College Quarterly
Summer 1997 - Volume 4 Number 4

Using An Education Server Software System For Web-Based Delivery of Special Education Coursework on The Internet.

by A. Edward Blackhurst and Rene M. Hales


he World Wide Web (Web) has considerable potential for delivering distance education programs. New computer software programs are being developed to facilitate the management of instruction and communication among students and instructors who are involved with the delivery of Web-based coursework. One such program is the TopClass educational server software system.

This investigation examined the effect of using the TopClass system to deliver several units of instruction in a special education course delivered via the Web. Procedures for setting up and implementing the education server system were explored, as were student reactions and the impact of the system on student learning. Data from a 36-item questionnaire indicated that reactions to instruction delivered via TopClass were very positive, and that learning had occurred. The investigation also identified variables associated with planning and implementing Web-based educational server systems, and explained factors which need consideration when designing instruction and developing content for coursework to be delivered via the Web.


A major problem confronting educators and policymakers is the need to deliver university coursework and in-service training to people providing services to students who are enrolled in special education programs. Studies (e.g., OSEP 1994; Bobbit and McMillen 1994) have shown that approximately 10% of the 300,000 people who are teaching in special education programs lack certification in the area in which they are teaching. Other research (e.g., Lahm and Shuping 1996) has documented the need for providing continuing education about new concepts and procedures (such as assistive technology) which emerged only after many active teachers obtained their certification credentials.

These needs extend beyond those of special education teachers to other professionals working with students in special education programs, such as speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists (Cross and Collins 1995, 1996). Many of those professionals work and live in locations from which it is inconvenient to travel to institutions of higher education (IHEs) for courses needed to complete professional certification or to upgrade their knowledge and skills.

In attempting to deal with this problem, significant efforts have been made to design and implement distance education programs related to special education, e.g Collins (1992, in press), Collins et al. (1996), Heward et al. (1992), Johnson and Amundsen (1983), Knapcsk 1993; Royce et al. (1991) and Savage (1991).

Within recent years, the development of the Internet system and particularly of the World Wide Web of networked telecommunications has made available a number of new and potentially significant options for the remote delivery of pre-service and in-service education. These capabilities have been described by Pennell (1996) as including the use of electronic mail (e-mail) to send free-form text messages and assignments between and among students and instructors; LISTSERV and Majordomo mailing lists to direct messages to all course participants; teaching Websites and software such as Telnet, Fetch, and Gopher to deliver course materials to students on demand.

Likewise, form-based interactive Web pages enable students to respond to questions or take examinations, 'chat' groups allow (and provide a record of) real-time class participation, and 'news groups' and discussion lists are used to post information and facilitate commentary. Downloading text, audio and video files provides access from remote sites and those with limited computer capability. Electronic 'whiteboards' can be used to transfer and manipulate image files for simultaneous viewing, 'internet phone' enables synchronous audio communication among class participants, and CU-SeeMe facilities allow face-to-face meetings and video conferencing The range of Internet-enabled new remote delivery capabilities also includes the specially-designed server software needed for secure interactive instruction through the Web.

A large number of colleges and universities have been experimenting with offering courses via the Internet. Corrigan (1996) lists courses at thirty different universities, and descriptions of a wide variety of formal courses and other types of training are available at:

A number of concerns can be raised about distance education via the Web. Some of those concerns are related to logistical and technical means, e.g., the computer and communications hardware and software needed to deliver instruction or required for students, the provision of Web access, the availability of resourceful technically-skilled personnel to develop, implement, and maintain such instructional sytems, and the financial resources required. Other concerns are about instructional content, e.g., what curricular goals, subjects and teaching strategies are most appropriate for delivery via this medium, which formats are most suitable for particular material, and how and whether to incorporate audio and video materials into lessons. Questions of format include whether the structure of the Website and the design of screens suitably reflects the instructor's approach to the material, and the ease, extent and appropriateness of the means by which students are intended to access and interact with the website's content.

Another set of issues concern course management. That includes how to individualize instruction, how to facilitate interaction among students and between students and instructor, how to administer tests, how to ensure that students do not cheat on tests, how to provide feedback to students, and how to manage the potentially very large course enrollments made possible by Web-based instructional delivery.

Most of these issues concern the design of instruction, the choice of content, and the measurement of student progress, and these are issues that can best be solved by curricular and subject matter specialists, and instructional designers. However, providing the technology platforms to deliver Internet-based education while simultaneously addressing the management issues noted above is a considerably more difficult and interdisciplinary task. It requires developing software which runs on a variety of hardware platforms and operating systems and which can be easily used to connect students to instructional programs, present instruction, facilitate participant interactions, and manage the technical aspects of instructional delivery.

One such program specifically designed to manage the delivery of instruction via the Web is TopClass, which was developed at University College Dublin and is distributed by WBT Systems. TopClass was originally called WEST: Web Educational Support Tools, and this research was conducted using the WEST system. Since then, the program content has been translated to the new TopClass. interface. Although it runs on any communications application which uses the ubiquitous TCP/IP standard, TopClass is most frequently being used on the Web.

Purpose of the Research

This investigation sought to evaluate the feasibility of using TopClass to deliver special education Coursework via the World Wide Web. The investigators were interested in finding answers to three research questions. What is involved in setting up an education Web server for use in delivering special education Coursework? What is the reaction of students who receive instruction delivered via the Web? Do students learn content that is delivered via the Web?

Results And Discussion

As the result of the tutorial delivered entirely via TopClass, 100% of the students surveyed were able to successfully use Telnet to access a mainframe computer, log on to an Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) database, and conduct keyword searches for literature related to an educational problem of interest. As the result of the exploratory instructional procedures presented via TopClass, 100% of these students were able to successfully use File Transfer Protocol (FTP) procedures to locate and download files located at remote sites on the Internet. As the result of a guided discovery lesson delivered via TopClass, 100% of the students were able to conduct successful searches for information located at Gopher sites on the Internet.

Additionally, the average comprehensive final examination score on an open-ended test containing 12 application-type questions worth a total of 75 points was 81%. That test was delivered via TopClass, and test grades and evaluative feedback were provided via TopClass. The test score results cannot be attributed solely to the use of TopClass, since students were required to read information and engage in learning activities over and above those that were incorporated into TopClass units in 7 of the 12 questions that appeared on the final examination.

Other Studies

Because TopClass was developed in 1995, there is currently very little research available concerning its use. The research to date has produced evaluation data collected from learners to whom the program has delivered university-level instruction. That data has been reported by subscribers to the TopClass-Talk discussion list maintained on the Internet, and in reports posted on the WBT Systems "Showcase" Web page:

Included in those reports is an application attesting to satisfaction with delivering health-science coursework at the Georgia College and State University. Data-based evaluations were supportive of using the system to provide practice problems for students enrolled in large sections of chemistry courses at the University of Kentucky. Studies of TopClass use in biology programs have lead to the adoption of the system across the 64 campuses of the State University of New York. Technical English instruction has been successful for students enrolled at Mid-Sweden University. The latter case is particularly interesting because the course was managed in Sweden but the instructor was located in Australia; this underscores the potential of using Internet telecommunications to deliver instruction in distance education programs. Other TopClass applications were described by individuals using the software system in Ireland and Australia, and additional information about these cases is posted on the aforementioned WBT Systems website.


While the relative newness of the TopClass product somewhat limits the scope of research regarding its utility, the reactions of those who have implemented TopClass-based instructional delivery are positive. In addition, there is evidence that learners can master content presented via TopClass, and that students are highly satisfied with both the way that TopClass operates, and the opportunities that its use provides for interactive instruction in distance education. Even on the basis of the limited field testing reported in this paper, it appears that the features of the TopClass server software system enable Web-based delivery of special education instruction (and of many other topics). Additional studies are needed to examine the latest versions of this software, and to explore new formats and approaches to the delivery of courses via the World Wide Web.


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Professor A. Edward Blackhurst

Professor A. Edward Blackhurst is Principal Investigator of the University of Kentucky Assistive Technology (UKAT) Project in the Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation Counselling at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506-0001, where Rene M. Hales is an Instructional Designer in the Faculty Academic Computing and Technology Support (FACTS) Center, and a doctoral candidate in Special Education.

This research was supported by the University of Kentucky and Grant number H180U50025 "Examination of the Effectiveness of a Functional Approach to the Delivery of Assistive Technology Services in Schools" from the Division of Research to Practice, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. The conclusions and implications reported herein do not necessarily reflect the official positions of these agencies. A manuscript based on this article also has been submitted to the Journal of Special Education Technology. Questions or comments can be directed to A. Edward Blackhurst at


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