Monthly Archives: October 2007

RefWorks Workshops at Ames Library

Learn the basics and new features of RefWorks, an online tool that allows you to easily organize and access your database and web research.

Workshops will be held in the Ames Library Instruction Lab:

Wednesday, November 7: 4 pm ­ 5 pm

Tuesday, November 13: 12 noon ­ 1 pm

You are welcome to bring lunch in during the noontime sessions.

If you would like a session introducing RefWorks for a specific class or group, please contact Stephanie Davis-Kahl ( or your library liaison (

Managing online discussions

As we at Illinois Wesleyan struggle to adapt courses to include online or technology components it often seems that a square peg is being pounded into a round hole. Some parts of some courses are well suited to technology tools and some are not. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Online resources can be accessed at any time, from any place, any number of times
  • Computers can deliver content at the student’s own pace

So it seems that some things can be done outside of classtime so we can get them “out of the way” to spend classtime on higher-level academic discourse. Why not teach basic terminology or vocabulary as online homework so you can tackle tougher stuff in person?

Similarly, if students are engaging in intellectual enterprises outside of class (such as writing critical responses to class reading) doesn’t that mean they benefit from the practice of constructing arguments, or even from the practice of writing in general?

Certainly there are benefits. But how does a teacher manage student activity in the online medium? Let me start with three common refrains from faculty:

  • “How do I get students to engage in frequent, quality online discussions?”
  • “How am I going to grade all that?”
  • “How am I even going to read all that??”

I attended a conference this month and heard an interesting response to these concerns. John Fritz, from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County uses a construct he calls “Participation Portfolios.” Here is his abstract:

If you want students to use online discussions, how do you avoid initiating every thread or simply counting all their replies? By defining and rewarding substantive Q&A (and requiring an online “participation portfolio”). Students will take responsibility for discussions and reduce your burden in assessing them.

John makes an important distinction between quantity of discussion and quality of discussion. This is something that he clearly sets out at the beginning of a course with a rubric. By setting clear guidelines of what makes a post or response “good”, “average”, or “poor” he eliminates “me-too” responses and also reduces grade-groveling later in the term. He requires posts and responses to be spread throughout the course, to stem the tendency to “dogpile” at the end of a term. And it cannot be ignored that John participates in the online discussion. This models the behavior he desires from his students, and sets the academic tone of the discussion.

The students are then asked to pull the best examples of “good” posts, week by week, from the online class discussion forum. They cut-and-paste them into a Word template, propose their own grade based on the rubric, and hand them in. John reserves the right to adjust the grades, but finds that most students are harder on themselves that he would have been.

This system of Participation Portfolios addresses a number of problems. It provides a for-credit incentive with clear quality guidelines for students . It reduces the workload on a faculty member by distilling a term’s worth of discussion into a single assignment. It also requires a student to evaluate their writing and assess themselves.

If you want to hear about how well the assignment works, watch this video interview with UMBC Professor Chris Swan about this portfolio assignment (opens in iTunes).

UMBC didn’t come up with this overnight. They have a program on their campus to promote Alternative Delivery of class content. Faculty design a online/hybrid learning module and test it twice – once for students and once for faculty. They then make a 10 minute presentation about their experience to earn a stipend.

I hope that by reviewing the best practices at some other institutions, such as the Portfolio that John Fritz proposes, we might ease the integration of technology into some of our own courses.

Outsourcing Moodle: a viable option?

Moodle is a leading open-source learning management system that is fast becoming a common alternative to Blackboard and WebCT on college campuses. While a free, open-source package sounds wonderful, it is never truly free. If Illinois Wesleyan decides to go with Moodle on our own, we have many costs. First, it would need to reside on a server with adequate storage and bandwidth. Second, we would need to integrate it with existing systems. Third, we would need to provide adequate resources to maintain the server and software, ensuring reliability and security. Fourth, we would need to provide training and support to our community. So, with a shortage of people and money, what to do?

Well, there are a number of firms that provide hosted Moodle solutions, some of which also provide integration services. Some will even train our staff to prepare us to work with users.

With that in mind, I’ve done a cursory look through some of the offerings. Again, the criteria are:

  1. Hosting (price, storage, bandwidth)
  2. Integration (price, Banner, Luminis portal)
  3. Support (maintenance agreement)
  4. Training

Here are the major players measured against the criteria above:

  • Remote Learner – adequate hosting for $1500 on up, server support for $2000-3500 annually which would probably include help with integration. It looks like we would be largely on our own for training – they have some affordable options but they are far away and limited in scope.
  • Moodle Rooms – adequate hosting for $1500 on up, with “customization” on a call-for-a-quote basis. They have done a Banner/Luminis integration project before. Training is expensive at $2500+ per class. 
  • Classroom Revolution – adequate hosting for $1299 on up. Support is limited without an additional contract ($60/hr or $800/year for online support). They will do “customization” but don’t note any experience with Banner/Luminis on their website. They do offer a more affordable online training option ($500) along with an expensive onsite one ($2000+).

Please remember that this is a quick summary based mostly on websites. When I say “adequate” hosting I mean generally “one notch above the minimum”, or something that we could start with and scale up a bit with no additional upcharge. Support and customization are an unknown quantity since I haven’t seen any Service Level Agreements from any of these firms.

backing up your data

I’ve worked with a number of individuals lately who are interested in fast, easy, comprehensive backup solutions. Let me begin by saying that this is a tall order indeed! The new wave of cheap, large external hard drives such as the Maxtor One-Touch line promise just that – a complete backup that requires only a second of a user’s time. I must insist that this scenario is too good to be true.

Here are the main things I want from a backup:

  • Cheap
  • Fast
  • Easy to recover files
  • Copies at offsite location 

So, how does an external hard drive stack up?

An incremental backup to an external device is nice, and could be invaluable if a laptop is dropped or stolen, a hard drive goes corrupt, or files are deleted. However if there is a fire, burglary, or flood it is likely that the external drive will be compromised as well as the original data source. External hard drives are no substitute for backups to removable media. I do NOT mean USB flash drives. They are too easily damaged, lost, or put through the laundry. 

What about CD-R or DVD-R?

 Until something faster comes along, I like frequent backups to optical media. Then some of the backup discs should be stored offsite (read: take your work backup home and vice versa). CD and DVD media are quite cheap and drives are getting quite fast.

So why don’t users typically sustain an offsite backup? There are tradeoffs involved. It certainly takes time and effort, but so does recreating hundreds of documents and e-mails from printed records. And what about digital photos? I personally have over 3 years of irreplaceable digital photos that do not exist in printed form. Because of the importance of this pictures, I pay for an online service to store my digital photo backup. Photos like this are worth every bit of time and effort it takes to periodically back up. Unfortunately most users don’t learn this lesson until it is too late.

Until such time as Illinois Wesleyan can afford to support large-scale centralized data storage with offsite backups our users will continue to be responsible for their own backups.  Whenever I’m asked my opinion I will continue to recommend a dual approach – onsite incremental backups to an external device, along with regular backups to removable media which go to offsite storage. I only hope the message gets through!

technology we are thinking about

I’d like to share with you a few things that we are checking out in the Office of IT. These aren’t things we are committed to at this stage but if you have an opinion I’d like to hear it!

  • Moodle, an open-source alternative to Blackboard or WebCT. Moodle provides a set of course tools that include wikis, online quizzes, and grade books.
  • RSS Feed readers like Bloglines, Google Reader, and Mozilla Thunderbird. Check out the great video explaining the meaning of RSS.
  • web meeting capability, using WebEx or Adobe Connect
  • Confluence, a wiki-based tool for managing shared online workspaces.