Chalk Web site gets $170k boost

By Robert Katz

Chalk, the University Web site where teachers can post class materials and syllabi for students, is here to stay for at least the next three years. An additional $170,000 was recently allotted to vastly improve the system by the fall, according to a spokesman for Networking Services and Information Technologies (NSIT).

Chad Kainz, senior director of academic technologies for NSIT, called it a vindication of the short-term costs incurred while initially developing the system a few years ago, bringing electronic convenience to the University.

“We were the first to get Blackboard, and treat it as a main server [like the mail and registrar servers]. We had a feeling that this is going to catch on. So we decided to put all our eggs in one basket and bring it up right. And people have come to us and said, you have something I can use.”

At the end of the school year in 2001, there were around 200 courses on Chalk. There are now 641 courses employing the site.

The $170,000 will expand the system from something that is designed more for a small local college of three to five thousand students to a school of more than 14,000. The cost includes purchasing hardware–such as a more technically-advanced enterprise server–and the right to use licensed software.

Among the potential features of an expanded Chalk site are better connections with the registrar’s office, support of the central CNet system (one will soon be able to use his CNet ID and password to enter Chalk), more application of the e-reserve system, and support for the PDA file format, which would allow individuals to use Palm Pilots to get assignments.

The enterprise server will also allow NSIT to eliminate previous courses from students’ access pages. Currently, such classes remain on their personal page despite the fact that students may have completed the courses. Part of the reason for this is that some students received incompletes in courses and still need access to the material. Furthermore, courses cannot be archived in bulk, requiring the registrar’s office to laboriously un-enroll individual students one course at a time. Integration with the registrar will allow NSIT’s staff greater efficiency.

The enterprise server will also facilitate the SG-sponsored Syllabus Project, created to let students registering for classes look at old syllabi. Rather than logging on as a guest and navigating the links to the syllabus button on each individual course, the process of quickly finding many syllabi will be streamlined.

Another proposed feature is more efficient licensing of files for certain courses. With the new server, the University, rather than needing to pay for thousands of students to have access to copyrighted material, will need to clear only tens of students, giving Chalk greater usefulness at a minimal price.

Berthold Hoeckner, an associate professor of music, cited the difficulty of posting music files as one of his two concerns about Chalk.

“With Chalk I can easily communicate from all kinds of locations. It is like extra server space accessible to others in the class,” he said. He went on to say that he wished he did not need to deal with the administration when adding people to the class list, and that he would like to explore posting copyrighted sound files.

However, Craig Katerberg, a fourth-year in the College and resident assistant of Fishbein House in Shoreland Hall, questioned the usefulness of Chalk. “Chalk does not help teachers teach classes. If you hand it out, students will look at it. If you put it on Chalk, students won’t,” he said.

The $170,000 will replace the original server of four processors and two gigabytes of memory with two Sun Microsystems servers of eight processors, 36 gigabytes of memory, and almost a terabyte of storage. The expanded Chalk will run on Oracle, and be Java-based and SSL-encrypted for the purposes of grades.

Essentially, the upgrade will make the system more stable. “We can’t afford to have failures like we did before Christmas. In the event of one, we have an identical system sitting right there. If need be, we can cannibalize to make the first system work,” said NSIT’s Kainz.

In the end, Kainz said, this investment reflects a mass change in the way teachers and students interact. “Students are connecting in a different way,” he said.