Friday, October 14, 2005

WebCT's Vista: Coming soon to a campus near you

The CSU system is in the middle of a transition (it's more than an upgrade) from WebCT Campus Edition to WebCT Vista. Of course, if you're not at Central, you may not have noticed. CCSU is piloting the transition and is running a couple dozen courses on the new system this semester. They are also hosting training sessions this month. I went to the introductory sessions last week.

If you are used to Campus Edition (CE), Vista is different. The underlying technology is different, a flat database (think Excel file) vs. an Oracle relational database (think Access on steroids). In CE, you had limited choices and a fairly fixed organizational structure. In Vista, the opportunities, and the decisions, have multiplied. It's actually a little hard to compare them, especially since I haven't used CE much, but also because the underlying...hmm...philosophy is different.

The overall organizational structure is Server -> Institution -> School -> Department -> Course -> Section. Those with privileges at higher levels have access to the lower levels, but most faculty will be teaching at the Section level. It will be possible to combine sections to have one big class of all the sections you are teaching, which makes updating easier, but then you have to deal with the potential interactions. You can also split a section into groups, and assign different materials, including quizzes, to different groups. At least one faculty member in the pilot is working this way, with multiple sections combined into one class, and then the sections split into groups for testing and grading.

Most of the types of resources are still there: organizer pages, content pages (HTML), quizzes. However, Vista has a built in HTML editor (WYSIWYG in Internet Explorer), so you don't have to create pages outside WebCT and upload them. You can also use it to edit pages within WebCT--so no more downloading, editing, and reuploading to make a minor date change. I uploaded something with a bad image link to my test class, and was able to fix it to point to the right file in a few seconds. You'll probably want to use HTML content pages more, as Vista's organizer pages only have two text blocks, upper and lower (or header and footer as they are called in Vista.)

The Calendar now does recurring events. For those who don't have a pre-created syllabus, there is a syllabus creation tool that allows you to add text to a standardized syllabus template

In Vista, you not only have more tools, but you can do more with them. Pretty much everything, every action, every link, can be tracked. You can tell how much time your students spend within WebCT, where they went, where they started and finished. Yes, real "class participation" evaluation. If you assign a reading, and link to it, you can find out who clicked on the link. (Kind of spooky, in some ways. For students reading this, think of it this way: finally a way to prove to your professors how much time you spend on your online classes!)

The downside: only content can be transfered from CE to Vista. Anything you can download can be transfered (HTML pages, images, PDF's, etc.), and the questions from the quiz databases, but not the organizer pages. They don't migrate well, and I'm assured you'll spend more time fixing the migrated pages than it would take to redo them. I was able to copy and paste from CE pages to Vista pages from two different Internet Explorer windows. That probably won't work when you are on the same server, but you could copy the text from your CE organizer pages to Word, and then copy that to Vista organizer pages. It's awkward, but better than the kind of copy editing I've been told about with migrated files.

There is also a major organizational change: My Files is now a generic file holding folder, not attached to any course sections, and content for each course section should be added to individual section folders. So when you are teaching more than one section of a course, you will need to be even more careful about keeping organized, and keeping track of what's been updated.

I have a binder with the handouts from the two sessions last week, plus a link to the Vista Orientation course with the handouts from this week's classes (which I didn't attend). I'm trying to set up a "class" in both CE and Vista on using Library Resources in WebCT, so that people can see what things look like (and how they can use library resources in WebCT.) The classes have no students, being just demo courses, so if you'd like to see what it looks like or see the handouts, we can set up a time to do a demo (use the One-on-One instruction form and select any of my subjects, or contact me via the DE Library Home Page). I'll take some screen shots when I'm satisfied with the basics, and post those.


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