'SmartSite for administrators' seminar draws larger-than-expected turnout

By Phil Riley

"A rising tide lifts all boats," SmartSite training coordinator Steve Faith reminded the audience at the "SmartSite for Business Management and Collaboration" seminar July 9.

His point was that as more people use SmartSite, the better it becomes for everyone on campus--the feedback from a growing base of users will help the SmartSite team tailor the online collaboration system to what the campus needs. It was a fitting point to make as more than 60 campus administrators, a larger crowd than expected, filled room 3001 of the Plant & Environmental Sciences Building during a noon hour on a hot day in July to learn how to use SmartSite within their departments.

"We were quite pleasantly surprised with the turnout," said Sandra Stewart, SmartSite project manager. "We had about 48 RSVP. But in fact, we were initially thinking only 25 to 30 would attend."

Faculty and students have used SmartSite to manage classes, do research, share work or supervise projects online, but the system also offers many uses to the administrative side of the campus. The one-hour seminar, prepared by Faith and fellow SmartSite trainer Fernando Socorro, examined these uses.

Faith, who led the discussion, first went over the features of SmartSite, highlighting ones that specifically interest administrative staffers:

--He discussed how to use email within SmartSite for such tasks as managing lists and scheduling email announcements. For example, users don't have to wait until the day before a meeting to email a reminder. Using SmartSite, they can write the reminder weeks before, and then have the message sent automatically the day before the meeting.

--He discussed the wiki tool, one of the most popular in SmartSite. Several people at the 2007 Summer Institute on Teaching and Technology (SITT) used the wiki, which lets groups collaboratively edit documents, to share updates and resources from the institute.

--He went over the forum tool, explaining that the campus administration used it to solicit ideas from the general campus for budget planning this year.

--He also explained the chat room, file-sharing, and calendar tools, which help people collaborate and communicate online.

SmartSite runs on Sakai open-source software, and is being upgraded this summer to Sakai version 2.5. Sakai has been adopted by more than 100 universities and institutions of higher education, and SmartSite uses a customized version at UC Davis. "Individual universities themselves, in coordination with the Sakai Foundation, write much of the Sakai code," Faith said.

The upgrade to version 2.5 fixes bugs, improves the user interface, and helps prepare for future upgrades. It adds various academic tools that will change the potential of SmartSite as a whole, and might also interest administrators who are asked to assist faculty in these academic areas.

The new tools include the ability to input data from Scantrons, and a roster/student status tool. A course evaluation tool is being built, and much-requested improvements to the GradeBook tool are due in spring or summer 2009.

Faith said that when improving the GradeBook tool, SmartSite developers considered comments from users who said they preferred the equivalent feature in the MyUCDavis set of course-management tools. It's important for users of SmartSite to share their likes and dislikes, he said, because that's how needed improvements, such as the GradeBook upgrade, are made.

Lastly, Faith showed people how to create a new site within SmartSite, and how to explore the variety of tools beyond the default set that users get automatically when they sign up the first time . After the session, Faith and Socorro addressed individual users' questions and problems.

The session was great, said Cat Huff, graduate coordinator for the Human and Community Development department. "It answered a lot of questions. I had to call IT Express before (to get these types of answers)."

Huff said she started learning about SmartSite on behalf of her department, and was eager to take what she learned back to her colleagues.

Socorro and Faith offer training sessions year-round.

Student writer Phil Riley is majoring in sociology and communication.