April 26, 2007

Yahoo groups: things to bear in mind


Last year I used Moodle as a repository for class-related materials and files, and for communication with students including their feedback on what we were doing.

There were numerous, mostly trivial, problems, mostly technical. But the biggest problem was the large amount of time it took to manage. I have therefore decided not to use Moodle this year. I would, however, like to hear students' feedback on what we are doing, as well as encourage them to reflect on their learning and to share those reflections with their classmates.

So I've decided to use Yahoo!Groups. This forum includes a "briefcase" where files can be uploaded and stored, so that covers most of the Moodle functions that I used last year.

I've already written about one difficulty
with Yahoo!Groups, altho it's not Yahoo!Groups' fault.

Here are some other problems and things to bear in mind. This list will help me better prepare next time, and might be of interest to others thinking of using this platform:

1) When creating the group, you can decide whether the messages and the members are readable on the web. I chose "no" for both options, as I wanted the maximum privacy. I'm glad I chose this (see #4) below).

2) Is it required? After assigning 1 class to sign up as their homework, I checked the membership to find no-one had done so. Thinking this was because of not being sure what to do, in the next class I told them to tell me their email address and I would sign them up. To which 1 student asked "Is it compulsory, then?" In this particular class, I'm not in a position to make it compulsory (it's not written in the syllabus). This is something I had not made clear from the beginning. I had to revise my position.

3) Signing up: There are 2 ways to get students signed up: a) if you know their email addresses, you just type those in directly. Students get sent an email asking them to confirm that they wish to join. They still have to click the link or reply to the confirmation email to complete the registration process. This way is by far the easiest, as you know that all the students who respond to the invitation email must be students in your class. AND you know their names (i.e. you can match a name to the email address, see b) below).

b) if you don't know their email addresses, you give the students the email address or the website to visit to sign up. They sign up, but 99% of them won't think to add their name. In order to ensure the privacy of the group (I typed up the instructions for joining on a handout and passed it out in class), I now have to send an email to everyone who has applied to join asking them their name before approving their application (in order to be sure they actually are students in my class). Amongst this lot there are (always) a few who have typed in an erroneous email address.

4) After they are signed up, the first assignment is to introduce yourself to the group. I've just read the first half-dozen intros from one class: without exception they all have written their precise date of birth and their blood-type. This is a private group (as I mentioned in #1 above), but still, what's to stop a less than scrupulous, web-savvy student from using this info to google another student, or even guess their password? Many people in Japan, to judge by the warnings posted on ATM machines, use their date of birth as their password (in fact, until this year, our computer centre assigned students their date of birth as their initial, temporary, password for logging in to the uni LAN; students were told to change this as soon as possible, but many did not).

I'll probably be posting more about my and my students' use of Yahoo!Groups this semester.

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