Wednesday, October 23, 2013

How Pepperdine has Contributed to the Open-Source Sakai CLE

Even Small Institutions Can Make a Big Impact

by Alan Regan

This week, we applied a small patch to Courses (powered by Sakai). Courses is our learning management system at Pepperdine University, and the patch related to the "Home" tool within Sakai.  The Home tool is often the home page for a class or project site, which provides space for introductory information as well as a dashboard of announcements, calendar events, and similar notices.

We had discovered a peculiar issue with the Home tool.  If you edited the "Site Information Display" element and added embed code from YouTube (with iframe tags), the tool was stripping away the code.  It was peculiar, since this code is accepted in other tools like Syllabus, Lessons, and Forums.  It was even more bizarre, since a professor could go to Site Info and use Edit Site Information to add the same code -- and it would work! So, there was something unique about how the rich text editor in the Home tool was processing the code.

Our Sakai service is hosted by Longsight. We reported this situation to them.  They confirmed the issue, created a JIRA ticket (the bug tracking system used within the Sakai community), and promptly rolled up their sleeves and set to work. Shortly, they had a fix for the issue. We applied the fix to our development instance, did some testing, and then scheduled the release to production.  The patch is working, and professors can now use the default embed code from YouTube to bring their class sites to life. Better yet, the fix is available for any other institutions using Sakai, too.

This is something I love. I love the fact that, although we didn't create the fix directly, we played a part. By shining the light on an issue, reporting the problem, and testing the fix, we helped to make an open-source product just a little bit better. We've been able to contribute in this way a few times, either through sponsoring bug fixes or engaging in development projects which were then contributed back to the community.
  • Sakai 2.9's "Publish Now" feature was a feature we dreamed up based on feedback from our Pepperdine faculty members.  We contracted with Longsight to develop a solution and then worked with the Sakai CLE team to introduce it as a core enhancement in Sakai 2.9. Hat tip: Nicola Monat-Jacobs and Dr. Charles "Chuck" Severance.
  • Sakai's "Assignments" tool now offers the ability for professors to submit a document on behalf of a student. We were very excited for this feature, but soon discovered that it worked in two submission modes ("Attachments and Inline" and "Inline Only") but did not work in "Attachments Only" or "Single Uploaded File Only." We wanted to offer this feature to our professors, so we contracted with Longsight to make the feature available in all of these submission types. We also identified a display issue and worked with Longsight to fix this as well.
  • With the advent of more mixed content blocking in web browsers, we noted that Lessons would sometimes not display YouTube content. We submitted a feature request and the amazing Chuck Hedrick at Rutgers quickly improved the multimedia embed feature.
  • Sakai's Announcements tool has a reorder feature. When we upgraded from Sakai 2.6 to Sakai 2.8 a couple years ago, we enabled this feature but soon discovered that it hadn't received enough quality assurance (QA) time. A few professors reported issues and we engaged Longsight on fixes. In the end, the feature was improved and is working well in Sakai 2.8 and Sakai 2.9.
  • And the list goes on. We've collaborated with Longsight on several other small fixes, whether in Gradebook, Tests & Quizzes, or other tools, to improve the software bit by bit. We've also contributed to improvements to tool documentation for Site Info, Assignments, Web Content, and others.
So, I am proud that as a small institution, we can make a contribution to the Sakai community. And I am very grateful to our partner, Longsight, since they deserve the lion's share of the credit!  I am also very appreciative of the many other collaborators and contributors from institutions big and small, nonprofit and for-profit, that help to make Sakai and other open-source solutions available to the world!

Thank you, everyone! Your contributions make a big difference!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Google, Ads, and Choices

Google Ads and Endorsements:

The choices you have and how often you have to repeat those choices

by Alan Regan

On November 11, 2013, Google will make changes to its privacy and terms of service. You can review the changes.

There are two specific settings you'll need to review:
  • Ads settings (not new, per se, but they don't make it easy to persist!)
  • Endorsement settings (new!)


First things first.  When using Pepperdine's Google Apps for Education service (via, you will NOT receive ads in Google Mail or Google Search.  Also, we have disabled the Google+ endorsement feature at the domain level, so when using your Pepperdine Google account you do not need to worry about those ads or endorsements! These are some of the benefits of the Apps for Education service that we enjoy.  Also, there is additional storage (30 GB!) plus enhanced Google Drive and Google+ sharing options to better adhere to FERPA guidelines.  When using Google services for academic purposes we strongly recommend that you use your Pepperdine Google account instead of your personal Google account.  When using Google services for official Pepperdine work, you should only use your official Pepperdine account.  You can learn more about Pepperdine's Google policies at the bottom of the following page:

Of course, we are "mostly" immune, since Google owns a number of sites and services.  It's great that we won't receive ads in Google Mail or Google Search.  Of course, other Google sites that are not core Google Apps for Education services will still display ads. Example: YouTube.


When using your personal Google account, you'll need to make some decisions on how you want Google to use your searching, Google mail, and other content to deliver ads.  You also need to decide whether you want Google to share your comments and +1s related to specific products.  The latter is the brand new item that's making the news, since your profile photo and comments may be displayed to your friends or the public, depending on your settings.

Ads: Your Choices are Fragile

So, you have choices when you use various services.  You can opt out of marketing emails.  And you can opt out of some ads, but usually not all ads.  Afterall, most online services make their money just like newspapers do -- by ad placement.  You enjoy "free" services because of the advertising model; it's the bargain you make when you choose one of these services.

At Google, you can choose to opt out of targeted ads through the Google Ads setting.  Basically, asking Google not to use your mail, search, or other online footprints to deliver ads specific to you interests, gender, or other factors.  Rather than deliver targeted ads, they'll simply deliver general ads.  So, you'll receive ads one way or another.

But I mentioned that the choices you make are fragile.  What do I mean?  The "catch" is that your choice is specific to the browser and computer/device you are currently using.  The choice is stored in a "cookie" in that browser.  So, it's fragile in that it's not global (you must repeat the process on each web browser and device you plan to use) AND it's temporary.  If you ever clear your cookies, then your choice is cleared and you'll need to update your ad settings again... and again... and again.  They don't make it easy!

Endorsements: Your Name and Photo Exposed

This is a new feature. Basically, Google wants to use your comments or ratings about a product or service to promote them to your friends or the world.  Facebook already does this, when you see in your news feed that friends like specific company pages, etc.  Google wants to leverage its social media platform, Google+, in a similar way.

If you never sign up for Google+ on your personal account, you shouldn't need to worry.  If you do, then you'll want to decide whether you want to opt out of this feature.  You can opt out here:

Remember, Google Apps at Pepperdine is not impacted by these changes since our education domain is immune to ads and the Google+ endorsements feature.  You'll make these choices on your personal Google account(s).