Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Unnoticed Changes

Today we crept over the 1100 number in course site requests for Illinois Compass (our instance of WebCT Vista). These requests flow in daily. The first day of class was a week ago, and I believe we’ve had more than 200 course site requests since then. There is no sign of the flow stopping, but is has slowed a little in the last day or two. Our business process for making course sites and populating them with current rosters is much better than a year ago, but it is not fully automated. So there are lags from when a request is made to when the site is ready for the instructor and there are lags from when students add the course after the first day of the semester till they see their course site on the Illinois Compass home page. The expectations seem to be that all of this will happen automatically. For whatever reasons instructors don’t seem to compare the course site creation timing with textbook orders, which have to be given months in advance to ensure that the campus bookstore has copies before classes start.

As we regularize our business process to support the campus course management system, we are trying to make small but useful changes in the service that either make things easier for the instructor, or that improve logistics for the students. For example, working through the Vista Gradebook API, we are now able to include some extra fields in the grade book so we are uploading three additional pieces of data: the University Identification Number (UIN), the section the student is in, and the student status (undergrad, grad, or other). Most instructors are familiar with identifying students by their netid (that is what we use as the unique identifier in Compass) but because we recycle netids after the student has left the university, so more popular combinations can be re-used, the UIN is used to identify students in Banner, as that is a lifetime identifier. So this extra data should help instructors navigate back and forth between the two systems.

We are beginning to come up with other ideas in this vein. One thought I had on the student’s behalf is to encourage instructors to use the Calendar tool in Vista. It is the only tool that I’m aware of where a pooled view of data from multiple courses can be seen by the students in one view. If I’m a student taking say three courses in Vista: A, B, and C, then the value to me from the instructor in course C using the calendar is much greater if my other two instructors also use the calendar. In other wordf6s, I as student am much more likely to consult the calendar if I can see the information from many classes in one unified view.

It is commonly said that students need help with their time management skills and something in this dimension would indeed be useful. Here, I’m not talking about information regarding when classes meet. Rather I’m talking about deadlines for quizzes or assignments or other course obligations. Many students tend to do the work in a time window near the deadline, so the students would be able to see times during the terms where they are likely to be quite busy and other time where they are comparatively unburdened.

We are also talking about using the template feature in Vista to make a campus level template that instructors would use when they request a “blank” course. The motivation would be as I’ve articulated above, to make things easier for the instructor or the students. One could set up a common navigation scheme for students so courses have a common look and feel. I don’t know how valuable that is, but it is possible. And one could include a host of links to institutional information, such as the final exam timetable or the Campus Code of Conduct. The instructor wouldn’t have to use these links, but they’d be there.

I wonder how far down that path we can go and what type of things should be done in this vein. If you have ideas on this front, by all means please pass them along.

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