May 24 2010

Summer Change: Warning When You Get Disconnected from the Server

Posted by Brian Klaas at 8:48 AM Online Courses

The behind-the-scenes changes we've made in the online course system have allowed for a number of things, one of the more pedestrian but important of which is significantly improved internal monitoring of your activity in an online course. A side effect of this improved internal monitoring is the ability to let you stay on course Web sites longer without getting signed out, and the ability for us to let you know when you may have been disconnected from a course Web site.

When you sign in to your online courses, you remain signed in and able to access the pages in your online courses until a certain period of inactivity is reached. This is generally not an issue because most people don't spend 30 or 45 minutes on a single page. However, there are situations when you may spend a long time on a single page. If you watch a particularly long lecture section, for example, you may get logged out because you're sitting on the same page for a long time without any activity (that the server can see). More importantly, if you take an exam with a time limit of 90 minutes or two hours, you sit on the exam page for that entire time. This can result in a logout because of lack of activity or, more problematically, a loss of Internet connectivity if you are on a wireless connection.

A brief detour is probably necessary here to explain why this happens: when you are on a wireless connection, you are given an "address" on the Internet so that Web sites can find you, uniquely identify you, and send you the Web pages or information that you have requested. Most wireless systems will take back that "address" after a certain amount of inactivity. This is particularly true of wireless systems at schools, workplaces, and public spaces. They have only so many addresses to give out, so they take them back if you haven't been doing anything for 10 or 15 minutes, so that someone else might use that same address. When your address has been taken back and actually need to do something again, you're given a new "address" on the Internet by the wireless system.

The problem here is that when you are given a new "address," it may not match up with your old address, and the Web site to which you were previously connected will say "I don't know who you are because I don't recognize you as being signed in." This results in you being asked to sign in to a site again, and if you've been taking an online exam that you can only access once, this can be a bad thing.

The behind-the-scenes changes we've made in the online course system now allow us to warn you if it appears that you've lost your connection to the course Web site server for one of the reasons listed above. If the system detects that it can't connect to the course Web site server or that the course Web site server doesn't recognize you any more, a yellow warning box will fade in at the bottom of the screen. If you're taking an online exam, that yellow warning box is a prompt to copy and paste your answers in to a Word document so you don't lose your work. (If you've become disconnected from the Internet, you can't submit your exam.)

If the disruption in the connection to the course Web site is temporary, the yellow warning box will update to let you know that all appears to be OK again, and will fade away shortly thereafter.

We hope this small addition to the online course system will be useful, especially to those students in remote parts of the world, with less than reliable Internet connections.

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