Friday, February 27, 2009

Struggling with centrally-offered tools

Hitting the target, but missing the bullseye?

I have to admit that lately I've been having a hard time feeling enthused about the suite of IT tools that are available from and supported by our central IT unit on campus...particularly when these tools are examined through the lens of teaching and learning. (Disclaimer here: I am gratefully and happily employed by the same central IT division so my goal here is not to rail on anyone or any group. Rather, I hope to articulate something I have felt but not coherently realized till rather recently.)

Earlier this week, a colleague and I were invited by an instructor to come to his graduate class and "give a demo of the collaborative tools that are available at UW". I thought this should not be that hard of a request to fulfill.

As my colleague and I prepped for the demo, we put together a list of likely tools to demo:
- Xythos, our campus file storage and web space system
- Desire2Learn Learning Environment, our primary learning management system
- WiscChat, our Jabber-based instant messaging system
- WiscCal, our Oracle-based shared calendar system
- Adobe Connect, our live meeting system

I felt a dilemma when I considered the nature of the course. The course happens to be a GIS/urban planning course on mapping mashups. The two instructors and their students are already participating fully in today's online world...or they will be very soon. The instructor had a Wordpress blog created for the course. He was discussing the merits of open source GIS software. In class, he was extolling Google Earth, Google Maps, and KML. I realized that these folks are not cutting-edge techno-pioneers...they are typical professionals (or professionals-to-be) wanting to stay current in their field.

The centrally-available tools above do have their strengths and have been enlisted to meet certain needs of the past.

For collaboration, Xythos provides a secure and robust file and web storage space. D2L gives students a group space for sharing files and a traditional discussion board for asynchronous communication. WiscChat and WiscCal, like the other tools, are available to all students and staff through a single campus ID.

However, as soon as I began thinking about what the students really need, I became rather disheartened. For their group projects in this course, students need to be able create mashups and share them with others. Students need to be able to share resources they discovered with others. Students need to be able to show their finished product to each other and to future or current employers not associated with UW.

The aforementioned campus tools seemed to fall short of what the students really needed.

One tool was different. Adobe Connect raised our enthusiasm levels...but why? It meets their need to connect with each other while the instructor is out of state a few times during the course. Additionally, it's a very cool tool: multiple live video feeds, ability to share presentations or even desktops, and it's available at no cost to the instructor or students.

We also briefly mentioned that they might consider using Google Docs to collaboratively create documents and presentations. We also mentioned that they might find pbwiki easy to use.

When these topics were raised, a number of people nodded their heads in agreement. Many of the students have already used these modern web apps and know how well they work.

Unlike when I gave virtually the same demo to a similar course 2+ years earlier, students' expectations have been affected by the proliferation of Web 2.0 tools. Our campus tools feel clunky and outdated by comparison.

In the end, I'm optimistic that the students will find tools to meet their group work needs. I just won't wager that those tools will be found in the current UW tool set.

"bulls eye" photo credit:

Monday, February 02, 2009

Desire2Learn usage at UW-Madison

Now that the fall semester has ended (yikes, January and the Super Bowl have passed too!), I checked in on the data regarding D2L (Learn@UW) use here at UW. My hunch is that the trends we are seeing here reflect trends in other North American universities.

Active Course Sites
This is the stat most commonly referenced on campus, probably because it is the easiest to first. This is the number of course sites that were activated by instructors over the course of a semester. This data includes "non-timetable" courses such as used for non-credit outreach courses and internal administration. The trend shows a general increase but not at as dramatic a pace as in previous years. Obviously, there is a natural limit that will be reached for official timetable courses. The last time I compared this data with total number of courses offered, we were at approximately 30%.

Unique Users in Activated Course Sites
How many different people are we serving through our central course management system? Again, this measure is trending upward towards a logical upper limit. I am amazed that we are serving over 30,000 different people each semester. At UW, there are approximately 42,000 students and 2,000 faculty (not including the plethora of TA's and lecturers who are big users of the CMS).

Total Enrollments in Active Course Sites
This is where, I think, things get interesting. This is one stat that seems to still show linear upward growth. "Total Enrollments" is the sum of every course's total number of members, instructors + students. This data shows that the typical user has more courses in Learn@UW now than in the past. I wonder when we will hit the point where courses that do not have an online component are in the minority.

Help Desk Cases
Although not yet updated with Fall 2008 data, this too is quite interesting and satisfying. Although we are seeing a general increase in use of Learn@UW, use of the Help Desk for Learn@UW is not increasing proportionally. In fact, there's evidence that it might be decreasing.

This data does not show the total amount of support provided for Learn@UW across campus, just those official cases coming through the campus Help Desk. Hopefully, this data shows that more people are using Learn@UW without the need for support. Fewer bugs exist in the software than ever before. Performance and up-time have been outstanding for the past 6 months, at least. And indeed, there is something to be said for users' familiarity with a complex system.

Obviously, numbers are only part of the story. The real story lies within each course and in the value derived by the instructors and students. That's why I still love to be involved with faculty at workshops, brown bags, and 1-1 consultations. I enjoy hearing directly from them what is working, what needs improving, and ideas on how we can help.