Saturday, January 21, 2006

Nuts and Bolts

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. I’m not teaching with a learning management system this semester, at least for the time being, and am instead using the Xythos product to distribute content, to have students upload their work back to me, and then use email or the course blog, as the primary means of communicating outside of class. I’m liking our LMS, WebCT Vista, more as a consequence of this effort. It’s interesting what one learns by doing some drill down stuff of this sort.

Because I’m going to ding the Xythos product a little bit here, let me point out that my campus procured it for personal file space and Web publishing. It was not intended to be used as an instructional tool. However, a first pass at it gives the appearance that it might be used this way. Take a look at this screen shot, which gives the generic view for how one regulates access permissions to folders, subfolders, and files. In the menu bar you can see an icon for adding users or groups. You should also see the Read, Write, etc. check boxes that control which permissions the users have. It certainly gives the appearance that the check boxes are independent so, in particular, you might have the Write checkbox checked, with the Read checkbox unchecked. This would be the case if you were trying to use the folder as drop box.

As it turns out, if you do that the users with Write permission do not see the folder they have write permission to. I was told that is a feature, not a bug. I learned this the hard way by having it set up that way only to have my students tell me they couldn’t see their drop box. I couldn’t tell this myself. After they complained, I did verify by using my wife’s account (she is an employee of the University, so I could create a space for her as if she were a student) and based on that the students’ complaints were indeed justified. I then verified this functionality of Xythos with our service manager. But it isn’t in the online Help, so you wouldn’t know it that way. In contrast, the LMS has a student view for designer testing of the course site and that student view is built into the product. Further, I know the WebCT developers are actively working on the assignment drop box functionality to improve the work flow after the submissions have been downloaded (they’ve got the earlier part of the work flow done pretty well right now). So, really, one should use the LMS for this sort of thing.

I am doing something that is certainly out of the ordinary. Because I’m doing this linked spreadsheet system, which allows me to view the submissions of all the student work in one screen where I simply advance a button to see the submission of the next student, and also allows me to readily produce statistics based on the combined submissions, and indeed to distribute this stuff back to the students so they too can see the work of their classmates, there is a lot of setup. Each assignment has a file with a modified file name for each student; a student number is appended at the end of the file name. Then it is important that each student gets the file assigned to him and uploads it into the right place.

This is painful to set up. I have one folder per student for the files they will download and another folder per student so they have an individualized drop box. Each folder has to have permissions set for that one specific student and then I carefully have to move the right files to the folders where the students will download them. I’m doing this now because of the benefits in terms of Just In Time Teaching --- reviewing the student work and then sharing it. Ultimately, I think the LMS could do this better but it doesn’t have the functionality now and what it does have makes it harder for me to adopt my system to it.

Let me switch gears. I’m now getting a little more used to my Mac at the office and some observations about that. If you have a .Mac account and use it for publishing from the desktop, the integration is very tight. To a certain extent it reminds me of my old days in College of Business when they ran a Web server with the Microsoft Frontpage extensions. The big difference with the Mac is that it is smart about the media applications. One can go from iPhoto to Web publishing directly. That is slick.

However this intense integration from desktop to online is anathema to Web 2.0 folks who want everything open and everything to interoperate. For example, see this post by Brian Lamb on the iTunes University project at Stanford and this related post by Gardner Campbell on the entire approach by Apple to podcasting. I also note, in a somewhat related way, some irritation expressed in user comments on Apple’s iLife page about there being no upgrade discount from iLife ’05 to iLife ’06. My own views on this are (1) some disappointment with the iTunes client for not handling all file types that can be podcast (the course blog that I listed earlier has a Feedburner feed to which many zip files are linked and I don’t believe iTunes can handle zip files), but (2) companies are in this for a profit and the world is changing in how they generate revenue. Apple, though not the size of Microsoft, is no start up. It needs to generate revenues for the services it provides. And so far it doesn’t do that with the advertising model. So…………

Let me make one more comment about my new Mac, which is not a comment about Apple but about browsers and Web pages. I’ve got the screen resolution set pretty high but then the minimum font size in the browser set way up, to 16 or 18 point, so I can read it readily. (And similarly with a Word doc I will routinely view at 150% of normal.) I’m not sufficiently technical to understand why Office products have a zoom in the View menu, but browsers don’t. In any event, some Web pages readily accommodate the large point size of the font and are easy to read, but many pages (the ESPN Web site is an example) are designed in a way where the column widths are fixed so that if the font gets bigger it simply overflows into the next column and can obscure links or photos. I could do better, perhaps, by having a lower resolution on the screen, and maybe I will go back to that, but a lot of stuff gets on the screen now and then and its nice to have all the real estate to accommodate that.

One more point. I don’t know whether any of the sensibilities I’m expressing are felt by long time Mac users. My sense is that they are loyal and not critical about what they are being offered up. But I don’t know whether this is because ignorance is bliss or if they’ve just got a different take on the issues I’ve described.

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