Monday, December 19, 2005

Going Crazy with Excel

Things are fairly low key on campus today. Finals ended last Saturday and today the lot where I park my car was much emptier than it has been in some time. I had two meetings on my calendar for this afternoon. Both were cancelled. So I started with something I was working on over the weekend, looking toward my spring course and seeing how much of that I can do with intelligently designed Excel worksheets.

Here is an example I built about a year ago. It is a calendar tool that is good for the next 10 years or so and allows all the data entry within one screen (rather than a separate screen per date as with most Web calendars I’m aware of). It takes advantage of Excel’s built in capabilities and is pretty easy to use. It is downloadable so you can have it on your own desktop, with my dates pre-installed. (The linked version has only a couple of dates in it to prove the concept.) This is how I wish the Calendar tool in a CMS or a Portal worked. The data entry in those seems so clunky to me. Oh well.

And I’m beginning to think of assignments done in Excel that would be linked back to the grade book. I spent some time on this idea a couple of years ago, the last time I taught, and got stuck. Now the solution seems so obvious to me. There needs to be a student identifier in the file title so the generic title would look something like: assignment_name_student_id.xls, and then the trick is to have short names and ids so the entire file title is not that long. It is a little laborious creating different versions of the assignment with the student id in the title. But really, that is not so bad. And once those are created, it is fairly simple to link those back to the grade book.

Slightly harder, I believe, is to take those individual files and put them in a space intended for only that specific student. WebDav makes this not too bad, both for the upload and the download. (And on my new Mac, I discovered that if I view a Folder as a list then I can open subfolders and drag the contents to a common folder in one straightforward step.) That makes it pretty easy to link with the grade book. Excel requires linked workbooks to all be within the same folder.

Indeed, I’ve figured out how to do individual grade reports for each student based on the master grade book for the class. All I need to do for the individual ones is to open them and save, then upload via WebDav to the student’s own folder. This is pretty straightforward. (But it seems to me that upload via WebDav is a slow process, even when files are pretty small. I’m not sure why the slowness. It is the only downer in what I’ve tested so far.)

You can take a look at the linked grade book stuff at my course blog. So now I’ve been able to do grade book, quiz and survey, and calendar all with Excel and distributed through Xythos. For a large class there is still probably too much overhead in this type of an approach, but for a smaller class (I would say up to 50 students) this sort of thing gives me more functionality than with the CMS since I can do a lot of creative things with Excel (for example in the quiz I can restrict display of the next question till the previous question is done correctly and I can make the solution of a question be a complex set of inequalities) and I believe it is still quite manageable.

Will this generate any coattails? If it does, my thought would be that the coattails might come from trying to do CMS type stuff on a pittance or trying to do something more sophisticated than a CMS can manage. Excel really is powerful software and it is ubiquitous. Those two factors should matter. On the other hand, my approach is somewhat unorthodox and I believe for that reason it is hard to communicate about the idea. In the meantime, I’m going to keep putting up my little examples and see whether anyone else gets on the bandwagon.

If I were betting, this is not the next revolution. But it will be in my class!

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