Monthly Archives: January 2008

Eudora might not be dead after all…

I suspect that most users don’t think too much about software choices. They use what is available or what is familiar. In many cases any gain in productivity made by switching to a different application for a given task is offset by the labor and training required by the switch itself.

E-mail is one case where this trade-off needs to be more closely examined. Eudora is widely used at IWU but is no longer supported by Qualcomm. Thunderbird is a popular free and open source e-mail application. It does a great job supporting things like authenticated outgoing mail (needed for sending mail from off-campus) and IMAP (needed for storing and manipulating incoming mail on the server) while Eudora has not done so well working with these technologies.  This would not be a big problem if it were easy to switch from Eudora to Thunderbird. Unfortunately the import procedure is anything but smooth if there is a lot of mail involved. And one thing is for sure – people keep a lot of mail.

Recently a development has occurred that brings me hope – Eudora has stopped developing their old code and begun to build Eudora 8.0 based on the core of Thunderbird. So the underpinnings will work well with the protocols we need here at IWU, but there will be user interface features borrowed from the “classic” Eudora design. In the recently released beta (test) version of Eudora 8 the following features were announced:

  • menu structures will be similar to classic Eudora
  • shortcut keys will largely be the same as classic Eudora
  • mailbox list can be separated from the actual mailbox
  • improved importing from classic Eudora to new Eudora, including filters and address book

My hope is that the new Eudora 8 will provide a smooth transition from the old unsupported classic versions into a much more productive, supported Thunderbird-based e-mail application without trading away any ease of use AND without a painful upgrade process.

 Please note that Eudora 8 is in beta test and SHOULD NOT be installed on University computers.

If you’d like to read more, here is an article from Wired Magazine about the release:

http://blog.wired.com/monkeybites/2007/09/mozilla-resurre.html

Online quizzes!

Last week I took a look at Moodle and tried creating a quiz using the “regular” method – using menus and buttons to navigate graphically through the process of making categories for questions, then populating these categories to form a test bank, then actually putting questions together. It turns out that this is a slow process. I thought that there would be a better way, especially since most teachers already have questions defined from past terms.

There is indeed a faster way. Moodle can import 12 different types of quiz files, including Blackboard and WebCT. The quickest way to go, however, is probably the GIFT format. This is a simple text-based format that uses a variety of delimiters for different purposes. For example, if I want to create a multiple choice quiz I could start by making a plain text file like this, indicating correct answers with “=”:

How many glasses of water per day should a person drink?{~15 ~0 =8}

What is the best type of donut? {~sprinkles ~jelly-filled =eclair}

The GIFT format allows a wide variety of questions: multiple choice, true/false, “missing word”, short answer, even essay. If your answers are numeric you may provide a margin of error. In my first example, for instance, I could say that any answer within 10% of the correct answer would still be graded as correct. 

Here is another example question, this time in matching format:

Match the following IWU departments with their corresponding buildings. {

    =Theatre -> McPherson

    =IT  -> IT House

    =Admissions  -> Holmes

    =Mathematics  -> CNS

}

There are also provisions for feedback to be given for certain question types, describing why an answer was correct or incorrect.  

It wouldn’t take a lot of work to reformat an existing quiz in Word to fit these patterns. It is also possible that existing test banks that come along with textbooks may already be formatted in one of the Moodle-compatible formats. Once the questions are inside a Moodle course page you can add a quiz wherever you’d like in your course outline (Week 8, topic #4, etc). Next week I’ll add a quiz and get my IT House colleagues to try it out!

evaluating Moodle

I’ve spent a little bit of time evaluating a test installation of Moodle, the open-source course management tool. This tool is becoming quite popular at institutions similar to Illinois Wesleyan, but we still don’t know much about what it offers.

The basic idea is that a teacher will get to create a web space for each course, accessible only to students enrolled in the course. The web space can be structured in a number of formats. The most popular seem to be either “weekly” or “task-based”, which divide your course up either chronologically or topically. Here is a screenshot of a Moodle course homepage, from the teacher’s perspective:

a course page in Moodle

There is an overlap between the tools available in Moodle and those within the MyIWU course tools, such as news and calendars. On the other hand, there are some features that are quite nice. For each week or topic in my course I can create “activities” or “resources”. Here is a screenshot displaying available “activities”:

a course page in Moodle

 As you can see, the array of options is dizzying. I haven’t tried them all, but I did try adding a quiz. I had to first create a test bank of questions, then set up quiz options (how many points, can a student retest, etc). I plan on learning ways to import test banks from other formats soon. I also plan on asking some of my IT colleagues to try taking a quiz to test the usability from the student perspective.

Here is a screenshot of available “resources”:

a course page in Moodle

I created text pages and web pages using Moodle and was pleasantly surprised with the final product and the usability of the tool. It was fast and easy to create a simple document for students that included images. This would be an excellent way to deliver an online handout related to a reading assignment at a particular point in a semester.

Next time around I plan on trying a wiki and importing quizzes into Moodle!