Converting Social Networking Software into Course Management Software

It is no secret that I rely heavily on social software throughout my teaching. With the exception of a few courses, which are heavily technical in nature, I apply social software in just about every one of my classes. However, in the past, I have utilized a combined approach, relying on the grade book available in institutional course management software (i.e. Blackboard, Angel), while utilizing social software to facilitate discussions, group writing and blogging. Feedback from students in recent iterations has suggested I use only one system.

And why not?

Well, first, it’s hard to find the time to develop them for one… . But I gave it a shot never-the-less.

This summer, I decided to teach an accelerated online course on human computer interaction (HCI). In order to move to the singular model, where all course requirements and objectives are available within one system, a few technical requirements needed to be made…

First, with the help from the folks at ClearDev, I moved SocialXYZ to HTTPS. The HTTPS protocol ensures that website data being sent to and from is encrypted. Usually this doesn’t matter, but across open networks, such as coffee shops, airports and public wifi, it is very important to help ensure that student grades are kept secure.


Next, I needed to implement that gradebook to store those ‘secure’ grades I eluded to. This wasn’t so difficult, but it did require me to think quickly and creatively as to what a gradebook needs, without overdoing the requirements. After all, I had less than two weeks to analyze, design and implement this thing (I wonder if Blackboard operated on such time frames). The result is illustrated below. It’s not the prettiest gradebook, but it provides all the necessary functionality including the Assignment Name (and link to), Grade, Instructor Feedback, Due Date and Status (open or closed). The backend consists of two database tables for gradebook_items and student_gradebook_items, which links specific students to their grades for those items.


Finally, I also needed to add quizzes. This was more involved and required three new database tables. One for the quiz, which tracks each quiz and metadata surrounding each quiz such as the quiz id, quiz chapter information, quiz status as open or closed. A second table tracked quiz_questions, which paired specific questions, available multiple choice responses and correct answers. A third table linked students with their quiz answers.

The quiz interface required two new views of the database data. The first, illustrated below, is the user interface for taking quizzes. Students can save a quiz and return as long as the quiz remained open. Students can also submit a quiz, but return later on and edit their responses. Quiz answers are not shown until a quiz is closed.


The second interface, illustrated below, is the user interface for reviewing quizzes. A nice feature of this quiz, while simplistic, provides users with a breakdown of class responses per question.


With the summer session wrapping up this week, I am hoping to get some valuable feedback from students. In the past, I have focused specifically on interaction and community, with less emphasis on learning, so it will be interesting to see if students value this model better. Again, this is an accelerated online course, so results will not be conclusive, but they will provide very useful insight. I will also be able to compare these results to results from accelerated courses using Blackboard, albeit from a different course subject matter.

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Social Networking Strategies for Non-Profits: A Service Learning Project

This semester I implemented a service learning component to my COMP342 course, Internet-based Social Networking. The course is cross-listed with communications and sociology, but the course is much more than that and, this semester, services students from performing arts, art, psychology, health sciences, business and liberal studies. As an upper-division interdisciplinary general education technology elective, COMP342 introduces students to concepts from sociology, computer science, media studies, and philosophy to understand internet-based social networks, cultural and structural conditions of online communication, virtual identity construction, management of digital media, and the impact online social networks have on various institutions of society. More so, the course explores social networking in both on-line and off-line spaces and introduces how widely popular internet-based social networks, such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, can have an effect on the formal organization, including non-profit organizations and college campuses.

In past semesters, I have implemented high-impact practices into COMP342, requiring all students to participate in an online course learning community, SocialXYZ, which I host on In spring 2016, during Project OLAS, I explored ways to integrate service learning into COMP342. I had this vague notion that millennials, who are already well versed in the art of internet-based social networking, might facilitate non-profit organizations in their social media endeavors, while learning a thing or two about the non-profit world in the meantime. Thus, my endeavor began.

As my first attempt at implementing service learning, I focused on low-hanging fruit that would allow students to develop an overall social media strategy for their partner organizations based on various material covered in COMP342. The timeline of events and evolution of course content can be organized into the following categories.

Project Kickoff

During the project kickoff, I met with the Center for Community Engagement, specifically Dennis Downey and Pilar Pacheco, to discuss approaches to service learning. Both were instrumental in educating me on the potential benefits of service learning for students, faculty and our community partners. They also provided numerous external resources and presented exemplary service learning projects conducted at CI.

Course Redesign

The next steps involved modifying the COMP342 syllabus. First, I altered the final project and presentation to be centered on service learning with the added twist that it be collaborative and constructed using the SocialXYZ wiki. Additionally, I modified course milestones, which typically consisted of online discussions and blog reflections to be centered on service learning activities. I also constructed a new document to carefully outline service learning expectations for students. This document helped frame service learning as defined by CI policy, which is “a teaching and learning approach that integrates community service with academic study to enrich learning, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities, while engaging students in reflection upon what was experienced, how the community was benefited, and what was learned.” The document also identified required time commitments for students.

Community Partner Meetings

With the help of the Center for Community Engagement, including Pilar Pacheco and Kaitlyn Cotton, I was able to meet with eight service learning partners prior to the start of the spring semester, with six partners confirming their participation for spring. These meetings consisted of email, face-to-face conversations and phone conversations and helped to narrow-down the project scope, establish student-partner expectations and re-confirm time-commitments. As agreed upon, the project would be flexible, but would focus on 1) developing an overarching strategy for how organizations might adopt a specific social networking strategy or 2) reexamine the organizations existing social networking strategy. This project would be a collaborative effort between students and partners where students learn key concepts from COMP342 and align them with the needs of their partner organizations.

Service Learning Implementation

Service learning projects were broken into multiple milestones as follows.

During Phase 1, Project Initiation, students were introduced to our community partners, including El Centrito Family Learning Centers, Palmer Drug Abuse Program of Ventura County, One Step a la Vez, Straight-Up Ventura County, Santa Paula Art Museum and CI Outreach. During the first week of classes, community partners presented students with the mission and scope of their organization. This also provided students with the chance to meet with partners during break-out sessions. Phase 1 also required students to select a partner and learn more about the organization’s mission and scope and present the information back to the classroom using the SocialXYZ wiki, illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure1Figure 1 – Straight-Up Wiki

During Phase 2 – Requirements Gathering, students performed a more detailed analysis of existing OSN technologies to gain an understanding of various social technologies that support individuals and groups. During this phase, students also worked with community partners to identify OSN strategies that could support organizational needs identified during Phase 1. At this stage students learned more about their respective organizations and constructed Personas, which are a systems design technique for understanding and characterizing individual users of a system, illustrated in Figure 2. Students were also required to align specific internet-based social networking technologies within the social media design framework (SMDF) to understand what aspects of the technology may be useful for their partner organization, illustrated in Figure 3.

Figure2Figure 2 – CI Outreach Persona


Figure 3 – El Centrito SMDF Blog Post

During Phase 3 – Implementation, students will finalize their working framework or design document for how organizations can achieve the objectives set forth in Phase 1 and Phase 2. This can be a set of guidelines or best practices for how they might integrate social networking technologies into their partner organization. This milestone will be managed through the SocialXYZ, which will be opened up for sharing with our community partners. In fact, this wiki document will serve as the primary artifact for knowledge transfer.

During Phase 4 – Presentation, project teams will construct a comprehensive poster that will highlight their work and achievements during the semester. Invitations will be sent to community partners to attend the Celebration of Service event held by the Center for Community Engagement. The event will allow students to share their findings, not just with their specific community partner, but with all of our community partners. Additionally, posters will be uploaded to SocialXYZ and classmates will have the opportunity to reflect on their service learning project and respond to the work of their classmates.

Service Learning Reflection

Overall, I have had a valuable experience introducing service learning to my COMP342 course and believe that students and community partners benefited as well.

Faculty Benefits of Service Learning: From my own perspective, adding service learning to COMP342 allowed me to frame academic content in the context of some real-world organizational need and many course assignments were tied directly to student-progress with their community partners. Additionally, adding service learning to COMP342 helped strengthen my connection with one of CI’s core mission pillars and provided me the opportunity to work closely with members of the Center for Community Engagement and engage with many dedicated community partners.

Student Benefits of Service Learning: For students, a revamped COMP342 challenged them to align core COMP342 concepts with the needs of our community partners. In doing so, students were tasked with developing a solution to a real-world problem through team collaboration and partner coordination. In the process, students also developed rich relationships with their classmates and community partners as they modeled user-populations and constructed viable strategies for social technology adoption.

Partner Benefits of Service Learning: For our community partners, COMP342 provides a new lens for viewing how social networking technologies might be adopted within an organizational setting. In addition to possible technical improvements, COMP342 has also helped our partner organizations enhance awareness of their organization as students present their work in a public forum.

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How Green is the Cloud? – A Field Trip to Cal Tech

How Green is the Cloud? – A Field Trip to Cal Tech

Wednesday, April 19, 2017 3pm-10pm

Have you ever wondered how much energy it takes to run a single Google search? It may haunt you, but every search query Google executes is equivalent to turning on a 60W light bulb for 17 seconds! Google Search, like many other technologies we use, including uploading grams to Insta or playing with filters on Snap, rely on cloud computing services.

Background: On April 19th, the Department of Computer Science and Prof. Brian Thoms will bring a group of 20 students to Cal Tech to tour the campus, have a small bite to eat and attend the Earnest C. Watson Seminar Series. The seminar, titled, “How Green is the Cloud,” will be given by Dr. Adam Wierman, and will introduce students to his ongoing research at Caltech aimed at building a sustainable computing infrastructure—one where data centers are powered by renewable energy and even serve as virtual energy-storage facilities for more broadly integrating renewable energy into the electrical grid. Participating students will also receive a copy of the text, Sustainability Principles and Practice.

You can discover more about Dr. Wierman and the Cal Tech lecture series here:

Who is invited: All CI students are invited, but preference will be given to students majoring or minoring in computing-related fields. There are 20 spots!

Logistics: Buses will leave CI around 3pm on Wednesday, April 19th and will return around 10pm.

Contact Info: Students interested in participating, should contact Prof. Thoms for more information.

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Yahoo! Taking a Page from SocialXYZ!

To quote my favorite Irish play-write, who happens to be my favorite play-write, Oscar Wilde, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”

Last week my colleague asked me to go to Yahoo! and search for… Well… Anything, he said. Then he asked me to hover on one of the links that appeared on the right sidebar. What I found was very surprising. It seems that Yahoo! took a page from SocialXYZ and the research I have been working on four a few years now. Although the visualizations are not identical, the concept certainly is. The question is, “When will I see my royalty checks?” Regardless of the payout, I found it pretty flattering and certainly helped reinforce the project’s intitial goals.

Yahoo!’ News InterfaceYahoo

SocialXYZ’s Discussion Board Interface


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Here is the word cloud and abstract for work I co-authored, titled, “Towards a Sentiment Analyzing Discussion-board,” which will be presented at the 50th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences on January 7, 2017. This work is a collaborative effort with help from student-researchers Glo Mercado, Benjamin Ramirez, Jose Rodriguez and Asst. Professor Evren Erylimaz.

Abstract: In this paper we present the design and construction of a sentiment analyzing discussion board, which was used to support learning and interaction within an existing online social networking (OSN) system. More specifically, this research introduces an innovative extension to learning management software (LMS) that combines real-time sentiment analysis with the goal of fostering student engagement and course community. In this study we perform data mining to extract sentiment on over 6,000 historical discussion board posts. This initial data was analyzed for sentiment and interaction patterns and used for guiding the redesign of an existing asynchronous online discussion board (AOD). The redesign incorporates a sentiment analyzer, which allows users to analyze the sentiment of their individual contributions prior to submission. Preliminary results found that the proposed system produced more favorable outcomes when compared to existing AOD software.

B. Thoms, E. Eryilmaz, G. Mercado, B. Ramirez, J. Rodriguez. “Towards A Sentiment Analyzing Discussion Board,” Hawaiian International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS 50), Waikoloa Village, HI, Jan. 5-8, 2017.

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