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Commentary

Class evaluations bring down CTools during exam week

Found in my inbox on Thursday April 23, 2009 6:13:28 PM:

Unfortunately, technical problems make it impossible for us to resume collecting Teaching Questionnaire responses via CTools for this term. We recognize this is an immense disappointment to our students who may not have had the opportunity to submit their feedback.

All evaluations that were submitted before Monday at 9:00 p.m. have been successfully received. This feedback will be included in the reports that your instructor receives after the term ends.

We apologize for this inconvenience.

This email follows a series (1, 2) of CTools outages caused by the Teaching Questionnaire, colloquially and ubiquitously known as the class evaluation. Today's outages were so severe that all CTools servers needed to be restarted.

That an added module can destabilize the entire CTools system highlights the twisted nature of the system. Instead of modules being based off a safe, tested API that can be controlled, there seems to be some mess of hackery going on in the background. And it's not clear that Sakai 3, coming long after I've left, will make any significant changes. (however, in typical open source fashion, developers have already added some half-baked web2.0 "features")

This is a serious academic problem, too. Student feedback from the Questionnaire is used to assess faculty performance in tenure and promotion decisions.

The Residential College has stuck with its carbon-copy paper form. At least they'll know what happened in their classes this year.

23 Apr. | Comments (0)

Vignette reference of the [week,month,semester]

Certain LS&A staff will recognize the following reference to the much-loved Vignette content management system:

Mickey Mouse

23 Apr. | Comments (0)

Commentary on CTools

CTools is bad because it tries to do things that everyone else does, but differently. Everyone else refers to the folks who build commercial web applications -- 37Signals, Google, Yahoo...

There is no cohesive design for the features it holds. One section may use links for navigation, another HTML input buttons. The back button might work in some places, not in others.

This is because there is no design document, like Apple's Human Interface Guidelines, that directs CTools design.

The back button does not work on most pages.

New sections of a workspace cannot be opened in tabs.

The design and hierarchy has not been changed in years. A huge portion of screen real estate is used by the CTools banner. Hello, we know we're using CTools. More space is used to list all the sites a user is subscribed to.

The profusion of irrelevant "news" and Microsoft clipart on the CTools homepage shows that no-one with a vision is in charge. I'm not an instructor; why do I see news intended for them? The "news" link in My Workspace has content from 2003.

CTools offers no guidelines on how to organize content or facilitate online discussion. There are specific strategies for posting documents that will maximize their findability; I doubt. My list, a 20 page report, is available for $899 a copy, postage paid.

Professors continue to mandate posting to a discussion forum at regular intervals, a task that has no educational value. Here's a tip: nearly no-one puts any effort into this. The only good use of forums I have seen is in EECS 280, where students must ask any programming question online, so others can benefit from their answers. This only works because (a) the audience is accustomed to the practice of asking questions in online forums, and (b) the information on the forums is vital to the completion of course projects.

The chat feature, which could be used to create as back-channel where GSIs can answer questions during large lectures or office hours, is nearly never used.

The calendar is an over-specified joke.

You can't get data out of CTools -- no RSS, no email notifications, no iCal.

Important changes that break features are rolled out at the beginning of the academic year, instead of during downtime.

The organization is as transparent as a brick wall. No-one knows when or why things will change.

In three years using it, there has been zero progress visible to me or announced on any of the lists I'm subscribed to.

The state of CTools depends people like me -- people who stop caring after four years. University Administrators -- LSA IT, ITCS, department managers, and everyone else, has have lived with the system so long that it's not worth the effort to ask for change. There is pressure from no-one because the system isn't working so horribly that no-one can use it. It can just sit there wasting money.

2 Nov. | Comments (1)

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Class evaluations bring down CTools during exam week

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