, primarily because they are more attractive and easier to navigate. I need to explore the discussion support ability of First Class and my ability to moderate and manage an asynchronous discussion. My sense of awkwardness with First Class may be due to a "learning curve" factor and my association of First Class with its email function. Participation in asynchronous discussions and collaborations has alerted me to the power of this form of student~teacher and, more importantly, student~student interaction. I have enlisted the help of the "tech support person" at my high school in setting up a discussion conference. And yes, the discussions about setting up the discussion conference have been asynchronous, via the superb and secure email function of First Class.

Table 1: Evaluation of Three Courseware Applications

Feature First Class






Security Variable Variable Single Level Variable security allows access control at several levels
Entry Appearance bulletin board with folders or list

varies for each user

split screen with navigation buttons and announcements Heading or picture and


blank paper with icons

I found BB to be most attractive and inviting


WebCT also very appealing

FC entry can be modified by users (list or icon)

Design Controls yes yes yes appears to be more flexible with BB and WebCT
Navigation somewhat confusing

icon and list mode

easy & direct


clear directions

easy & direct


clear directions

Navigation through FC, even though I use it daily, is confusing


Navigation through and

is easy and intuitive

Message Threading & Sorting clear


easy to use

unread tags

view/hide option



easy to use

unread tags view/hide option



easy to use

unread tags view/hide option

presentation clearest with BB, but that may be altered with design controls in FC and WebCT
Platforms PC & MAC PC & MAC PC & MAC both supported
E-mail~Class yes yes yes single, conference, class mailing lists

FC  students, faculty, administrators, etc can set up personal address lists and can access campus wide mailing lists

E-Mail~Public yes no no email can be sent to and received from class members, all faculty, administrators, and to outside world


E-Mail~Searching yes no yes FC & WebCT can search messages

FC can also summarize selected or threaded messages

Conferences yes yes yes entry can be restricted


FC has a message summary feature

Chat yes yes yes easy to use in all

class and conference rooms

File Attachment yes yes yes  
Drop Box no yes yes  
Testing supported with add-on supported supported Test appearance more attractive in BB and WebCT
Manual Included online


instructor & student instructor & student instructor instruction manual available for students in FC and BB

BB Manual easy to understand

FC & BB have help feature

WebCT instructor can provide instructions but no specific manual available for students

Word Processor yes, separate from message


yes yes Message Spaces in all allow for word processing

FC has separate document and specialized announcements component that all users can access

WebCT has presentation function that can work as document

Editing Tools font, color, etc available


without HTML

HTML or smart text or plain text for messages size and encoding



Multi Media Support yes yes yes  
HTML Support yes yes yes yes
Instructional Design Support no yes yes  
White Board no yes yes  
Presentation Area no yes(?)


Yes Presentations can be created elsewhere and stored in FC conference folder but FC has no specific presentation feature

WebCT has a presentation feature

BB promotional materials state it has this feature, but I cannot find it!



Atkinson, R. (1999). Course server software for online teaching.

BlackBoard Website http://www.blackboard.com/

Careless, J. A First Class effort: Teaching goes on-line.

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Gonzalez, S. (1998). First Class Intranet Server 5.1: Discussion software review. PC Magazine OnLine.. www.zdnet.com/pcmag/features/discussion/rev2.htm

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Lacefield, R. S. (2000). Email communication. (DEOS-l@lists.psu.edu)

Landon, B. Online educational delivery applications: A web tool for comparative analysis.

Lynch, P. (2000). Email communication (mailto:edutech@marymount-la.org

Marchessault, B. (1997). Group ware and integrated learning packages: Notes from the field, using First Class at Georgian College. Interview.

Marshall University. Comparison of online course delivery software products. http://multimedia.marshall.edu/cit/webct/compare/comparison.html

More, M. (1999a). Using CourseInfo, a class management website for instructional support. Distance Education Systemwide Interactive Electronic Newsletter (DESIEN).

More, M. (1999b). UPFRONT: BlackBoard's CourseInfo~Something new to try. Distance Education Systemwide Interactive Electronic Newsletter (DESIEN).

The Node: Learning Technologies Network (Data base search on First Class and BlackBoard )

Softarc First Class website: http://www.softarc.com/

WebCT website: http://www.webct.com/

Wooley, D. R. (1996). Choosing web conferencing software. 1996 International University Consortium Conference on WWW Course Development & Delivery.

1996 International University Consortium Conference on WWW Course Development & Delivery.

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