Viewing by month: August 2010

Aug 27 2010

Remaking the BBS

Over the past few months, we've been collecting a lot of feedback about the BBS tool used in online courses and in CoursePlus. The BBS tool hasn't really be updated since we started using that particular piece of software back in 2002. It's been a reliable tool, but one that we really cannot alter to meet the evolving needs of the faculty, students, and staff who use it because it's a third-party product whose internals are off-limits to us. We've received a lot of great ideas from the people who use the BBS about how to make it work better, but we've been limited in what kind of changes we could affect due to the "black box" nature of the product.

Earlier this year, the Center's Web development team decided that it was time to get rid of the existing BBS software and build something new, from the ground up, incorporating the feedback and vision of the people who have used the BBS for years. There are three major goals in this project:

  1. Make it easier to find new posts and posts of interest to you
  2. Provide more configuration options for faculty
  3. Improve the experience of navigating BBS content

These goals came out of a fairly extensive customer feedback process -- the one I referred to at the beginning of this post. Input was taken from instructional designers at the Center for Teaching and Learning with Technology, a group of 18 faculty, a group of 5 TAs, and a group of 8 students. Input was received through three main activities:

  1. Email inquiries were sent about both general and specific features of the BBS.
  2. Participants were asked to complete a $100 allocation exercise wherein they were presented with a list of potential features for the BBS and given a virtual $100 to allocate to features as they saw fit.
  3. Participants were shown mockups of the revamped BBS user interface in a real time session and were asked to give feedback.

The result of this customer feedback process are the features and design of the new BBS. The people who have seen the mockups of the revamped BBS user interface were very excited by what they saw, and we're pretty excited too. I'll be covering the new features and redesign in upcoming posts, but wanted to begin by giving you this background about the project.

The million-dollar question, of course, is "Can I use this now?" The answer: not yet. Our expectation is that the new BBS will be available to online courses in the third term of the current academic year, and then in CoursePlus at the start of the next academic year. This timeline is tentative, however, and I'd be remiss if I didn't say that posting these estimated dates of availability in no way guarantees availability at the estimated time.

In the meantime, though, I look forward to sharing with you our progress on remaking this very important part of online learning here at the School.

Posted by Brian Klaas at 9:26 AM - Categories: Online Courses | Course Tools | CoursePlus

Aug 26 2010

Cleaning Up the "About the Course" Page in CoursePlus

Late last year, during a faculty teaching workshop, the Center received quite a bit of feedback about the organization and functionality of the "About the Course" page in CoursePlus sites. We took that feedback to heart, and are working on a long-term series of changes to this page and how information is gathered and presented on this page.

As a first step, though, we've implemented a small change that will hopefully improve the readability of the "About the Course" page.

Prior to this change, if there was no information for a section of the "About the Course" page whose content was pulled from the official School catalog, the following text would appear beneath the section title:

No catalog information is available at this time.

Quite a few courses had more than one section like this. As a result, many "About the Course" pages were cluttered with a lot of extra boxes that added no value to the page. If there were multiple sections like this, faculty and students would have to scroll through a lot of extraneous, and, frankly, wasted space to see everything on the "About the Course" page.

As of today, these sections no longer appear on the "About the Course" page of a CoursePlus site if there's no associated information in the School's catalog. As a result, "About the Course" pages are shorter, clearer, and contain only information relevant to that course.

More changes will be coming to the "About the Course" page in CoursePlus in the future, but this a small start that we hope you like.

Posted by Brian Klaas at 3:41 PM - Categories: CoursePlus

Aug 19 2010

So What Happened to CoursePlus Today (Aug 19)?

Today wasn't a good day to have problems with CoursePlus. There's rarely a good day to have problems with CoursePlus, but today was really not a good time: it's the end of the term, final papers were due at 5pm, and final exams are tomorrow. So CoursePlus first running slowly then becoming completely unavailable was incredibly frustrating to a lot of people.

Yesterday morning, we began to notice that CoursePlus was responding to clicks slowly. As the day progressed, it began to take longer and longer for pages to load in CoursePlus. Things got better overnight, but got worse as the morning progressed. By the time the afternoon rolled around, it was taking over 60 seconds (one minute!) for a single page to load. After that, it didn't take long for CoursePlus to go completely offline.

Information Systems had been monitoring the CoursePlus servers since yesterday and couldn't find a problem in the servers. The code which makes up the CoursePlus application hadn't been changed since June, and things were working just fine until a couple of days ago. As it turns out, the problem was in the database which powers CoursePlus. A small set of data, which is queried and filtered every single time you request a page in CoursePlus, had an index on it which let the database find information in that data set faster. The source of the problem was that this index on this key data set became corrupt. Querying this key data set normally takes 3-7 milliseconds, but once the index on that data became corrupt, that same query took 8-11 seconds. This was the source of the slowdown across all of CoursePlus yesterday and today.

The Information Systems team fixed this problem and CoursePlus began responding perfectly well by 3:30pm today.

Again, we know that this problem couldn't have come at a worse time. We know that this was incredibly frustrating for many people. We sincerely apologize for this, and we continue to work on making sure it doesn't happen again.

Posted by Brian Klaas at 6:04 PM - Categories: CoursePlus

Aug 6 2010

Major JHSPH Outages on Aug 12 and 13

Information Systems notified the JHSPH community that all JHSPH Web sites will be offline on:

  • Thursday, August 12 at 7pm until Friday, August 13 at 7am
  • Friday, August 13 at 7pm until Saturday, August 14 at 7am
This means that there will be no access to online courses, CoursePlus, JHSPH email, or any JHSPH Web site during these two twelve hour periods. The School apparently has to do major electrical work in the main School building, where the servers which power all of these sites reside. 

Please plan accordingly for these major outages.

Posted by Brian Klaas at 8:01 AM - Categories: General | Online Courses | CoursePlus

Aug 4 2010

August 2010 Update to Online Courses

The online course system just received an update which introduces a number of new features and changes to tools in online courses. Here's a quick overview of what's new and changed:


  • You can duplicate an existing wiki and optionally assign a specific group to have read/write access to that duplicate.

Online Library

  • You can now assign an "Importance" level to files, in addition to Web links.
  • The report which shows the number of downloads, by student, for an individual item in the library is now sorted by student last name.


  • You can now set up a survey so that the student name is revealed along with their responses to the survey. This data is only available on the Excel view of the full set of survey data. Note that students are given strong warning that their name is being recorded when they see the survey.
  • Survey results from surveys from previous offerings of the course are now available from within the survey tool.


  • Feedback/files are only displayed to students on the student Gradebook page only after feedback/files are emailed, or if the "Display grades on student view" checkbox is checked. If the feedback/files have been sent to students, but the "Display grades on student view" checkbox is not checked, the feedback/files are displayed on the student view, but not the grade. Previously, feedback/files were displayed to students as soon as they were created, even if the "Display grades on student view" checkbox was not checked.
  • A "give all students full credit" option has been added to the grading view.

If you have any questions about these new or changed features in the online courses, please contact DEHelp or your course instructional designer!



Posted by Brian Klaas at 11:31 AM - Categories: Online Courses

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