Of course it is useful, why would people do it otherwise ?
Since 1996, when I taught my first course at the college level, I have always set up a web page for the courses I taught. It has never really been an issue to me, whether I should do it or not — it seemed like a no-brainer. I mean, really, why would anyone not take advantage of a technology that allows a teacher to provide quickly and efficiently updated course information to all enrolled student ?
Why would an instructor not want to post, among other things, the syllabus, a course calendar with pointers to lecture notes or homework assignments, information on midterm and final exams, solutions to assigned problems, as well as all sort of course announcements ? It would seem a great way to save time, preempting a lot of the questions that students ask most frequently…
I have to admit that I am not so sure anymore. Universities certainly expect their instructors to utilize web technology as a teaching aid, and will generally provide them with technical support. The fact is, however, that even with all the technical support and the best software, maintaining a course web page is a lot of work for the instructor — updating its content daily, posting class notes, solutions are time consuming tasks, and I am not sure that the payoff is so clear. Indeed, sometimes I even wonder whether it may not be doing more harm than good.
First of all, it has been consistently my experience that most students simply do not bother to check the course web page regularly, which defeats the purpose of having it in the first place. I am routinely asked questions in the course of the term, for which explicit answers are provided on the course web page. I can also look at the hits that the page receives, and it is clear that most of the student do not read it. I observe a definite increase in the number of visits a few days before the midterm exam and the final, but it is my sense that the course web page just sits there ignored most of the time.
I have often sought the feedback of colleagues and students, thinking that maybe my pages are not user-friendly or clear enough, but invariably I have been told that it seems acceptable, and colleagues have reported similar experiences.
Secondly, I am afraid that having access to course information such as, for example, what material was covered on that day, may actually turn out to be a perverse incentive for student not to attend classes. If students feel that by not going to class they may miss crucial course information, they may make an effort to be there (I know, ideally they should want to be there for better reasons than that, but, we all know how it is these days…) — otherwise they will just assume that they can get everything they need when they need it (i.e., a few days before the exam) from the course web page and will not bother to come to class.
So, in conclusion, would it be better to go back to the good old days and just distribute a syllabus on the first day of classes, and then simply expect that students will come to class ? Would the time that I invest trying to design and update a web page be better spent providing extended office hours instead, for example, or simply putting more time on my class notes ?
I am curious to hear the opinion and experience of others.