EESE 5/2001

Internet Teaching - Guest Editor: Thomas Kühn (Berlin)


Web-based Course Administration Management

Diethard Pabel and Christian Erbe (Freiburg i. Br.)

The Internet offers an enormous potential to improve the administration of university departments. The Net provides the means to decentralize data input, automate processing, and allow for a two-way flow of information: from students and lecturers to the administration and vice versa. Our aim was to utilize these possibilities in the course catalogue, lists of office hours, addresses, and general announcements. Our solution, which we called the "Catalogue Manager", was to create a Perl database which can be accessed with any webbrowser and allows the data to be arranged in any format needed. This included formats such as RTF documents, webpages, and simple text documents.

The reactions we received once the system was introduced were diverse. We identified two user groups: those who use the database for data input and those who use it to gain access to information. Most of the complaints came from the first group, which consists mostly of lecturers who did not want to learn how to use a webbrowser, a skill which can nowadays be expected of anybody at a university. Many lecturers, on the other hand, got used to using the Catalogue Manager and gave positive feedback about its handling and easy access. The second group consists mostly of students who use the database to gather information about classes and office hours. Their feedback was without exception positive, as the Catalogue Manager makes it possible to publish the course information much sooner, while offering new features which had previously not been available. Lastly, we received positive feedback from the secretaries who used to have to assemble the course catalogue by handling innumerable disks and printouts and cutting and pasting the commentaries into one document to produce the master copy.

The following paragraphs describe in detail our experiences with introducing this web-based application in our department, its advantages, and drawbacks.

The idea for this project came from the fact that every semester our administration had to spend many weeks on the production of the master copy of the course catalogue. This included tasks such as collecting the texts, putting them together in the word processor, and formatting them. Most of these processes could, with the help of a computer, be automated. Our initial aim was to save time by automating those processes which recurred every semester. The system should also be as easy to use and as accessible as possible for both the secretary and the lecturers. Since the use of the Internet was fairly widespread in our department and we had the resources and know-how to set up an Internet server, we chose to create an Internet database which could be accessed by a simple webbrowser. In this way, most lecturers would not have to acquire new skills. Furthermore, lecturers and students alike would have access to the database from any computer with an Internet connection. This would make it possible even for guest lectureres from abroad to turn in their class commentaries in time.

Once the system was installed we sent out announcements with instructions. We also conducted several sessions in which we explained the Catalogue Manager, our new database. Most lecturers accepted using the Catalogue Manager and after two semesters it had evolved into a fully-fledged database which offered many new features in addition to simply compiling the course catalogue. It was now possible to automatically create a web edition of the course catalogue, the AREAS report, to fill out different forms and requests for the main administration of the university, print out lists of office hours, room plans, etc. Since all this information is online, students also have access. They can search for certain classes, topics, lecturers, or office hours and automatically create their own time tables. Lecturers can archive their class data and commentaries and re-use them without having to type them again.

All in all the Internet database works well and saves a lot of time each semester. There are, however, several problematic issues. The first involves the technical side. Although the technical requirements are minimal, they still exist. The users of the database need a computer with an Internet connection and a standard webbrowser such as Netscape 2.x (or higher) or Internet Explorer 3.x (or higher). Secondly, users need some basic knowledge about how to use the standard functions of webbrowsers. For example, they need to be able to fill out forms and put the class title into the field called "class title" and not into the field called "class time". Not everybody followed these directions. We also met with some resistance involving using computers in general. It is telling that those with difficulties were usually the ones who did not participate in the training sessions we offered. However, despite the little extra work the secretary had to do because of this kind of non-cooperation, she was the most grateful for this new tool. It did not take long until other departments started using the Catalogue Manager as well. As a multiuser database, the Catalogue Manager now serves at least four departments from the same installation in the English Department.

Information about all the issues concerning the Catalogue Manager can be found at

Examples of its use in practice can be found at