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Stellar Web System Improves, Still Faces Accessibility Issues

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: An article on page 15 on Friday about the Stellar system for class Web sites gave incorrect information about class access. Though prior to Fall 2005, there was a default setting that restricted access to MIT users with Web certificates, instructors must now select the access level themselves.

By Hannah Hsieh

After its introduction into the MIT community four years ago, the online class management system Stellar is carefully working its way to becoming a veteran upperclassman. While still facing problems about the accessibility of posted information, the system has matured considerably.

In essence, Stellar is a template class Web site; professors can personally customize much of the site to their liking. They also have the option of managing online homework submissions and course grades within the Stellar system.

According to the Stellar development team, Stellar’s purpose is to make students’ lives easier and offer a level of consistency across all MIT classes. The system has not worked perfectly, however, and some departments chose to develop their own systems instead.

Restricted access damps shopping

One of the controversial issues surrounding Stellar is the problem of who may access information posted on the site. By default, Stellar is closed to non-MIT users without Web certificates, although the decision to make the Web site certificate-protected or public is up to the professor.

Before Stellar was implemented in 2001, professors had to access Athena lockers or run their own servers to host a course Web site. Now, Stellar allows MIT faculty to skip all of those technical steps and make Web site configuration easier.

After receiving “a decent amount of complaints,” said Toyya A. Pujol-Mitchell ’07, who served on Stellar’s faculty advisory board, she attempted to make Stellar open by default and make the course sites more accessible to students who want to “shop” for classes early in the term.

Pujol-Mitchell said she believes that Stellar has served its purpose in helping less “tech-savvy” professors create class Web sites. Nevertheless, not much else has happened after a year, especially in trying to make Stellar more public. “I don’t think they’ve really done anything,” she said. “Hopefully they’ll be more proactive this year.”

“In our writing class, we post our essays on the forum and everyone can download it,” said Emily Hwang ’09. “It’s easier than e-mailing them to everyone, and the only people who can see it are the people in our class. I like it, because it’s more confidential.”

Stellar is run within the Academic Media Production Services department of MIT. The group of people working on Stellar includes AMPS Executive Director Amitava Mitra, Senior Project Manager Mark W. Brown, Senior Consultant Craig A. Counterman, and Margaret M. Meehan, web content writer and editor.

They said they are working towards making Stellar more accessible for students who would like to shop for classes.

They said they have several ideas, such as putting the first two lectures of the course in the public section of the Web site. They also added a direct link on the Stellar site to MIT’s OpenCourseWare, as well as eReserves, MIT’s libraries.

Some departments opt out

Not all of MIT was happy with Stellar when it first came out.

The physics department, for example, developed its own Web site system instead. “Stellar wasn’t as easy back then,” said Brian Canavan, the education administrator of the Department of Physics.

He said there were limitations with Stellar when it was first introduced four years ago. The physics department was dissatisfied with Stellar’s lack of course grade management, discrepancies over who can post on the site, and the different levels of access.

Instead, the physics department brought in someone to design their department Web sites. They now have templates that their faculty can use to set up their own class Web site.

According to Canavan, most of the professors are “fine with the system. They have developed a close relationship with the Web designer, who is very responsive. Yet teachers don’t have to rely on him for everything.” Some faculty even go ahead and design their own sites, he said.

Having a separate Physics Web site system “allows us to maintain a physics identity that we wouldn’t necessarily have with Stellar,” said Canavan. “A centralized system at MIT makes a lot of sense, but the problem is how decentralized we all are.”

Others are happy with the Stellar interface. “I like the Stellar sites for class,” said Lecturer Shariann Lewitt, who teaches the Introduction to Technical Communication class. “I wish they were somewhat more flexible for the Humanities…. [Stellar] is set up to reflect a different emphasis.” She said that “they’re incorporating more and more” to make the system more flexible.

Team continues development

A new version of Stellar was introduced at the beginning of this year. It features a discussion form and a Stellar Weblog with frequent updates on the system. The development team is continuously looking for ways to improve the system, they said, stressing their “user-centered design.”

“We really care about the people who use this tool,” said Mark Brown, the senior project manager. He said that there is an elaborate process to add a new feature to the system. Once a substantial need for a new component is identified, it is first built as a pilot and then tested in the laboratory. Volunteers are asked to complete different tasks on the Stellar Web sites, and the developers observe how their subjects react. If there is positive feedback, the feature is finally built into the system.