SmartSite settles in, collects ideas for new features

One of SmartSite's strong points is that it can adapt to whatever UC Davis needs. In fall 2007 the campus started to get a more specific idea of what that means.

Program manager Kirk Alexander is keeping a list of most-requested features--tasks that faculty, staff and students would like SmartSite to do, but which it can't do yet. That list will help the campus decide which tools SmartSite adds next.

Creating the list is part of SmartSite's evolution as it settles in as the main online collaboration and course-management system for UC Davis. The system, based on Sakai open-source software developed and used by more than 100 universities and similar institutions, ended an 18-month pilot last summer. Faculty, staff and students use the system to manage coursework (through course sites) or to work together on projects (through project sites).

The requests for new features will get sifted starting this quarter with the help of a new faculty advisory committee that should be formed soon.

The SmartSite group, part of Information and Educational Technology, spent several weeks at the start of fall quarter improving the core system and fixing a couple of flaws that emerged as demand from users grew. Access to SmartSite was spotty for a week early in the quarter because of the frequency of updates it received from the Banner student records system, and because of the way that processing was structured. That problem has been fixed.

The group has also fixed a bug in the assignments tool, plus remedied all but one situation that caused users to get a white screen when they logged in. The group is still working on solving that last situation.

Several universities have recently focused on improving the stability of the core system as use of Sakai grows, Alexander added. Campuses are free to add their own features to Sakai, and other universities can adopt those features if they want. The goal is to create a system that's easy to change as colleges develop new needs for their course-management systems.

At UC Davis, the most-requested features include new grading and quizzing options; making it easier for TAs to create sites for their instructors; and access for guests without UC Davis identification (the Web-based temporary affiliate service, already in the works, will be one option for giving non-UC Davis guests access to sites).

Other changes are also coming, including the formation of the faculty advisory committee to help set priorities, an upgrade to the next Sakai release in June, and integration with Adobe's online meeting software Connect Pro.

SmartSite will replace the course-management tools offered through the MyUCDavis Web portal. The campus expects to retire those tools starting in September, although data from MyUCDavis course sites will be archived in case it is needed in the future. The faculty advisory committee will help establish a direction for SmartSite, and will review options for how and when to retire the course tools in MyUCDavis.

Meanwhile, the faculty technology training program acquired a new trainer last fall: Fernando Socorro. He succeeds Leslie Madsen-Brooks, who now works for the Teaching Resources Center. The campus will continue to offer SmartSite training courses and support options in 2008, including new workshops on preparing for online grading and quizzing.

And, to help spread the word about what the program can do, the SmartSite group has offered to visit departments and administrative groups to talk about how SmartSite can specifically help that unit. Send an email to

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A Q&A with Jon Bower, a grad student and TA in atmospheric sciences in Land, Air and Water Resources

How are you using your SmartSite course sites?

Primarily for distributing course materials, and for grading.

Once quizzes or exams are taken in class, we grade them, and then enter the scores into SmartSite. We have the GradeBook broken down just as described in the course syllabus, which is a nice way for students to see their grades represented in a manner consistent with the course outline. For example, we have subheadings for exams, quizzes, and participation. Each of these is given a percent contribution to the overall score. Each item is scored and placed within these bins.

I uploaded course materials using the Resources tool. Updates or new materials (such as quiz/exam keys) can be announced through the convenient "email announcement" to the class list. That way everyone stays current.

Which features or tools would you recommend to instructors or TAs who want to manage their courses online?

Both of these tools (GradeBook and Resources) have worked well. I really like GradeBook; it's a nice way to give immediate feedback to students. I haven't really used too much else.

Which features would you include in a future version of SmartSite?

It would be nice to see a bit more statistics available in GradeBook (e.g., standard deviation, median, high/low score, etc.).