Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Impact of Integrating a Web-Based Document Management System into the Educational Process at UIS

The University of Illinois at Springfield has adopted a web-based document management system for use by all faculty, staff, and students. This technology, which has been named eDocs, has led to efficiencies in the exchange of information between students and faculty in online courses, and also to improved collaboration and increased student engagement.

This is a so-called presentation blog, and each blog posting deals with a separate topic that I would like to cover. Note that anyone can post a comment on any of the individual blog postings.

eDocs is based on the Xythos document management system

The UIS eDocs system is based on the powerful Xythos document management system. Xythos is based in San Francisco, and is a subsidiary of Blackboard.

The UIS implementation is on a Wintel server with a total of 7 terabytes of disk storage. Each faculty, staff, and student has a quota of 1 gigabyte of storage, while departments and campus units have a quota of 5 gigabytes.

The data on the eDocs server is backed-up several times each day on remote servers at UIC and UIUC over a gigabit network.

eDocs uses a web-based interface

Users access their eDocs storage using a secure web interface. eDocs uses the Active Directory system, so that logging-in to eDocs is just like logging-in to e-mail or to Blackboard.

Users login with their NetID and password; users then can create folders, upload files, set permissions, etc., using any web browser.

By default, three folders are created automatically for each user:
  • private (private storage)
  • www (like a regular web server)
  • trash (for deleted files)

So in addition to private storage, all users effectively have space on a web server.

Users can mount eDocs as a virtual drive on the desktop

eDocs uses Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning (WebDAV) - so users can mount the eDocs storage as a virtual drive on their computers' desktops. This means that eDocs looks like any other network drive, with a "drag-and-drop" interface. This allows users to edit documents on the remote eDocs server, no matter where the users are physically located.

With broadband, it is almost as easy to access files on a remote WebDAV server as those stored on a local area network.

Private files can be accessed from anywhere

eDocs can be used to back-up private files - this is most easily done using the private folder. This provides an extra level of security, having important files backed-up on a remote server. As an example, faculty can back-up their online class in Blackboard, and store the zip file in their private folder on eDocs.

Being able to access files from any networked computer eliminates the need to carry around a USB flash memory drive (also known as a "thumb drive", a disk-on-key, a "jump" drive, etc.). A faculty member can create a PowerPoint presentation in his or her office, and then access it from a computer in the classroom. A student can always have access to the latest version of a research paper that he or she is writing.

When a users logs-on to a computer in a classroom or a lab at UIS, their eDocs storage is mounted as a network drive automatically (see posting about WebDAV above).

Sharing eDocs files and folders with others at UIS

Files and folders in eDocs can be shared with UIS faculty, staff, and students. Permissions can be set to allow others to view and/or edit files. This is a great alternative to sending e-mail attachments - in fact, when files are too large to be sent as e-mail attachments, this is the preferred way to send these files to others (upload to eDocs, send an e-mail note with the path to the file).

When sharing multiple files with another individual, it is easiest to put these files in a folder and then share the entire folder.

Access can be set to be "read-only" or "read-write-delete" or even full access, which is "read-write-delete-administer".

Since eDocs uses the UIS Active Directory, it is simple to select an individual with whom to share a file or folder.

Sharing eDocs files and folders within a work group

As part of the eDocs system, departments and units have their own eDocs space, which can be accessed by everyone in the relevant department or unit. That is, everyone in the Office of Technology-Enhanced Learning has access to the OTEL folder in eDocs. This is a great way to share documents within a work group.

Sharing eDocs files and folders with others outside of UIS

eDocs provides the ability to share files with individuals who are not listed in the UIS Active Directory - this is done by issuing a "Guest Ticket". Think of this as a ticket that someone uses to enter a baseball park - it gives an individual access to a specific resource. The ticket can be created within the eDocs web interface - it is simply a URL (in a scrambled form) that points to the file or folder. The ticket can be for "read-only" access or for "read-write-delete" access. After creating the ticket, it can be sent via e-mail to the individual(s) that you want to access the file or folder.

Tickets can be for a finite period of time (for example, set to expire in 30 days) or they can be forever. For additional security, the owner can even specify a password for a ticket during the creation process.

The following is an example of the e-mail sent by eDocs after a ticket has been created:

Use the following links to access the corresponding files:

Logging - tracking how many times a file is accessed

The eDocs system at UIS enables users to keep track of how many times a file is accessed and/or edited. This is done by enabling "logging" for an individual file (using the eDocs web interface). Once logging has been enabled, eDocs keeps a record of each access to the file - including the user's name, the date and time, and the IP address of the user.

Logging is very useful to verify that students are actually accessing the instructor's material on the eDocs server.

eDocs integrates seamlessly with Blackboard

eDocs comes with a connector for Blackboard, which allows instructors to add links to eDocs files directly in their Blackboard course. Because students are already logged into Blackboard, they will not need to log in to eDocs separately to view the files.

eDocs also comes with a bridge for Blackboard. The bridge allows instructors to access eDocs directly from Blackboard, without having to login separately.

This is very powerful! Instructors can keep large files, such as narrated PowerPoint presentations, on the eDocs server, rather than on the Blackboard server - which doesn't slow down the performance of the Bb server. In addition, if multiple course sections use the same material, updating the file in eDocs updates ALL course sections that link to it.

Many other institutions use the Xythos system

Many other institutions use the Xythos Document Management System - but it is difficult to know this, since every institution uses a different name:
A more complete list of educational users from, including some case studies.

Version control in eDocs

An advanced feature of eDocs is called "versioning", which allows users to track edits to a file. If versioning is enabled for a particular file, it is saved as a new version with a new filename each time that it is revised. Individual versions can be opened, edited, deleted, etc. Versioning also allows a user to "check-out" a file, edit it, and then subsequently "check-in" the revised file; while the file is checked-out, no other users can access the file, which prevents other collaborators from editing the file at the same time. These features of eDocs are extremely helpful for collaboration: each new revision is saved, creating a history of the revision process, and multiple collaborators can be assured that only one of them is editing the file at any given time.

The title of this blog posting is a link to a short video illustrating the versioning and check-out/check-in processes within eDocs; this video was created using the free Jing software.

Bookmarking allows quick access to eDocs files and folders

Bookmarks are shortcuts to individual files or folders within eDocs. Using the bookmarks feature, eDocs users can conveniently create shortcuts to their most frequently-accessed files and folders. Users can also bookmark files and folders in other's eDocs storage to which they have been granted access.

Once logged-in to eDocs using the web interface, it is possible to bring up a list of bookmarks by clicking on the bookmark image icon that appears in the Document Manager space (the eDocs window).

The bookmarking feature is quite handy for quickly navigating to particular folders/files in a user's eDocs account, to access others' eDocs spaces, or to access departmental folders.

Actual uses of eDocs at UIS

The following postings provide descriptions of actual uses of how faculty, staff, and students are using eDocs at UIS.

My own use of eDocs

I am a real believer in using the eDocs system at UIS. It is very powerful!
  • I back-up important files on the eDocs server.
  • I have a website for my online class on the eDocs server - with all the important handouts.
  • I store all the mp3 files for my podcasts on the eDocs server (and I track the downloads using the logging feature).
  • I share large files with others by uploading them to eDocs and simply sharing the URL's.
  • I use the Blackboard integration to link to large files (such as tutorials created using Jing) that are stored on the eDocs server.
  • I return graded papers to the students in my online class in private folders in my filespace on the eDocs server.
  • I store a huge number of digital photos on the eDocs server; I include a photo with each posting in Blackboard.

eDocs & the UIS Office of Disability Services

Kim Rutherford, Learning Specialist with the UIS Office of Disability Services (ODS), describes her use of eDocs in providing material in an alternative format to students:

"eDocs has revolutionized our alternate format delivery process. Before, we had to either email huge files to students, have them come in and save it on their flash drives, or other methods which were time consuming for both student and staff. Now, when the material is ready for the student, all we have to do is upload to eDocs and send them a link, instead of several emails or setting up a time to meet to transfer material to a flash drive.

I could praise eDocs all day long for what it has done for our students and text conversion, we have been waiting a long time for something this simple and efficient.

eDocs is simple, fast, effective, and has truly revolutionized our alternate format process. We are able to process material at a much faster rate, and deliver it so quickly.

My students have told me how much of a difference eDocs has made to them because they receive their material easily and quickly, from any computer at any time.

Simply stated…. eDocs is a dream come true for ODS."

Using eDocs to improve student writing

Dr. Brian Jackson, the course director for English 101, creates a separate folder for each student in his eDocs space. Each student uploads all drafts of papers and all in-class pre-writing to his or her own folder for the instructor to review. The instructor, in turn, uploads annotated papers containing feedback in each student's folder. The course is completely paperless. At the end of the semester, students assemble a portfolio of their best papers from the work in their folders.

Dr. Jackson also serves as the Associate Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), where he is charged with supervising writing. Graduate assistants in the CTL can access the assignments from the English Department's eDocs space, so they are prepared when working with individual students.

Sharing resources within a class

Dr. Beverly Bunch is an Associate Professor in the Public Administration program , with a joint appointment in the Center for State Policy and Leadership. She uses eDocs extensively in the courses that she teaches.

In her online Intergovernmental Relations Course, the students prepare a presentation (PowerPoint with narration) and then upload the file to their eDocs area. They then post the link in the discussion forum in Blackboard. Students then review the presentations of students in their small group (3 people) and give feedback. Sudents will then revise their presentations and submit for grading and viewing by the whole class.

In her blended Nonprofit and Governmental Public Financial Management course, the students post an audio recording (made using Audacity) in their eDocs area and then put the link in the discussion board so others students could listen to the audios. The students also work in small groups to prepare training materials to be put on a Facebook page. The students use their eDocs area to host some of the files that they then link to their Facebook pages.

The Financial Management course that Dr. Bunch teaches also works in small groups to edit a file that she had uploaded to her eDocs area.

A real grab bag - additional uses of eDocs at UIS

Here are some additional uses of eDocs at UIS:
  • Bill Carpenter (English Department) - Bill uses eDocs not only with his Eng 101 course but also in his Bob Dylan course. This semester, he created a wiki in eDocs for students to collaborate on Bob Dylan's life.
  • Dave Turner (Educational Leasership - EDL) - EDL students create portfolios as a culminating project, aligned to the state standards. These portfolios used to be bulky, binders that took up enormous amounts of physical space as they are required to be kept for a certain number of years. They had also used TaskStream in the past. Starting this year, they used eDocs for these portfolios. This not only eliminates the storage problem, but also makes these portfolios accessible for the students to share in interviews with potential employers.
  • Library staff - As one of many ways the library uses eDocs, they now share meeting minutes via eDocs - as opposed to e-mailing attachments to their large staff. They have also used eDocs to share extremely large files with outside organizations that would otherwise have been too large to e-mail as attachments.
  • Journal staff - The staff of the student newspaper (The Journal) has begun to use eDocs. Previously, someone had made the weekly 60-mile round-trip to Virden, IL, to deliver a CD to their printer. The contents of the CD were much too large to e-mail as attachments. They are now sharing these files with their printer via eDocs, thus saving both weekly trips to Virden and CDs.
  • GPSI program - The Graduate Internship program makes many student applications/resumes available to state agencies for GPSI positions. This process used to involve making multiple paper copies of these applications and someone(s) personally delivering the copies to these outside agencies. They are now sharing these files in PDF format via eDocs.
  • Vickie Cook (EDL) - Vickie was an early adopter of eDocs and helped us test its limitations. Last summer, she moved all her course files to eDocs and linked them in Blackboard. She did not upload a single file to the Blackboard server - they were all linked from eDocs. This process has made it easier for her to access/revise these files - multiple class sections in Blackboard accessed the same eDocs files.
  • Many students are using eDocs to post websites and/or resume information for job searching. This allows them to not only have a web presence, but also a place to store projects that can be shared with potential employers. As an example, UIS has a student showcase page highlighting some innovative projects - many of which are stored on the students' personal eDocs space.

Distributing lectures in Computer Sciences courses

Dr. Keith Miller is a professor in the Department of Computer Science at UIS. He is a University Scholar and the Schewe Professor in Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Miller uses eDocs to distribute lectures (recorded using Articulate) in his online and on-campus courses in computer science, computer ethics, and philosophy.

First example - CSC 540 - Graduate Research Seminar - Introduction

Second example - CSC 540 - Graduate Research Seminar - Writing Free Pascal Programs

Third example - PHI 442 - Introduction to Computer Ethics - First Lecture

Oakley's top ten reasons for liking eDocs

Having thought about all of the functionality of the eDocs system at UIS, here are my "top ten" reasons for liking eDocs:
  1. Disk storage accessible from any networked computer simply by using a web browser.
  2. WebDAV enables eDocs to be mounted as a virtual drive on the local desktop.
  3. Instructor can create private folders for each student in an online class - useful for exchange of files and feedback.
  4. Uses Active Directory for access - also for sharing files and folders with other UIS users.
  5. Provides "guest tickets" for non-UIS users.
  6. Great for sharing large files with others - files that are too large to send as e-mail attachments.
  7. Everyone at UIS has access to their own personal webserver (used for course websites, e-portfolios, etc.).
  8. Integrates seamlessly with Blackboard.
  9. Excellent practice to back-up important files on the eDocs server (which itself is backed-up on other U of I campuses).
  10. Completely self-managed - users can create folders, set permissions, share files with others, etc., without the need for assistance from tech support staff.
Honorable mention:
  1. Logging enables tracking access to individual files.
  2. Versioning, combined with check-out & check-in, enables multiple users to collaborate on editing a document.
  3. Bookmarking provides quick access to files and folders in eDocs.
  4. Essentially eliminates the need to carry around a USB flash memory drive.

Using eDocs - How-To Videos

The Information Technology Services (ITS) staff at UIS have produced a number of "how-to" videos describing all important aspects of the use of eDocs. These videos are a great resource for all users of the Xythos system!