UW News

April 30, 2009

Two new tools for UW teachers: An online grade book and photos of their students

News and Information

A shortage of number two pencils has caused a change in the way the UW handles its grade reports.

No, not really. Actually, a series of technological advances is leading to dramatic improvements in online course management tools available to faculty, including the creation of an online grade book, which will lead eventually to the retirement of graphite-based record keeping.

For the first time, faculty members in winter quarter were able to submit final course grades online using a brand new tool, Catalyst Gradebook. Instructors submitted 52,375 grades online, or about 49 percent of all grades submitted on time. Faculty can use Gradebook to keep track throughout the quarter of students’ grades on class assignments and quizzes, and then securely share this information with the students.

In addition, when faculty now go to MyUW, click on Teaching and then on the “Class List” icon, the list of students in each of their classes is displayed along with photos. All 7,543 course sections on the three campuses now contain photos with the class list.

Both developments have been greeted with accolades from users.

“I wanted to let those know who were involved in creating the electronic grading system just how valuable it is and how much appreciated,” said Ann Downer, executive director of the International Training & Education Center on HIV. “It is an extremely significant innovation for me, given my travel schedule and the difficulty I experienced in submitting paper-based grade reports. The new Gradebook system is more evidence to me that I belong to a great University.”

“[Photo Class List is] one of the very best developments in a long time. What a huge difference it makes!” said June [Lowenberg], a faculty member at UWT, as quoted on the registrar’s blog. Added Amy Lynn Chervenak, “I am in love with the new feature where one can see the students’ names with their faces. This was the best idea ever and it’s really going to help me engage with my students.”

Todd Mildon, the registrar, has overheard students expressing surprise when they raised their hand in a large class and the instructor called on them by name. For several years Mildon has received pleas from faculty for both services, but the technology available at the time made such innovations prohibitively expensive.

The secret to these innovations is the development of a technology platform based on what are called Web services, which allows developers to create a public-facing Web page that combines data from a number of different sources. Once the technology platform was in place — in this case, initially for the Gradebook application — the development of subsequent applications, including Photo Class List, could occur very quickly.

Perhaps the real innovation, over and above the technology, occurred when several offices collaborated on developing the applications. These included the Registrar, Office of Information Management, UW Technology, Learning & Scholarly Technologies — as well as several academic units, including the College of Education, the Graduate School, Computer Science & Engineering, and Biology. This collaboration, which is ongoing, is done under the auspices of a Web service community, which consists of a discussion group, project teams, a technical committee, and a leadership group. The individuals who formed the teams responsible for the Web services needed for GradeBook and the Photo Class List would meet — not monthly or even weekly but often daily; they came from a variety of backgrounds and orientations, working together driven by their common goal. Everyone involved in the project was doing this in addition to his or her “normal” job.

“The challenge has been how to extract data from our old mainframe computers,” says Tom Lewis, director of online technologies for Learning and Scholarly Technologies. “The Academic Technology Advisory Committee charged Catalyst with finding ways of making it easier for faculty to manage courses online, but we quickly realized this was something we couldn’t do on our own.”

To say the need was acute is perhaps an understatement. Class lists in the old system would often be out of date, especially in the first two weeks of classes, frustrating faculty and students. Submitting grades was entirely on paper, presenting all kinds of challenges — including the transporting of large stacks of grade reports for electronic scanning from Schmitz to the Roosevelt Commons, and retrieving many of the reports from the box outside Schmitz, which some would mistake for an actual Postal Service mailbox, while others would use as a trash can.

“In addition, the technology we were using for printing grades is obsolete,” says Mildon. “It’s the wrong technology for what we’re doing here. We were running out of people who could repair the line printers, we were dependent on outmoded scanning technology and we were relying on distributing the information by hand, which presents its own security issues.”

Lewis and Mildon describe the project as “setting the data free.” What used to be a process that had to occur in batches is now occurring in nearly real-time. Mildon believes that the new services are in fact more secure than their predecessors. “We’ve involved some of best security folks from UW Technology and the Office of Information Management in this project. We’ve had officers in ASUW and GPSS sign off on the projects, and we’ve created the applications in such a way that only those who have a legitimate education interest can have access to the information. In the process of project development, we’ve developed new protocols for Web security of student information. We did this with Gradebook and then were able to take advantage of the infrastructure for the Photo Class List.”

Some units played a key role in application development. For example, when the team was looking at Gradebook, it consulted with Dan Boren, senior computer specialist in Computer Science & Engineering, who had developed an online grade book for his department. He worked with the team as they designed and built the campus-wide structure.

Since Gradebook was released last September, over 5,000 GradeBooks have been created by 2,463 instructors. More than 45,000 students have received over 700,000 grades through the new system.

For the photo application, the team consulted Mary Pat Wenderoth, senior lecturer in Biology, and Dave Hurley, manager of departmental computing in Biology. Wenderoth and Hurley had developed a class list application for Biology, known as BioPics, and it was so popular in Biology that Wenderoth began working on taking it universitywide. She began lining up support for the expansion, and in her role as chair of the Faculty Council on Instructional Quality, contacted a variety of groups, including ASUW and GPSS, the Office of Educational Assessment, and the Center for Instructional Development and Research, among others. She proposed Class C legislation on the subject for the Faculty Senate, which was endorsed unanimously by the Senate Executive Committee and adopted by the Senate as well.

The project was developed on a fast track and went live near the end of March, with all 7,543 course sections on three campuses having a photo list associated with it. “It turned out,” says Wenderoth, “that they were able to do this very fast once they started working on it because of all they had learned about making the databases work together in the online grading project.”

“It’s really nice that the university is doing this,” Wenderoth says. “In such a difficult time as this, it’s good to have something that makes the University seem smaller and more personal.”

The two applications actually are working together, so that instructors will soon see student photos when they are entering information in Gradebook.

Mildon says he’s had to keep in mind the sensitive nature of the data involved in both projects. “We don’t want mistakes involving thousands of student records to appear online. We have to maintain our diligence regarding issues of legal compliance. But that doesn’t mean we’re anti-change.”

Lewis says that the same approach – bringing together diverse units to work on common problems that can be addressed in the Web Services environment – is now under way in a number of other areas. “The current financial climate provides an opportunity for projects like this. We know that there are going to be fewer local investments, and that if we want to do useful things we need to work together on projects that cross traditional boundaries. These kinds of projects are likely to have a great impact on how we do business.”