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Updating course schedules for a new semester, complicated

That is, How Sam makes the process more complicated.

In two recent musings, I’ve written about the issues that come up when you update the course schedule for a course with what should be relatively few changes and for courses with more major changes. In both cases, I tried to explain ways that the job is more complex than you might think.

The generalities of what I wrote likely applies not just to me, but to all faculty. We all think about rearranging topics, deal with major and minor shifts in when classes are offered, change our textbooks, and so on and so forth. However, it seems that I make the work more complex for myself.

I have ethical objections to a closed LMS [1] like Blackboard [2], particularly that the educational resources one puts on Blackboard are not broadly searchable or usable, even if, in some cases, they can be accessed with a guest account. As an alternative, I build my own Web sites. For nearly two decades, I used tools that I wrote myself. That had some advantages, particularly that I could make changes when I wanted them [3]. But when my colleagues started using Jekyll, I decided to make the switch to a more commonly used tool.

Of course, as computer scientists, we would never use plain vanilla Jekyll it comes out of the box. We have to write our own scripts. In part, that’s because we want to do things that may not come with the system, like automatically incorporating all of the assignments into the course schedule and automatically updating the schedule when an assignment changes. In part, it’s because we like to build relatively rich course webs [4].

In any case, that means that each course web has a variety of source code files. Each page in the site has some source code, typically written in Markdown and with some associated meta data. There are also a number of files that support the rest of the site, such as the list of shared information, common portions of pages that I can reuse, instructions for Jekyll, and style sheets. I try to keep the source code to my Web site DRY [5] while making materials accessible from multiple places. That means, for example, that the due date for each assignment lives in a single place [6] and then gets propagated to various other places: the assignment itself, the list of assignments, the course schedule, and probably some other place that I’m forgetting. I do repeat myself for the daily course eboards [7] and the documents that are generated from them. I should reflect on whether or not that’s good practice [8,9].

Why does my DRY approach mean extra work, rather than less? Well, instead of working with one document (that is, the schedule), I end up working with a variety of other documents. In the most recent Jekyll-based site design approach, which I inherited and adapted from a colleague, the due date for each assignment lives in the assignment itself and then gets pulled into the schedule and list of assignments. That means when I set up the schedule for a semester, I have a lot of documents to edit: the assignments, the quizzes, the exams, and almost anything else with a due date [10].

There are also associated problems with using custom software to build the site. We generate the syllabus based on information on the class days. What do we do if an assignment is due on a day in which we don’t have class? That might require rewriting software. Or it might require a hack of putting fake days in the list of topics. But that breaks other parts. Change can be hard. Some aspects of Jekyll, such as the liquid text processor, have some clear design flaws [11].

As I said, I also find other ways to make things more complex. This semester, some of my classes got new sections of the Web site. For example, I recall adding a reports section to CSC 322 and I’m working on adding a writeups section to CSC 151. Those changes mean other changes: adding the code to automatically generate indices; updating the menus to link to them; adding a current link, if appropriate; handling the issue of multiple current items in the same category; and so on and so forth.

Because this code is in multiple languages and multiple systems, things break. Last semester, the style sheet we relied upon suddenly changed its behavior, conveniently while I was away at a conference. I’d set up the readings correctly for CSC 321 and CSC 322 for spring 2017, but they broke in fall 2017 and I was never able to unbreak [12] them. In a class site that I mostly shared with another faculty member, we had very different views on how certain parts of the site should be built, which led to some crashes and complexities.

But when things come together right, like they have for a year or so in CSC 151 and I think they now will in CSC 321 and CSC 322, it’s clearly worth it because students can more easily find materials and identify due dates.

[1] Learning Management System.

[2] Or at least the way Grinnell chooses to implement Blackboard.

[3] After about a decade of making changes, I found that the system settled down into a form that worked well for me.

[4] My typical course Web includes a schedule; a syllabus; my various policies and statements; readings (either a set of locally written readings or a set of reading journal questions); a set of assignments; a news page; a daily set of notes for each class; links to useful resources, indices to the various collections of items (readings, assignments, daily notes, etc.); a mechanism for quickly accessing the current reading, assignment, and set of notes; and probably one or two other things that aren’t coming to mind.

[5] Don’t Repeat Yourself.

[6] Or at least should live in a single place. My sites are not always as DRY as I would like.

[7] I use the term eboard to refer to the electronic whiteboards I use during class. Most of the time, rather than writing on a whiteboard, I type on the computer. I should probably write something more extensive about this practice.

[8] I haven’t found a good way to generate parts of the eboards automatically and, right now, I’m not sure it’s worth my time. The due dates also take a slightly different form in the eboards, such as Due TOMORROW rather than Due by 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, 27 February 2018.

[9] While drafting parts of this musing, I did write a script that automatically extracts the news from an eboard, rather than the other way around. It looks like it will be successful.

[10] In most cases, I don’t have to update the readings and labs, since the due date for those does not appear on the pages.

[11] Who writes a text processor that does not allow regular expressions in a replace command?

[12] unbreak is not quite the same as fix. I couldn’t fix them, either.

Version 1.0 of 2018-01-23.