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Davis, California

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Campus wises up to the Smartsite

With a name like Smartsite, you’d think everyone would be using UC Davis’ course management system as a personal study buddy.

In reality, the cutting edge courseware technology is still young and developing, and faces a number of common misconceptions that keep students and professors from realizing the full “smartness” of its potential.

First implemented in the fall of 2007, what students know as “Smartsite” is actually UC Davis’ personally customized version of an internationally used courseware technology called “Sakai.”

So what is Sakai? According to its website, the Sakai Collaboration and Learning Environment is an online application which brings together over 160 worldwide educational institutions to develop an online support network for course instruction, research and project collaboration.

Andy Jones, a lecturer in the University Writing Program and program coordinator at the Teaching Resources Center, describes Smartsite in terms of Facebook applications, as a collaborative website which brings students and teachers together and provides an “open source” for computer programmers to create new courseware applications that best fit each user’s needs.

“New updated versions of Smartsite come out regularly, at least quarterly,” Jones said. “What this means is new tools that have been created by other universities come up all the time. So we’ve got this huge braintrust to draw from [which includes] all the universities that work together to benefit Smartsite as a whole.”

Since it began beta-testing at UC Davis in 2006, faculty members who use the site have heralded it with mixed, but largely positive reviews, as many express that the biggest obstacle is simply the time commitment to overcoming the technological learning curve.

“The variety of tools it offers can be pretty daunting, but if you narrow it down to the tools you feel more comfortable with, you’ll surely be able to find some way to increase the effectiveness of your teaching with the technology,” said Donald Meisenheimer, a lecturer in the University Writing Program, and longtime supporter of the application. “I have personally been able to switch to a paperless classroom because of Smartsite’s Assignment and Drop Box tools. Students turn in their essays through the site, I add comments to their documents, grade them and return them through the site.”

Still, despite its many admirable qualities, many students express frustration in the occasionally counter-intuitive organization of the site, where classes from past quarters are displayed actively on the tab bar, syllabi are hidden in the “resources” or “assignments” tab and empty links leave students stranded on the island of “there is currently nothing in this location.”

As with many new technologies, many professors are still battling with learning how to use the site correctly, leaving their confused students skeptical of its actual effectiveness.

“I feel like it’s just not user friendly,” said Joe Garibaldi, a senior managerial economics major who has used the site in several of his classes. “Part of that might be the professors’ fault because they file things under the wrong categories and don’t know how to use it, but if they’re going to make us use it for class it should at least be better organized so you can find what you need.”

To assist those still struggling with overcoming its technical idiosyncrasies, both students and professors have a large support network of those who have made the most of what Sakai technology has to offer.

“We try hard to be very straight and upfront about where we are with this project and what it can and cannot do,” said Steve Faith, the technology training coordinator for UC Davis’ Academic Technology Services in an e-mail interview. “The workshops and trainings that we offer are a big part of easing the transition and helping professors understand how Smartsite can be a valuable and timesaving tool both in and out of the classroom.”


MICHELLE IMMEL can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.


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