Dr Christopher Jobling

Senior Lecturer



In this follow-up to Really Simple Surveys with Google Docs and Zoho, I outline how we created a rough and ready web application for dissertation project selection with Blackboard, Zoho Creator and Course Genie. If you are interested in the result, visit EG-353A: Research Project Selection on Blackboard. Guest access is turned on.

One of the major data gathering exercises we need to do every year is Research Project Allocation. During this annual exercise, which happens at about this time of year, we get all our level 2 students to choose a short-list of projects from a long list of  Honours dissertation topics provided by our staff. Before we became a School, this was a relatively painless process that the individual Departments performed internally with a minimum of fuss. But now that we have over 200 students, making a selection from 234 projects from over a hundred staff, the problem has grown somewhat!

One of the biggest problems we have is how to actually get the students to make their selection in such a way that their returns of up to 10 choices does not become a bureaucratic nightmare. My discovery of Simple Forms in Google Docs and a day or so later Zoho Creator helped to solve that problem this year. And here in outline is how we did it.

 Step 1: Create a Blackboard Site to Host Your Application

The first step was to get a Blackboard site to host our “web app”. This is not quite as straightforward as it could be. For a start, the Blackboard course site for the Research Project Module (EG-353) contains this year’s current level 3, not next year’s! We needed a special Blackboard module (we called it EG-353A) that we could populate with students who will be doing EG-353 next year (if they progress of course). We had to populate the enrolment list for our new Blackboard site with our current engineering level 2’s, all students taking a year out (level S), and other waifs and strays. No way the Blackboard team could get this information out of the database, so our School Administrator had to do several queries on the Intranet and export the results into a spreadsheet.

About a week’s work of data mining and checking was needed to get a viable list! However, once we had the list, it took a matter of minutes for Clive in LIS to populate the new module page. [A big shout out to Clive and his team!]

Step 2: Create a Web Form

The second step was to create a web form for gathering the student’s selections. I could have used Google Docs for this, but Zoho Creator has a better set of input types and more sophisticated data validation available. (Its downside is that it costs money if you want your applications to be accessible to more than three developers at a time.) The data from the form goes into a database which can be viewed and exported as a spreadsheet. I added a little bit of additional logic to make the form “fool proof” for student use. The final result can be embedded in an iframe in a Blackboard content page and no special permissions are needed by my students to submit their project selections.

At the end of the data collection process, we will be able to export the results into an Excel spreadsheet (or even a Zoho Sheet if we want). In the meantime, an RSS feed that reports activity, helps me keep an eye on submissions from Google reader.

All in all, the design and testing took most of a Saturday morning! More complex than Google Docs, but a bit more robust! And all done with a web browser! There was some code to be written, mostly for validation and dynamic form effects, but the scripting language (called deluge) is quite simple and can be written in a wizard-like drag and drop manner not that different from Access or Excel programming. In many ways, this was the easy bit!

Step 3: Create a Project List

Anyone who’s worked in academia will not how hard it is to get information from colleagues in a timely manner. Academics just don’t understand deadlines! The call for projects went out nearly six weeks ago. We were still waiting for the last one literally hours before the list had to be published on the Blackboard site.

We used another low-tech technique. Project descriptions were submitted in word and converted into a nice interactive web site using Course Genie. The course genie site was uploaded to Blackboard as a package file. My thanks to Howard and his team for shouldering this burden!

An obvious extension for next year would be to use my experience of Zoho Creator to create a web form for staff input of their project list to avoid this fairly manual process.

Step 5: Write all the Instructions

I had to write a quite detailed set of instructions that described the project selection process, how to use the project list and the selection form, and a set of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) that inevitably get asked every year! I spent most of my time on this feature but luckily the site can be rolled around for next year so it’s an investment that won’t be wasted. Even so, I would have been more productive if I’d have used a Wiki!

Step 6. Launch Site

The Blackboard site became available to students on Tuesday. The enrolment list was populated on Wednesday.  I send out an email to all students telling them of the date and time of the official launch on the same day. The actual project list was uploaded today (Friday) at around 2.30 and the selection application (project list and web form) went live (by selective release) at 3.30 [one hour earlier than scheduled!]. The official launch was accompanied by a Blackboard announcement (copied to email) which was published at around the same time. The first project selection had been submitted within an hour!

Obviously this is early days. Data collection will run for a week and I’m bound to be fielding questions from students (and quite probably staff) during the process. I won’t be able to say that this experiment has been a success until the data acquisition process is over. But it’s looking good so far and I think that we managed to create something reasonably useful with the web tools that we have at our disposal.

We haven’t yet automated the allocation process so this is still going to be a largely manual process using Excel for the heavy lifting.

What Next?

One of my projects this year is to create a web-based Research Project Administration application in Ruby on Rails. If it is taken on, we will use the EG-353A Blackboard site as a very rough prototype. However, with a bit of ingenuity, we’ve managed to solve a problem using tools that all academics and administration staff have access to, and there’s surely value in that!

June 6th, 2008

Posted In: blackboard, case study, tips, web applications

Tags: , , , , , ,


  • lsrichcr says:

    Excellent work Chris – I cant believe that it has moved to this from the idea that we discussed only a week or so ago. I will be very interested in following the progress of this one. I don’t want to take credit for what was in reallity the easy bit. Interesting deployment of Zoho which I have used myself on a personal website – nice to know that it can be tweaked! Now all we need to find is the right API in blackboard so you can pull in the student details automatically!

  • C.P. Jobling says:

    The data gathering went fine … until I got the timing wrong and the form vanished 24 hours before it was supposed to! The problem was then to allocate the students to projects. That’s really difficult!

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