I am looking at the blank site for my new course with dread. It is such a huge timesink to prep the web learning system site for a new class. The interface is super-clunky and counter-intuitive, which makes it a huge headache, and I am not even sure how much value the students get from it.
It is convenient to be able to post electronic resources without having to photocopy a whole bunch of course stuff (and also not waste a huge amount of paper, since it is impossible to match the attendance with the number of sheets). In the olden days when dinosaurs walked the earth and I was an undergrad, I am sure professors complained about photocopying stuff for their courses. At the same time, that function could easily be replicated through a course shared file repository. No need for all the bells and whistles.
So I ask is it worth it? Looking at the typical components:
Posting files online
Easily replicated elsewhere without the headache. As a side effect of having course Web resources, students now expect professors to post their slides online. Alas, student evaluations are used for tenure and promotion, so it is not easy to just say no and take the hit. I am not sure that this is helpful. I've noticed a large decline in my students' note taking skills (which are actually useful later in life). I've also noticed my course slides available (and sometimes for sale!) at various sites that collect such information for students. I am not hugely uptight about my IP rights and all, but it is irritating to see my hard work available to the whole world. If I wanted that, I would post them on the open web myself. I did complain when I found my slides for sale. Neutral.
Online discussion forums
Some years, the online discussion forums get heavy use, particularly for large intro courses, but some years not. I actually like them, since they can reduce my workload quite a bit, and sometimes head off having to answer the same question over and over again via email. It does not prevent having to answer the same question over and over again in office hours. Sometimes degenerates into an Internet discussion board (which adds moderating to the workload). This happened to me once. Probably a benefit most years.
Excel is so much easier to use for this (and THAT should shame these web learning companies!) that I usually do my gradebook keeping offline, and copy the results into the tool. So, not a time saver for me. I don't know how useful the students find it, but most of them only look at the end of the course, which suggests not much. Net minus, then.
Significantly reduces course attendance. The lecture format (which is more or less required for a course with 200+ students and half a TA) may not be the best tool for learning, but at least the students keep vaguely up with the material. And without recorded lectures, students don't fool themselves into thinking they can watch later, and then never do it. I see many of the students binge watching lectures a few days before the exam. This is unlikely to help their learning. A net minus in my opinion.
Anything provided by the company is useless, since the answers are pretty much freely available pretty quickly. Making my own is very time consuming, but I actually like this feature (now that I know how to make variables in the questions so each student gets their own individual problem). Can't be worth much of the overall course grade, since it is impossible to know who actually completed it. Still a net plus (I think).
Linked web resources
I have yet to find a way to get the students who need this to use it, so overall neutral. Could be a useful tool, though, since it is much easier to just click and link than to type in a web address. My failure to effectively use this notwithstanding, a plus.
Definitely a minus for the prof. Makes it way too easy to send an email with just one little question (that is already answered elsewhere!). Repeated for 200 students, makes responding to actual class problems difficult. Net minus.