New Tool in Town: Course Management with eCOW2

Moodle screenshotLast semester, Yu Hen Hu and Jessica Guo both used the College of Engineering's new course management software: engineering Courses On the Web 2 or eCOW2. Hu, a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, used the software in much the same way he used the older eCOW system, as an electronic bulletin board to provide students with course resources. Guo, an Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, incorporated some of the new software's expanded features into her transportation engineering course.

Hu and Guo were ahead of the curve. Although nearly half of all engineering courses include some online component, only thirty made active use of eCOW2 last semester, according to Paul Oliphant of the Computer Aided Engineering Center (CAE). He spearheaded the college's adoption of this new software platform.

Oliphant has been searching for an effective course management system for years. The college launched the original eCOW more than ten years ago. Developed in-house, this software offered faculty a simple way to distribute materials to students and to collect assignments. As the web evolved, however, the software became dated and unsustainable.

When the university adopted Learn@UW in fall 2003, Oliphant hoped that the problem had been solved. Although the new campus-wide platform offered many new tools, including online testing and chat rooms, most engineering faculty remained faithful to the old eCOW system.

When Oliphant asked why, he learned that for smaller, resource-strapped courses, the learning curve for the new software was too steep...and it turns out that Learn@UW does not understand numbers. It relies on character recognition to assess student input. Using this paradigm, 10.0 is not equal to 10 and 150,000 is not the same as 150000.

"Most course management software is developed for humanities and other high-enrollment, general purpose courses," says Oliphant. "Engineers have very specific needs that aren't supported."

Oliphant test-drove many different software packages in his quest for an easy-to-use, flexible course management package. He eventually decided on Moodle, an open-source platform. He notes that other schools and departments are making the same leap. Graduate programs in the School of Business have switched to a Moodle-based platform, and the biology and math departments are heading that way as well. However, Oliphant notes, the new system is not meant to replace Learn@UW.

"If Learn@UW meets your needs, keep using it," he says.

Oliphant says the software should meet the needs of faculty within the College of Engineering. It recognizes numbers and can be customized. The eCOW2 Development team (Oliphant , Jim Drews, Matt Petro, and Mike Litzkow) have adapted the software and released a version called eCOW2.

"We expect eCOW2 will position us for the future better than other available options," wrote Steve Cramer in an email dated August 13, 2008.

Cramer, the College of Engineering's associate dean for academic affairs, also laid out a timeline for the adoption of this new learning management tool. In accordance with this timeline, new courses can no longer be created in the original eCOW system. Previously established courses can be modified and used during the '08-'09 academic year. However, starting in fall of 2009, the original eCOW will be turned off. The content will still be available (through a portal in the new eCOW2 system) but faculty will need to teach using the new eCOW2 system.

To facilitate this process, the eCOW2 development team is creating a content migration tool that will allow faculty to easily upload their previously developed course materials into the new system. This feature was expected to be available for the spring semester.

Oliphant acknowledges that the software still has some rough edges. "It is harder to use than the original eCOW," says Oliphant. "But, it seems to be the best thing out there right now."

Hu says he hasn't encountered any glitches in using eCOW2. He says the basic features, like posting files for students to download, work just as well as in the original eCOW software.

Guo agrees. "Certain features are relatively easy to pick up," she says. She also likes the user interface. "It's harder to get things organized nicely in the older eCow in a user-friendly fashion," she says. "With the new weekly view, everything is easy to see and easy to access."

Guo has encountered some trouble in using some of eCOW2's newer features, however. "When I upload a file and I want to replace it with another version with the same name, it doesn't seem to work," she says. "I have to give the new version a new file name. Other features, such as the gradebook and using the groups feature, also take some getting used to."

Each page within eCOW2 does have a help link embedded in the footer. This link takes the instructor to a web page that describes how all of the elements on that particular page work. That is not enough, says Oliphant. He is working to simplify the process of creating a new course while ironing out remaining glitches in the software. He has also created several flash videos that demonstrate how to create a course and how to use some of the more basic features. A team at the School of Education is creating a more extensive series of videos describing how to use other features within eCOW2.

Oliphant says that faculty need more than simple how-tos for the software. He believes the new software presents the College of Engineering with a chance to help professors improve their coursework while taking advantage of the new online teaching resources. He hopes to support faculty to not only master the software but also to determine the ways this new tool can best meet their teaching needs. He has applied for funding for an instructional developer, who could work one-on-one with faculty to implement best teaching practices into the online components of their courses.

Guo says she could have used some input from a course developer last semester. "The idea was to post articles related to transportation issues in town," she says. "My intention was to provoke discussion about local issues, but I'm not sure how well it's worked. I think it's not eCow2, but how I integrated the activity in class."

Oliphant aims to have more exhaustive online tutorials available by fall semester, just in time for the old eCOW to be put out to pasture.

Feature comparison for eCOW, Learn@UW, and eCOW2


eCow (original)

Learn@UW

eCow2

Available

Until 08/2009

Yes

Yes

Easy to learn

easiest

harder

harder

Supports numbers

No

No

Yes

Distribute materials to students

Yes

Yes

Yes

Accept materials from students

Yes

Yes

Yes

Online quizzes

No

Yes

Yes

Course login

No

Yes

One step

New course shell every semester

No

Yes

Yes

Course chat room

No

Yes

Yes

Email entire class

Yes

Yes

Yes

Add a guest instructor

No

Difficult

Easy


*

Tags: ,

*

For more information about the ideas in this article:

1) http://eCow2.engr.wisc.edu

The in-house home of eCow2. Contains flash tutorials on how to get started as well as links to courses currently using the eCow2 platform.

2) http://moodle.org

Community website for the open-source software used to power eCow2. Visitors can chat with other users and get new ideas to incorporate into courses.

3) "Technology, Learning, and Puppetry: Greg Moses's Engineering Physics Department Colloquium"

Teaching and Learning Insights coverage of the lead-up to eCOW2 from the March 2008 issue.