Friday, June 24, 2005

TAs entering grade data in a multisection course

I watched the full documentary "Declining by Degrees" last night and only afterwards switched to the basketball game. I thought the film was reasonably good at identifying the core issues (and one or two that are not core) but it didn't connect them well at all. The big two, (1) the disengagement compact issue and (2) the cost of college issue were both described at some length but whether they are part of a large whole or not didn't come across, at least not to me. I will present my theory of the whole in some later posts.

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Our home grown Campus Gradebook, now retired, had the nice feature that an instructor could view at the section level or at the course level, do data entry at either level, and further have access controls so that that TAs would only have access at the section level and then only for the sections they teach. The WebCT Vista software has a nice query capability so that if a column has been uploaded with the section information an instructor can view only that section (and more generally, view only those data that satisfy the conditions of the query). But it does not have the access control capability.

These multisection course sites often rely on online quizzing for the homework. There may be dozens and dozens of those quizzes. Then there may be in class work graded by the TAs. And there be may be exams that are common across the sections. There are columns in the grade book for recording these scores and other columns for producing various aggregates of these scores. There easily can be 100 columns and quite possibly more. If there are several hundred students in the course, then the grade book will have tens of thousands of cells of data. That is a lot. These type of grade books render slowly on screen and each refresh after some modest change in data entry takes a while to view. At present, I would say this is our single biggest issue with the CMS.

One might envision having multiple sites, one per TA or one per section. This is possible but for other issues like posting announcements or course documents that are created during the semester and don't exist beforehand, having multiple sections means those must be posted in each section site. That is laborious.

We have come up with a different work around that while not perfect seems to address a good deal of the issues. The idea is to create sites that are just for TA data entry. One can set the start and end date on the sites so students don't see the site at all when they log into Vista. These sites will have columns only for the data that the TAs enter and, of course, only the students that are under the particular TA. So there will be fewer cells in these sites and the TAs should experience reasonably fast screen refreshes. Moreover, this will eliminate entirely the possibility that one TA overwrites the data entered by another.

The TAs will not have access to the main grade book for the course. The course coordinator does. The course coordinator needs what is called Course Instructor Access in Vista. With that the coordinator can run a report that in one csv file has the data entry of all the TA sections. So that is one download, instead of one per TA. That can then be uploaded into the main course grade book.

I presume that if this approach catches on we can ultimately write a script so that the download and upload happen automatically. At that point, we'd pretty much have what our Campus Gradebook produced earlier. There would still be the issue of speed of the refresh. I wonder if the Vista grade book or other CMS grade books can be optimized for these large classes. That would be nice. But I think we can manage with what we have now.

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