Commentary archives

April 23, 2009

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.

Posted by hampelm at 09:57 PM | 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

Posted by hampelm at 06:06 PM | Comments (0)

November 02, 2008

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.

Posted by hampelm at 04:31 PM | Comments (1)

October 24, 2008

Money available for doing creative things with technology in courses

The LSA Information Technology Committee has a significant pool of funds available for faculty who want to use technology in new and innovative ways in undergraduate classes. Grants of up to $5000 are not difficult to get -- there is a simple online application process.

Grants for larger projects -- up to $15,000, and even higher are also available. Those larger requests require more discussion and documentation, of course.

Grants are not competitive. Committee members and LSA Instructional Support Staff are happy to work with faculty to produce a valuable proposal.

Please submit a proposal if you believe you have a valuable idea. Level 1 grants -- up to $5000 -- are awarded on a rolling basis.

Posted by hampelm at 10:01 PM | Comments (0)

September 26, 2008

Tip: Don't go live on a site before filling in the boilerplate

As the MSA found out today with a mass announcement about their Homecoming Site:

Stuff that sounds good
Save the environment

Gieran: write some stuff for this text box

Posted by hampelm at 11:40 AM | Comments (0)

September 12, 2008

Which one of these is a link?

The big blue text?
The small blue text?
The bold blue text?
The bold tan text?
The words that say "Get your answers here"?

Click the photo for the suspenseful reveal!


Found on the current LSA gateway

Posted by hampelm at 03:53 PM | Comments (0)

Does anyone like Vignette?

Despite the fact that around 54 LS&A units use the Vignette CMS (PDF warning!), I have heard a total of zero staff members actually involved in day-to-day web work praise the system. Staff dislike using it; developers dislike coding for it.

n.b. Responses from LSA administrators involved in the purchasing process were not considered.

Posted by hampelm at 03:30 PM | Comments (0)

September 08, 2008

New CTools in the planning?

So is the rumor. No word yet on who's involved, but you can bet that one gentleman with the uniquename CSEV is in the room.

With luck, us mere mortals will hear about the planning process before it's over, so we can give input into the tools we need to use.

Posted by hampelm at 08:19 PM | Comments (0)

September 06, 2008

Does CTools test before releasing? Apparently not.

From the CTools homepage:

Attention: Problem With Manually Adding Users to Sites

There is a minor bug introduced in the latest CTools upgrade that may prevent you from manually adding participants to your CTools site. The bug is apparently triggered when selecting the option to send an email notification to the participant being added.

Either that, or it's gotten so bloated that they can't even run tests against basic functionality.

Hint: avoid changes to important features at the beginning of the term.

Posted by hampelm at 08:14 PM | Comments (0)

September 04, 2008

MBlog can't handle spam

FieldGuide was overwhelmed by comment spam earlier this month. I've cleaned it up. Sadly, UM is so far behind the times in dealing with the internet that this system doesn't have a simple captcha or blocklist.

This time last year, I wrote about spam blogs on MBlog:

As with every blogging service, your favorite pills store is represented. (more spam blogs here, here, here, here, here, and here).

And I filed a trouble ticket on 8/27/07. Scott Martin, Patrick Mcneal, Jennifer Nardine from the MBlog team were assigned to fix the problem. All the blogs still exist.

Posted by hampelm at 08:07 PM | Comments (0)

July 09, 2008

On automated translation and University websites

Unfortunately, all automated web translation services (Google Translate, Babelfish...) make usage mistakes that damage the reputation of the site and the institution. Unless you're using an automated system solely for personal / internal cases, it's almost always better to either hire a translation service or to not do any translation at all until you have that capacity.

If the institution in question offers foreign-language services, the relevant staff could also proofread the automated translation services' output before it is posted. If the institution doesn't offer foreign-language services, the value of providing translated materials is questionable and may even be misleading. (unless the materials are broadcast-oriented or targeted to a specific audience, like health pamphlets, which should never be machine translated)

(crossposted from www-sig)

Posted by hampelm at 02:20 PM | Comments (0)

June 18, 2008

MCommunity on the way, UMOD being phased out

Good news from MCommunity via Katarina Thomas, the project manager.

We are working on an LDAP interface to MCommunity that will provide read (and, for certain attributes, write) access to this data. We are targeting release of this interface for the start of Winter Term 2009. At that time, we also plan to replace the current web interface to UMOD with a new web interface to MCommunity.

The team is asking developers to hold off on UMOD directory,

We encourage units that are planning any future services with dependencies on the directory to plan on data lookups either to MCommunity via the LDAP interface or to the HR PeopleSoft table

UMOD is to be phased out by Summer 2009.

Posted by hampelm at 11:38 AM | Comments (0)

May 07, 2008

RC dev blog: putting my money where my mouth is

I've been complaining about a lack of transparency in the web development processes happening at Michigan. But of course, I haven't really put my money where my mouth is (there have been a couple twitter messages, and a couple blog posts -- but nothing serious)

So, I've started a blog that lists what we're working on now and what we'll be doing in the future.

Perhaps few are interested now. Perhaps few ever will be. But the process is out there, open for anyone to read.

There is absolutely no reason for secrecy -- we want anyone who has a take in the website to be able to get involved -- or at least stay informed.

Other development blogs:
View Source from Cornell
Your link here (oh, wait, you don't have a public dev blog)

Posted by hampelm at 11:25 AM | Comments (0)

May 06, 2008

May Web Accessibility meeting

The Web Accessibility Working Group weblog reminds us that the next meeting is Tuesday the 13th at 1pm in 100 North Hatcher.

These meetings are always informative, no matter your level of knowledge; here's the agenda:

1) Update from our meeting with the Vice President for Communication's Web Access Committee meeting.

2) Round Table Discussion. Please come prepared to talk about the following:

-How does your department define accessible?
-Does your department attempt to comply with a particular standard, priority level, etc.?
-What specific tools do you use to measure success?
-What is your favorite tool?
-One tip you could offer...

Feel free to join us if you don't have answers to these questions and just want to hear what others have to say.

Posted by hampelm at 04:45 PM | Comments (0)

May 03, 2008

What to call admissions

I did a quick survey of how a bunch of schools name their admissions sections. There's only a little variation in the schools I've looked at; I believe there's value in picking the industry standard.

Umich, UCLA:
Prospective Students

Future Students

Admissions & Financial Aid

Admissions & Aid

admissions+financial aid

Apply to Berkeley

Bard, Stanford:

Penn, Middlebury, Yale, Tufts, Stanford, Chicago, UIC, Baylor, Cornell, NYU, RPI:

Posted by hampelm at 06:07 PM | Comments (0)

March 22, 2008

The strange vocabulary of MAIS

I subscribed to the MAIS service management blog a couple months ago in the hopes that it would promote openness and transparency. It's turned into some strange type of FAQ, one with its own internal language.

MAIS stands for, Michigan Administrative Information Services, a department(?) which has managed to construct it's own hyper-language that mere mortals cannot understand. Witness:

Apparently there are citizens called "T2 people". T2 somehow integrates with "OLA information".

If you're not T2, apparently you might be B&F.

There are some usability issues, too: 1, 2, 3(!)

Citizens of this world seem to have trouble with acronyms and naming, too.

Find more from this foggy window into the MAIS kingdom here: If you understand any of these acronyms, or have managed to surreptitiously copy whatever cypher book they come out of, please call me urgently: 734 846 5010.

Posted by hampelm at 05:50 PM | Comments (0)

March 07, 2008

CTools acknowledges bug, fix time is enterprise-quality

CTools acknowledged that the system will send out blank notification emails, a situation apparently important enough to warrant the global message quoted below. Interesting to note is estimated time-to-fix, "a few weeks," a wait long enough to make any software developer wince. Ctools is notorious for moving slowly, but this is somewhat ridiculous.

Instructors: Blank Resource Notification Bug

Please note that a bug was introduced with the last release of CTools that causes blank Notifications to be sent from the Resources tool. Students still receive the email notification, but there is no content in the body of the email message. As a workaround to this issue we recommend using the Announcements tool when you'd like your students to know that a new Resource is avaiable. We apologize for the inconvenience and expect to have the bug fixed with the next release of CTools in a few weeks.

Posted by hampelm at 08:41 PM | Comments (0)

January 23, 2008

WAWG Meeting Minutes, January 15, 2008

Via Patty Bradley and the WAWG

The purpose of the January 15th meeting was to brainstorm on our upcoming brown bag series.

First Brown Bag Session

We decided to hold the brown bag series on the first Tuesday of each month, beginning on February 5th from 1:00-2:30 PM in 100 North Hatcher. You can register at our SiteMaker site

The first session is intended for our group and other interested participants -- e.g., UM web folks who are already concerned about web accessibility. We can use it as kind of a dress rehearsal for more highly-publicized campus-wide sessions. Topics (whatever we can get through in the time allotted) are as follows:

  • Top 10 best practices (Patty)
  • Top 10 worst offenses
  • Overview and comparison of the various standards
  • The art of interpreting accessibility checker reports (this could allow us a chance to critique each other's sites) (Patty)
  • Automating the process of changing from table-based to CSS-based layouts
  • Tools and strategies
  • CTools/SiteMaker

(As you can see, I [Patty] put my name next to two items. Any takers on the others?)

At the Feb 5th meeting we will also identify working groups, sub groups, central funding or volunteer funding and share tools.

As for the first Tuesday in March, I have a conflict at 1 PM that cannot be changed. We can discuss alternatives.

Subsequent Brown Bag Sessions

We talked about possible locations for future brown bag sessions, which we will want to video-tape:

  • Duderstadt Center
  • LSA Media Services
  • Dentistry
  • School of Public Health
  • Undergraduate Science Building

Mike Creech (U Library) has around 500 copies of a U of Wisconsin web accessibility guide that he can hand out at our sessions. Services for Students with Disabilities will be able to provide some sandwiches. We are still talking about recruiting some students with disabilities to demonstrate how they use the web.

Possible topics for future sessions:

  • Standards
  • How to tech presentations
  • Demos from users
  • reading a Bobby report
  • Validation
  • retrofitting
  • automate table conversion to content (separate content from style)
  • "why" topics (eg. Why is CSS important, Why do ALT tags help)
  • 10 best practices
  • What's the well-intentioned blunder
  • swapmeets
  • tools, problems
  • UM institutional standards
  • Panel discussions
  • Intros to different validators & tools
  • Guidelines
  • 10 worst problems
  • Overview / comparison of standards
  • pick a site, work on it

Non-Brown Bag Issues

We talked about the need for a stronger identity for our group, including a catchy name for our brownbag series ("Accessibility First") and a logo. Edie Andrews proposed a logo that encompasses the Braille rendering of our block M. She also had the idea that we could allow people to place the logo on their sites, and have it link back to a page that explains web accessibility, how to get more info, and the opportunity to provide feedback on the accessibility of the site.

Edie showed me an e-mail call for applications for the 2009 Alumnae Council Birthday Greeting award. I checked on it, and our group does not meet the guidelines ("The proposed project should have a direct relationship to the advancement of women at U-M. Preference is given to projects that intend to involve and/or impact a large number of women.")

We discussed the newly formed Provost's Committee to look into the accessibility of UM websites. Members are reported to be:

-David Campy [?]
-Jack Bernard
-Anthony Walesby
-John King
-Sam Goodin


Joinable UMOD group: webaccess
joinable CTools site: UM Web Accessibilty

Posted by hampelm at 10:26 PM | Comments (0)

January 10, 2008

Web Accessibility Brainstorming Meeting 1/15/08

Updated 13 Jan. with new location information.

Cross-posted from the Web Accesbility Working Group's blog:

All interested parties should feel free to attend our UM Web Accessibility Working Group brainstorming meeting to plan an upcoming brownbag series. The meeting will be held on Jan. 15th from 1:00-2:30 PM.

You are free to drop in, and can also register on the SiteMaker site:

The location for the Jan 15th meeting has been changed to:
Hatcher Graduate Library
Hatcher North, 1st floor, room 100

Contact Patty Bradley ( for more information.

See also: web accessibility on the ITCS wiki; the Web Accessibility Working Group blog.

Posted by hampelm at 06:28 PM | Comments (0)

December 12, 2007

University of Michigan IT jobs mailing list

Ronald D. Loveless and Ruth A write:

I speak on behalf of the IT Commons Stewards. We have created a joinable e-mail group titled, The purpose of this e-mail group is to advertise IT job opportunities across the UM campus. Posting to this e-mail group is optional and in addition to what units post to the eMploy site.

The IT Commons stewards believe that we should take advantage of the communication network here at the University of Michigan to better broadcast IT job opportunities. The eMploy system is useful for those actively seeking employment. But it is not so useful for “getting the word� out about IT job opportunities that occur across the campus. Additionally, many of us are connected to various IT professional associations and contacts outside of the UM. It is anticipated that some of you may forward these job postings thus promoting the recruitment potential for existing job opportunities here at Michigan.

I hope you will find this a useful way to become aware of IT job opportunities at Michigan, or to further advertise IT job opportunities that arise in your unit.

To subscribe, go to the directory entry and click "Join".

Posted by hampelm at 02:51 PM | Comments (0)

November 17, 2007

Bad Designs on Campus Winners

The winners of the Bad Designs on Campus contest have been announced.

Of note to Michigan developers is winning entry number three: there should be a login box on the frontpage of the webmail system. This is a basic usability problem that shows up in many UM web applications (mPrint, mfile).

Posted by hampelm at 06:22 PM | Comments (1)

November 01, 2007

World Usability Day Conference at MSU

Michigan State University is hosting its fifth annual usability & accessibility event on Nov 8. Best of all it's free! Full details can be found at

Posted by samuelpj at 09:16 PM | Comments (0)

October 24, 2007

2nd Annual Bad Designs on Campus Contest

The contest is open:

Have you ever run into a campus door because you pushed it on the wrong side? Couldn’t figure out how to control the lights in a lecture room? Been frustrated with the online interface for Wolverine Access or other university websites? Here’s your chance to vent your frustrations with bad designs that you have to deal with on campus, and potentially win a prize!

Posted by hampelm at 01:01 PM | Comments (0)

October 17, 2007

Investing in Ability week

Investing in Ability week at Michigan is October 19-26. Of particular interest to web professionals may be:

Monday, October 22:

UMHS Disability Challenge
Time: 11 a.m. - 1 p.m.
Description: Experience simulations to help you understand disability issues, and see innovative tools and devices to overcome barriers.
Location: University Hospital 2nd floor Triangle

Wednesday, October 24:

People with Disabilities and their Daily Lives
Time: 11 a.m. - 12 p.m.
Description: Carolyn Grawi from the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living speaks on the issues and barriers that people with disabilities face daily.
Location: Biomedical Science Research Building Auditorium (109 Zina Pitcher Place, corner of Huron and Washtenaw)


Adaptive Technology Computing Site Open House
Time: 2 p.m. - 4 p.m.
Description: Learn about and use screen magnifiers, screen readers, scanner-readers, speech recognition, ergonomic seating, motorized adjustable height work stations, track balls and more.
Location: Room B-136, Ground floor, Shapiro Undergraduate Library

Posted by hampelm at 11:30 PM | Comments (0)

October 12, 2007

Welcome to Field Guide

Field Guide is a resource for digital developers at the University of Michigan. Our goal is to make the new in our digital empire findable and extensible.

We collect and post the tools and ideas discussed on www-sig, the UM web special interest group; from communications and presentations around campus; and from individual contributors.

We also present new releases, redesigns and refreshes at Michigan, along with an analysis of their content, design, and architecture.

Your contributions make this site: you can send anything of interest to

Posted by hampelm at 04:32 PM | Comments (0)