In the 12 years that UC Santa Barbara has used GauchoSpace, the pressure for the learning management platform to run smoothly has never been greater, now that the coronavirus has forced classes completely online.
Professors, teaching assistants and students are in the midst of cramming a quarter’s worth of normally in-person courses into GauchoSpace’s online platform, effectively shifting lecture material, Zoom links and tests into one website accessed by thousands of people on a daily basis.
Since the beginning of spring quarter, website visits have nearly tripled, up from about 8,360,000 in February, before remote instruction, to about 32,720,000 in April, according to Bret Brinkman, director of instructional technology services in Letters and Science Information Technology (IT).
The bulk of the work for the GauchoSpace Development and Support team, Brinkman said, is responding to bug reports or requests for help using the platform. For spring quarter, the team upgraded GauchoSpace’s capacity for connections to help the site function with heavy traffic, according to Gus Wood, instructional applications operational expert for GauchoSpace Development and Support.
“GauchoSpace wasn’t designed and set up for quite this environment right out the box, so we’ve kind of been looking at analytics of use and then applying changes to the system configuration as we go,” Wood said.
When a user has an issue with GauchoSpace, they can either submit a ticket to the support team explaining the issue or attend the Monday to Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. drop-in College of Letters and Science IT hours over Zoom. The team works remotely now, but Wood considered the transition “fairly seamless.”
Recently, Wood’s team spends “more time than usual” helping instructors — who’ve never used GauchoSpace in any significant capacity — navigate the platform and tailor their classes to an online curriculum. Wood added that his team needed to help many instructors set up and use the testing options on GauchoSpace. Not all instructors use GauchoSpace to conduct exams, but there have been disputes between university members and proctoring services, such as ProctorU, about privacy concerns.
Testing administered through GauchoSpace is by far the biggest use of data on the platform, especially due to remote learning, according to Diane Soini, GauchoSpace’s learning management system programmer.
“If you have 800 people and the quiz closes all at once for all of them, all of a sudden, several systems have to calculate everybody’s grade and submit all of their submissions,” Soini said. “It’s a pretty big hit to the system.”
The GauchoSpace Development and Support team can monitor exams with tight deadlines in real time in order to respond quickly to issues that could occur during the testing period, according to Soini.
Wood manages seven graduate student instructional design assistants who help the website perform various tasks, with the bulk of their work spent helping professors and teaching assistants successfully utilize the platform.
With midterms in full swing, the challenge of adapting tests and quizzes to an online platform while maintaining the tests’ rigor and difficulty level has kept the design assistants busy answering questions and concerns from instructors.
“We can provide advice on what question types to use, and depending on how instructors would prefer to grade their midterms, what settings to use and we address a lot of concerns about cheating,” Erica Johnson, an instructional design assistant, said.
Although cheating remains an issue for some professors, Johnson said the opportunity to cheat is unlikely to disappear.
“We can’t say that there’s a way to completely prevent cheating and sharing of answers, but there are some measures that we can take in the online tools that we use to minimize that.”
Johnson added that essay-style questions, randomizing the order of questions and answers and time limits are all effective tools for preventing cheating over GauchoSpace.
Another instructional design assistant, Jonathan Downey, added that the graduate students were generally working more hours now, with most of the graduate students working on average 20 hours a week — double the hours of last quarter.
“A lot of grad students will be TAs and whatnot, this is kind of what I do in lieu of that,” Downey said.
GauchoSpace, which was built on an open-source platform called Moodle, allows the support team to share tips with other universities about how they’ve learned to adapt GauchoSpace using Moodle under the new circumstances.
Utilising Moodle’s open-source software, programmers across different universities can share how they’ve solved bugs and shortened the time a support team needs to troubleshoot, according to Hector Gonzalez, GauchoSpace’s instructional applications programmer.
While UCSB announced Tuesday that all summer sessions would be carried out through remote instruction, the fate of in-person classes for fall quarter remains uncertain. Until the university makes its decision, the GauchoSpace team will need to keep up its increased support level.
“We’re definitely going to need to maintain that elevated level of support,” Wood said. “I would say that’s what we’re anticipating.”