TurnItIn.com discussion forums vs blog comments

by billso on Wednesday, 7 February 2007

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.

TurnItIn.com discussion link

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.

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