ArsDigita Archives

The ArsDigita Community System Education Solution

for the ArsDigita Systems Journal, by Caroline Meeks (, Robert Mangel (

Submitted on: 2000-09-30
Last updated: 2000-09-30

ArsDigita : ArsDigita Systems Journal : One article

At today's educational institutions, busy schedules and busy lives make it difficult for people to connect outside of class. The challenge of connecting is especially difficult for part-time students and distance learning students, since they are rarely on campus. Web-based collaboration systems help to alleviate the connection problem by making it easier for students and faculty to share information, to arrange meetings, and to collaborate in general.

This article explains how the ArsDigita Community System Education Solution (ACES) enhances the educational experience for students, faculty, and administrators. We discuss the implementation of the education solution at MIT's Sloan School of Management to illustrate how the tools enhance the educational experience for students in traditional learning environment. Where relevant, we illustrate our points with examples from other ACS-backed educational sites, including those operated by MIT Engineering, CalTech, ArsDigita University and ClinSights. We also consider in detail how the system provide a strong platform for creating distance learning environments.

The three key strengths of the education solution, in brief, are as follows:

  1. Community collaboration: The ArsDigita Community System (ACS) application suite is designed to foster collaboration in a variety of settings. A key strength of the education solution comes from its ability to draw on the various collaboration and community tools that have been tested in educational, business, and nonprofit environments. For the educational solution, the key collaboration feature sets are communication tools, group document management, and group administration.
  2. Customization: The education solution uses a modular portal system to achieve user and class level customization. Portals bring all relevant course information to the learner on a unified home page. The instructor has wide control over the class page and additional administrative options that allow for extensive flexibility and different course styles.
  3. Open source suite of integrated applications: In today's fast changing environment, open source software applications provide solutions that are more reliable, easier to extend and to integrate, and less costly to maintain than closed-source approaches.

Community Collaboration: Communication, Group Document Management, Group Administration

Semesters always start out with high expectations.  Students vow to be more organized, to keep track of  important class notes, to get to know new classmates.  Just like New Year's resolutions, these vows tend to slip as the rush of the semester takes hold.  Students ask themselves:  Who can I call to get help with this assignment?  Where are my notes for chapter 3? Was the exam really this morning?

Faculty make similar promises.  This semester they'll learn everybody's name the first week.  They'll be available for questions and discussions and they'll really get to know the students.  They'll post assignments early and make sure lecture notes are easily available.  Changes to the schedule will be posted far ahead of time ...

With a little assistance, both students and professors can keep more of these promises.  Systems like the ACS education solution help both faculty and students to organize their work in class and to work together more closely.  Much of the learning is still done face-to-face, but the software tools make it easier to connect, and they open new channels for communication.  For example, online directories help students and faculty get to know each other more quickly.  Enhanced email and bulletin board systems provide many different ways for students and faculty to communicate and to keep track of communications.  Group calendars take much of the pain out of coordinating meetings, and file storage systems keep all the relevant course material in one easy to locate area.

A potential downside of adding new forms of communication is that students and faculty may become overwhelmed by too much information.  There is also the challenge of making sure that appropriate privacy is maintained.  It is therefore important for the software tools to help users keep the information organized, to automate the process of identifying relevant and new information, and to provide controls for limiting the access of information to appropriate parties.  We explain below how the different collaboration tools are designed to achieve these goals.

The education solution provides several options for email communications.  Students, faculty and administrators can use the directory module to find individual email addresses.  Instructors and administrators also have access to direct targeted-email for thier class by role (ie send email to all studnetsw or all TAs ina specific class). Access to targeted-email functions, directory and bio listings can be custom configured to meet the privacy needs of the institution. For instance, at Sloan only a member of a class can see the student list for that class. For 6.916, an engineering class at MIT, the student directory listing shows student problem set evaluations only to the evaluated student and to instructors, but it will not show evaluations to other students.

Bulletin Boards are a key feature of the ACS education solution. In addition to the normal threaded bulletin board functionality, there are a number of other useful features.  Students can see from their home page if there are new messages. They can also sign up to be alerted via email when a topic of interest is mentioned, when a certain author posts, or when a designated keyword is used in the discussion.  By using these automated features, students can stay on top of relevant information without wading through every posted message or comment.

Special Announcements --using the ACS news module--provide links to items that appear on both the user and group portals. To announce a change in plans, such as a class cancellation or a new guest speaker, the professor adds an announcement to the specific class page and the announcement also automatically appears on each class member's home portal page.

Finally, collaborative group calendaring provides a powerful tool to help students, faculty, and administrators coordinate meetings. Once students have joined a class or online community group, events from that group are automatically placed onto each student's personal calendar. Students can also add items to their individual calendars, providing them with one web accessible place to keep their schedule. Instructors can easily modify any of their calendar items if there is a last minute change in time or venue.
Group document management: The education solution contains several features that streamline the process of managing lectures notes, handouts and other resources for classes. The documents and links are categorized as Handouts, Lecture Notes, Assignments, etc.. This categorization makes it easier for students and faculty to quickly find the material they are seeking. The Internet addresses for these materials, i.e. the URLs, are bookmarkable and constant, which means that they will be available even after class is over. To further aid organization, these documents can be linked to one or more events in the class calendar. For example, an assignment can be linked to the day it is discussed in lecture and to the day it is due. Finally, new material is highlighted. Users can choose whether to see material that was posted during the last day, the last several days, or whatever time period they desire.

Group Administration: The educational solution sets up custom user groups and database structures for departments, subjects and classes that mirror the actual workings of a bricks and mortar university. The different user groups each have their own administrator, i.e. a professor administrates her individual classes. This dispersion of administrative duties greatly reduces work load on the IT and administrative staff.

Custom roles for a university include: Professor, TA, Student and Dropped Student. Site wide administrators can add new roles as needed. Instructors for each course control whether a student can self-enroll in the class or must request permission to join. Even if the course is set up to allow self enrollment, the instructors can still manage class lists from a separate control panel. This feature allows group administrators complete control over class access and roles.


Perhaps the best way to illustrate the flexibility of the system is to consider its implementation at the Sloan School. ArsDigita collaborated with the Sloan School to design a system for MIT's business school community. Eight classes used the system as part of a pilot program in Fall 2000, leading to a user community of approximately 700 students and faculty.

Sloan identified several key objectives during the initial design phase of the program: create a system that was easy for faculty to use, that provided relevant information to students quickly, and that had reliable performance. Two other key objectives included making the system flexible for the faculty to use and yet consistent from the student perspective; goals that on the surface seem to be contradictory.

Portals: User centered customization

How do you achieve these seemingly competing goals--flexibility for faculty and yet consistency across courses. Faculty want to organize their course material in a way that is logical for their course, but students do not want to hunt through 5 or 6 completely different web sites to find out what they need to do. And those faculty that have already created web-based materials do not want to start from scratch.

To achieve a degree of consistency while allowing for user control, we implemented portals. Portals have a modular design that enables integration of various ACS modules, while giving each stakeholder control over their own view. The ACS Portals package allows creation of individual portlets for each module in the ACS as well as custom portlets for custom applications or static html. Upon registering, Sloan students each receive a personal portal in a default configuration, giving them easy access to all the functionality of the system. The portal automatically aggregates content from each class to the student's home portal. Students can further personalize their home portal by choosing different portlets and by rearranging their portal's layout.

These screen shots of calendar and file-storage show different display options designed by Sloan. Because the code is open source, other institutions can easily design and build their own display portlets.

Portals: Group centered customization

The Sloan faculty also needed a place to call home for their class, a place where they have complete control over the portal layout and information presented. The education solution provided them with class portals,  where Sloan faculty and TAs have full administrative privileges for just their class. A control panel provides easy access to web screens used for administrative tasks.

Instructors who have existing static web sites can easily transfer their html in one of two ways. They can create a custom portal containing the desired html, or they can simply upload an html file into a specifically named file. For example, all courses will normally have a syllabus. If the instructor uploads html into the syllabus file, the system will automatically display the html-based syllabus in a specialized portal.

The Sloan community consists of more than classes, so the education solution also uses portals to create general "communities". Communities are user groups that can be used for anything from student clubs to small group collaborations. Each community has access to the full range of ACS tools supplied to classes. Individuals, such as student officers of a club, can be given administrative privileges and can control their own community's content.

Sloan: The user experience

The day to day experience for an ACES user varies as much as the individuals who use it. Sloan students enrolled in a full schedule of classes and involved in a number of communities will likely customize their home portal and keep their entire calendar on the system. These students will benefit the most from features like "New Stuff", which allows them to sort out what is really current and changing. Students enrolled in just one class might simply bookmark the class page and find all their information there. Faculty and TA's spend much of their time at their control panel adding new information, managing users, and monitoring student activity.

To date, user feedback has been very positive for the Sloan pilot. The original target for the pilot was 5 to 7 classes, however 8 classes asked to join.  Al Essa, Executive Director of Information Technology at the Sloan School, states "Implementing the ACS Education Solution adds significant value to Sloan by taking class discussions beyond the classroom and onto the Internet." Sloan plans continued enhancements to the system and is making it available to all of its classes and student groups in Spring 2001.

The ACS open source approach

The open source approach benefits universities of all resource levels.  Since the application is free and open source, resource-constrained universities are not tied into expensive licensing agreements with vendors. A university can choose to adopt a system with the core functionality, for no cost, and then maintain the system internally. Or, it can choose any vendor it wishes to maintain the system.  An added benefit of the ArsDigita approach is that ArsDigita provides free training for the ACS system. Thus almost any university can easily develop the skills needed to maintain a basic system.

The open source approach also benefits resource-rich institutions that wish to invest in a more sophisticated and customized system. Open source systems are easier to customize and easier to integrate with legacy systems -- those existing computer systems built by other vendors. In a university setting, legacy systems may exist to keep track of student payments, registration, and other activities. Rather than replace these systems, the school may choose to integrate them with the new educational application. Since anybody can access the actual programming code in open source systems, it is easy for parties from different organizations to collaborate in creating a new system. Likewise, access to the code helps those working to integrate the new applications with existing systems.

In short, whether customizing the system to meet the special needs of the university or working with the system to integrate legacy applications, open source provides a strong advantage. Consider one example from Sloan's experience. A month before the pilot, there were concerns about performance of the system due to a very slow subnetwork in the Sloan computer labs. As Sloan was not tied to any hosting vendor, Sloan was able to configure a machine and host internally on very short notice. The system has been reliable and performance has been excellent.

Integrated Suite of applications

The education solution represents an integration of ACS tools, thus allowing universities to choose the specific pieces of the system it wishes to adopt.  Universities can choose the simple core that is common to most educational settings or they can choose more advanced modules that may serve the special needs of a given institution.

All sorts of organizations are using collaboration to improve their performance, and many of these organizations use the ACS platform. Collaborative applications like bulletin boards, shared calendars, and shared file systems have a similar design, whether used in a university setting or elsewhere. These basic, open source programs are thus tested by many users in a variety of settings, leading to more robust programs and a richer set of features.

A University can take advantage of these advanced collaboration approaches being developed for large for-profit and non-profit organizations. For example, Siemens developed a knowledge sharing system based on the ACS. This advanced, award-winning system allows salespeople from around the globe to share best practice information about client interactions. Universities who want to integrate such elaborate knowledge sharing tools can seamlessly adopt a similar application into their suite of other programs. Because the system is open source, universities can also collaborate with each other to create shared packages to meet specific functionality requirements. 

In our current information age, universities must provide a high level of technological access and technical education just to remain competitive . To really stand out, universities must constantly search for new ways to take advantage of the web's potential for enhancing the learning experience. Providing access to "real world" content management systems, project management, collaborative presentations and other systems enables the students to get a head start in using professional collaboration technologies.

Distance Learning

In many ways, distance-learning environments require the same tools as any university environment. There are, however, some special needs in distance learning, and ACES can be customized to address these needs.

Issues in Distance learning:
  1. Increased reliance on on-line chat and video streaming.
  2. Students with vastly different levels of preparation and learning goals.
  3. Student Isolation.
Chat and Video Streaming:
Many online courses have video or online lectures. Sloan is currently handling video by simply giving the file-storage system an URL that points to an outside source. The ACS also has a chat module that could be used in online courses. Using the current chat system, all chat messages are stored in the database, making it possible to retrieve transcripts at a later time. Also, instructors have the ability to moderate chat session. Future enhancements to chat might include allowing for chat threading; i.e. users can click on a specific message to respond directly. This in turn makes it possible to create even more useful, well formatted archives of the chat sessions. Such transcripts could be automatically posted to the class or e-mailed to class members.
Pre-testing and customizing content delivery.
At a traditional university, students in a class are 'relatively' homogeneous. Universities generally screen students before admitting them, instructors specify course prerequisites, and all the students are usually working towards the same goal, earning a degree. In contrast, distance learners may be far more varied in background and motivation. They may already be experts in the topic and want to quickly browse through for new information, or they may be total novices.

One way to deal with this variety is to customize delivery of content based on the results of testing. For example, the ACS survey module includes branching, which means the site can deliver different content depending on previous answers to questions. A specific example of customizing content is the site used for This site helps thoracic surgeons prepare for the annual Transcatheter Cardiovascular Therapeutics (TCT) conference and test. Doctors take an online Self Assessment test and can view videos relating to each section. They can compare their results with the aggregate scores of the other doctors tested, and the questions they receive are in part determined by answers to earlier questions. This approach helps the deliver its content efficiently to a busy community of learners that have significantly different levels of relevant knowledge.
Isolation for Distance Learners
In a bricks and mortar class you see your peers in class, you are in the same time zone and your schedules overlap. These traditional students are generally all working on the same problems at more or less the same time. For instance, if you are taking 6.916 Software Engineering of Innovative Web Services at MIT, you can go to the computer lab, and, if you are stuck, you can look around and see who is on the same problem. To get help from a TA you simply look up and see who is in the room to ask for help. The challenge is to recreate this type of community in a distance learning situation, where people may all be working on different tasks in different locations. Otherwise, distance learning can be an isolating experience, where it is hard to find peers and to work with them.

Here are a couple of solutions to the problem of physical isolation. The ACS has a "who's online" feature that can be used to help students find peers or teachers who are currently online. Also, in addition to being a member of the whole class, a student can be automatically enrolled in subgroups for each problem set or content area that she is currently working on. The subgroup membership feature provides for great flexibility in customizing the content shown to that user. For instance, each problem set can have its own bboard, chat, and content.

Likewise the community applications can be used for study groups and project teams so that distance learners can collaborate in smaller subcommunities. These groups could be automatically created based on several criteria, including geography, interests and goals, or problem set. The flexibility of the educational solution's subcommunity and portals system simplifies the process of customizing the solution for each course and situation.


ACES is a flexible open source system that can be applied to many different learning situations.  A central goal of the education solution is to make it easier for people to connect in person and online. The system is not designed to increase interaction between students and machines, but rather to increase interaction among students and between faculty and students. To fulfill this goal, the software system draws on the many collaborative tools in the general ACS to provide a variety of communication and collaboration options.