Today I activated the discussion forums in my TurnItIn.com sections. That’s a good place for students to meet online and discuss course topics. I can moderate the posts, but our TurnItIn.com sections use a service provided by the university and they require a valid login and password.
Students can access the discussion forums through the horizontal menu in our TurnItIn.com section’s portfolio page. That’s the page that appears when you click on the course’s name in the screen after login. Click on the link called “discussion”. A screenshot is shown below. Of course, the image doesn’t work, but it should help users find the right menu in TurnItIn.com.
But why use TurnItIn.com when billso.com has its own comments feature? It’s time I discussed this issue.
Last month, when I rebuilt billso.com as my new course blog, I wanted to deal with several issues, and a big one involved student privacy.
I wanted to make the site easy to find and use with almost any modern web browser, even if it’s on a PDA or phone. I mentioned this in http://billso.com/2007/01/23/mobile-device-support/
I have students who don’t have easy access to the Internet. As long as they can get e-mail, they can use the subscription page at http://rss.billso.com/billsocom to get an e-mail version of every blog post that I make to this web site. It won’t support changes to the dedicated IS 6100 and IS 7010 pages. For now, I’ll announce changes to those pages in blog postings.
I hate making things harder than they have to be, especially with my web sites. But I also have to protect my students’ data, including their grades and assignments.
FERPA stands for the Federal Educational Records Privacy Act of 1974. It’s a big issue at US universities, as the US Department of Education has reinterpreted this law several times. Kansas State University has a great discussion of FERPA issues, but it’s meant for faculty and staff. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has a FERPA page for students.
FERPA is one reason why HPU student ID cards use their own numbering system, instead of Social Security numbers (SSNs). US universities are no longer allowed to use SSNs to identify students.
I decided not to store student information at billso.com. It’s too much of a risk, given FERPA’s requirements. I’ll post assignments and course information on this site, but I will never post a graded paper or a student’s marks on this site.
While I do have access to my web server’s logs, it’s difficult to use these records to identify how an individual user worked with billso.com because there are no logins or passwords required for users of this site.
So I had to disable blog comments in billso.com. If I allow students to set up accounts on my blog, then they could identify themselves in a public forum through a userid or their own comments.
At some point, I wil develop a way to allow direct blog comments, perhaps in a moderated format so that I can delete comments before they go on the blog. But for this term, my focus was to get content posted for my students.
The university does offer an alternative to WebCT, the official course management system (CMS). That alternative is TurnItIn.com. It’s got an excellent gradebook, solid security, and some features that students seem to like once they try them.
TurnItIn.com is also hosted off-site, on the mainland. If anything happens to HPU’s servers, TurnItIn.com’s services should still be available. This was very helpful on October 15, after the Hawaii earthquake. For the record, I host billso.com on a server in a separate mainland facility.