CTools gets major upgrade

By Peter Shahin, Daily News Editor
Published January 8, 2013

It’s new, but more of the same.

Over Winter Break, the University's Information and Technology Services launched an update for CTools, bringing a new user interface and a basic level of integration with services like Google and Box. The upgrade focuses on improving ease of use and stability.

“Students would be most interested in the improved navigation and the overall user experience and user interface,” said Sean DeMonner, ITS director of teaching and learning. “There’s been a lot of emphasis on reliability. As you might imagine, CTools is a mission critical application.”

The latest upgrade includes improvements such as collapsible windows, easier access to each course site and fewer clicks to get to frequently accessed material. The upgrade also includes pass-through links to University partners, such as Google and Box—a file storage site—to help students access information stored elsewhere.

While CTools does not offer native support for these platforms, DeMonner said further integration would be a focal point for future upgrades to CTools. He said the next upgrade, which will probably focus on stability issues and minor enhancements, will occur around March of this year.

“We don’t yet know exactly what will be in those releases, but it’s likely that we will continue to pursue our strategy of integrating external services and making deeper ties with external systems we already have on campus,” DeMonner said.

DeMonner said he envisions a system in which an instructor could create an assignment within CTools that would automatically update on every student’s Google calendar. He said students would then be able to turn in their assignments on Box.

ITS is currently working with its partner services to establish roster level access — the hierarchy needed to differentiate between kinds of users — and integrate MCommunity Groups to make these cross-platform interactions possible.

Wolverine Access is also due for an interface overhaul, DeMonner said. He added that although maintained by a separate group within ITS, the multi-functional site is due for an upgrade “within the next couple of semesters.”

“They’re looking at updating the underlying software and updating the user interface,” DeMonner said. “Basically trying to refresh it and make the user experience a little more modern.

DeMonner added that student input will be included in the coming redesign of Wolverine Access.

Even with the new upgrade, ITS is looking to the future of CTools and hopes to completely replace the current system in order to best implement its long-term strategy. DeMonner projected the current incarnation of CTools using this underlying software package will continue to be used for “at least one or two (more) years.”

“We’re beginning to have conversations about what’s next,” DeMonner said. “We know these platforms don’t live forever … There’s certain kind of capabilities that we’d like to make available and require some new technologies to do that.”

LSA sophomore John Balle said he was surprised by the change and wasn’t aware that it was coming.

“I thought I was on the wrong site at first,” Balle said. “Once I clicked it, it works exactly the same as it used to be, so I think it’s good.”

Balle said he would like to see tighter integration with Google services to better facilitate collaborative efforts, particularly with Google Docs.

Not all students were receptive of the change, however. LSA sophomore Taylor Hesano said she didn’t like needing to manually change the courses that were available on the top menu and that she was surprised by the change.

Hesano added that transitioning over the summer would have given students more time to acclimate to the new system, rather than the recent transition over Winter Break.

“I feel like it’s kind of cluttered right now,” Hesano said. “I wish they hadn’t done it so close to the start of the semester so I had time to get used to it.”