Friday, May 27, 2005

Smart Data Entry

All three campuses of my University went to Banner, the ERP software (Enterprise Resource planning). It has created a variety of complaints among the users in the various departments. One of the big ones concerns data entry. It appears that in many areas there is now manual data entry where there used to be automated data entry (which to me means the data is already somewhere in electronic format and then gets moved to where the user wants it without manual intervention). My goal here is not to talk about Banner. I brought that up simply to indicate that many at the university have been sensitized to the data entry issues. I want to talk about smart data entry in the context of the CMS, where we already have it and where it is missing, and what possibilities it would afford if we did have it.

Two areas where current CMS are pretty good on the data entry front are file upload and column import in the grade book. Most of the CMS now support the WebDav protocol. WebDav allows uploading of a bunch of files via one command by the user. On our campus we encourage use of Novell NetDrive as the WebDav client. This allows the file area of the CMS to appear as a mapped drive on the designer's computer. Then uploading files is as simple as dragging them to a folder. This works reasonably well. There are also plugins, for example one from Microsoft, which allows publishing from the particular application, e.g., PowerPoint, directly into the CMS. I've found that functional when wanting to publish the PowerPoint as a Web page. (I don't think the plugin relies on WebDav. But it provides similar functionality.)

Most CMS also allow import into the grade book from a CSV (comma separated value text) file. The WebCT Vista tool for this type of import is particularly good. It is a strength of the product. As I've indicated in previous posts, since the functionality already exists in that arena, it would be nice for it to exist in the learning area, for experiments or surveys, and it would be nice to enable the import in that setting for the students. But let's return to the designer.

In every other part of the CMS, when creating an object the approach is to fill out a form that is internal to the CMS. There is competition across vendors (and with Sakai and Moodle) over how well designed those forms are, whether they allow a WYSIWYG editor for the HTML fields, whether they enable linking to other content, etc. But that form based learning objects are the norm goes without question.

This is sensible when those objects don't exist in any other format, in other words when they are created from scratch. But this puts a big burden on the creator when the objects already exist elsewhere, either on her own hard drive or somewhere online. Why not have tools that allow the creator to pull in the electronic content into the CMS and automatically fill out the form(s) so the creator doesn't have to do it manually?

This holds for just about every tool in the CMS, but the one I want to focus on is the tool that enables links to external resources, because here the form is particularly simple and because a "link scraper" tool would be particularly useful. There are two essential pieces of data for a link, the name and the url. One can readily imagine a list of links arrayed with the two columns of data and imported into the CMS in the same way that grade book information is imported.

What about the source of those links? One interesting possibility would be the page in our eReserves that lists all the class materials. So there would need to be a way to take a Web page with links on it and from that create a list of links. How to do that is not transparent to me, but I can't believe it would be that hard to do for a competent programmer. Then the last step would be to populate the links tool with the list. This part I'm least sure about. Do the APIs in the CMS allow this type of thing? I'm not sure. I certainly hope so.

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