salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! I hope you all had a peaceful and happy weekend and, for those who celebrate it, a very happy Father’s Day! (Mine was wonderful … and you probably noticed the father-and-children themes in last week’s post, which were not accidental in their timing.) Today we’ll begin to take a look at Instructure, the new online learning management system that our friend and collaborator Laura G recommended I take a look at. You can see her review here if you’d like, and a bit about the history of the company here. I was really impressed by the way the founders designed the features of the site – they actually asked potential users what features they would want first, and only then (after they knew what their customers wanted) did they start building the system. And they continue to be very responsive and open to suggestions from users and potential users.
I actually had a two-hour live demo from one of the company’s founders last Tuesday afternoon, and since then I’ve been working to create what Instructure calls a “public” course (that is, one that anyone can look at) for things other than stories in Lectiō Prīma of the Tres Columnae Project. Check it out at this link and see what you think of the first version. I’ll be adding the Quaestiōnēs (#14) and the Fabella Scrībenda (#12) … and a few other things … in the next day or so, but I ddn’t want to keep you waiting any longer!
Here are my first impressions after a few hours with Instructure:
It’s very easy and straightforward to sign up for a free account. You can either click a link from their home page to “Try It Out” (if you’d like a formal demo) or just “Log In” here and “Click to register” for a new account. If you choose the second option, which I did, there’s a very short information screen that you fill out, and then you get an automated email with a link to click to complete the process. In less than 5 minutes, you’re ready to start.
Once you do have an account, it’s extremely easy to create and set up a course, too. It’s also easy to go back and modify the setup if you decide you need to do that.
When you’re ready to enroll students in a course, that’s also easy. If you have students’ email addresses, you can just type or paste them into a box on the “enroll students” page. Instructure automatically generates usernames and passwords for them and sends invitation emails.
Instructure is hosted, which means that the company takes care of security, backups, and site administration … so teachers, schools, and colleges have one less thing to worry about. During the live demo, everyone I talked to stressed the security measures they take with students’ and teachers’ data. Still, if you want absolute control of student data, that may be a concern for you.
It’s also very easy to create Assignments, Pages, and Discussions. I really like the Discussions feature, which incorporates everything I had hoped for the Continuing Virtual Seminar – including the ability to respond not just in writing, but with audio or video. And you don’t have to use an external audio or video program; audio and video support is built right into the system. You just use your microphone and/or webcam, and Instructure does the rest.
Any time you’re working with text, Instructure uses the same, very simple editing screen. If you can use any word processor, you won’t need any explanation at all.
It’s remarkably easy to create links … not just to other Assignments or Pages within your course, but to external websites. For example, on this page, there’s a link to Fabella Prīma of Cursus Prīmus … and it took no time or effort to create. It’s also very easy to upload files and images, and to work with them once you’ve uploaded them.
You can also link to external images … for example, in this quiz, the images are the ones you see in Cursus Prīmus and (since we purchased the right to use them for Tres Columnae) it was simple to make links to them as well. In one case, the image link didn’t seem to want to be pasted in the normal way, but it was easy to click the “switch views” link and just paste the link into the HTML code. (That may have been a server issue on Instructure’s end, or it may have been due to an internet connection glitch I was having that day; in any case, it only happened once or twice.)
Instructure has a beautiful rubric generator, and it’s quite simple to re-use and tweak rubrics that you’ve created. You can have students use the rubrics for self-assessment, and you can even have students assess each other’s work on an Assignment or a Discussion if you want.
Instructure’s built-in Gradebook has a lot of options for sorting and reporting, and you can even download and upload grades.
I haven’t had the chance to look at them yet, but there’s a nice-looking Chat feature for real-time discussion, and the Conferences feature is designed for synchronous work like online lectures, screen sharing, or “virtual office hours” (according to the Conferences tab). For what we’ll be doing with Tres Columnae, it probably isn’t that useful, but for a more conventional course, it would be extremely helpful.
The weakest part of Instructure at the moment is its Quizzes function. The Quiz editor works like all other text-editing functions of Instructure, so it’s simple and flexible, and you can create groups of questions from which the program will automatically choose – so that each student gets a slightly different quiz. But there’s no way to bank and reuse questions. If you want, for example, a practice quiz and a graded quiz with similar questions, you have to create both quizzes from scratch and re-enter the questions. Instructure does have an Import function, but it’s really designed to import whole courses that were created in a system like Blackboard or WebCT. I’m told that the Quiz features will be significantly improved when the next update to the program comes out later this summer. (Given the download / upload features already in place, that shouldn’t be too difficult for them to add.)
Overall, I was very impressed with Instructure and look forward to using it for the “non-public” aspects of the Tres Columnae Project as well as for the public demo. I’m particularly interested in using it for
- self-correcting exercises and quizzes (which will be even better when they improve that module)
- the Continuing Virtual Seminar (I haven’t found anything, anywhere, that works as well for this), and even
- the creation, editing, and approval of participant-generated content.
If any of you do decide to try out Instructure, just let the folks there know how you heard about them. They seem to think the Tres Columnae Project is cool and interesting – and of course I agree, but I might just be a bit biased! 🙂 And they’re very committed to improving their product.
Tune in next time, when we’ll take a brief look at some other Instructure features I didn’t have time or space to mention today. Then we’ll start looking at another series of stories – the actual wedding of Vipsānius and Valeria from Lectiō XXIV. That will probably take us through the rest of the week. I’ll be at the American Classical League Institute in Winston-Salem, NC, from Saturday through Monday, and I’ll be making a presentation about Tres Columnae at one of the Saturday sessions. Depending on how things go, that may mean that our posts later this week are a bit shorter than usual. Also, there may or may not be a post on Monday or Tuesday next week – but I’ll try to make sure that there’s something, even if it’s just a sentence or two. And I’ll try to have a full report about ACL once I’ve returned home and recovered a bit!