Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sapling Learning v24 Release Notes

We will deploy an upgrade (version 24) to all sites tomorrow morning (Wednesday, 12/21) at approximately 4am Central. This release includes several bug fixes and new features, such as...


  • "Include excluded or in-progress grades" option: When this option is set to "yes" for a category, in-progress scores (ie, green scores) will be included in the overall average for that category. Normally green scores are not included in the overall average.
Teacher Tools:
We added a suite of features to the "Participants" list for your course to allow instructors to self-manage more aspects of their courses.
  • More Information on Participants: Instructors can now see the Username and ID Number settings for students in their courses.
  • Instructor Edit Participant Data: Instructors can now edit the First Name, Last Name, and ID Number of students in their courses.
  • Instructor Reset User Password: Instructors can now quickly reset the passwords of students in their courses. A possible temporary password is automatically suggested, or you can choose your own passwords for your students. We highly recommend giving different passwords to any users you reset, and only using this feature very sparingly.
  • Instructor Export Participant Roster: Instructors can now export a class roster from the Participants report.
  • Instructor Upload Fixes to Roster: Using the exported roster, instructors can upload fixing to the roster for their course. The "Sapling UserID" field is used to identify the student, so be sure not to change this for any students; if you change it to another student in your course, those students will swap all work within Sapling.
  • Instructor Easily Remove Students: You can now remove students who don't belong in your course from the Participants report. When appropriate, the students will receive a refund or Sapling credit (the refund/credit part does not apply to the high school server).
  • Instructor Easily Add Former Students Back to Course: You can now add students who were formerly in your course back from the Participants report. Note: This may not apply to students removed before this feature was implemented (they likely will not be listed as Former Students).
  • High School: Instructor Create New Users: On the high school server, if you have fewer users in your course than your allotment, you can create new users up to that allotment. If you do not have this feature available, contact your TechTA for help (they may need to set your user limit for existing courses).
Due Dates:
  • Group Assignment Date Settings: We updated how "available from offsets" and "due date extensions" are stored and used by the system, making it easier to configure special offsets for a specific assignment for a specific group. Now, if a student later adds to that group, that offset will apply for that assignment for that user.
  • Full-Sequence Bookstore Cards: We now have the ability to accept full-sequence (two-semester, three-quarter, etc) access codes. If you would like to have a full-sequence card available in your bookstore, talk to your sales rep.
  • Further Vector Module Improvements: Several features were added to the Vector Diagrams Module to allow the Physics team to ask more questions involving these diagrams.
We will have another release in mid-to-late January.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Changes to Facebook Connect

We're releasing an update for our Facebook login system to use their updated API. Tomorrow (Tuesday, 12/13), Facebook will turn off the old API. We do not believe this will cause us any issues, but, if you cannot log in through Facebook, please let us know at facebook@saplinglearning.com.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Site Outage, 12/2/11

Our US higher education site was down today starting at about 12:30pm CST (and was experiencing slow-downs leading up to the outage). This outage was caused by an issue with our Calendar and Upcoming Events system. The issue has been resolved. No student data was impacted. We will continue to monitor the situation to make sure the issue cannot arise again.

Unless instructors tell us otherwise, we will be granting extensions on all assignments that were due between 12pm CST today and 5pm CST Sunday. Such assignments will be due by Monday.

We apologize for the inconvenience and frustration.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sapling Learning v1.23 Release Notes

We plan to push another release to all servers tomorrow morning (Wednesday, 11/23). This release includes several bug fixes and enhancements:

  1. There's now a "forgot password" link when users link their Facebook account to their Sapling account.
  2. We now warn instructors if you try to lock an assignment, since this rarely happens on purpose (locking prevents student scores for that assignment from saving the the gradebook; this can be useful if you want to temporarily stop gradebook updates, but it's confusing if you do it accidentally).
  3. Due date extensions and available from offsets will no longer misbehave when instructors in timezones outside of Central try to set them.
  4. Removing a due date or available from date from an assignment now removes its corresponding extensions or offsets.
  5. We fixed a bug that caused extended due dates to sometimes fail to appear in the student Activity Sidebar (dates instead would show as, for example, "11//2011").
  6. Hand-Graded Activities now show due dates and grade information on the main course page.
  7. We fixed a bug in the unpaid student cleaner, so they should finally disappear from your gradebook.
Happy Thanksgiving!

UPDATE: The release will occur between 2:30am and 4:30am tonight/tomorrow morning, 11/23/2011.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sapling Learning v1.22 Release Notes

Today we are releasing new features to our higher-ed servers (www.saplinglearning.com and www.saplinglearning.ca). The release included several bug fixes and enhancements. Most notably:

  • Instructors can now Switch role to... Student (at the top-right of the main course page) in their courses without being asked to pay.
  • We made some fixes to the Clock, available to instructors under Turn editing on, then Add... under Blocks at the bottom-right, then Clock. This displays the server time adjusted to the user's timezone, and verifies that users have their timezone and institution set properly.
  • Instructors can add available from offsets and due date extensions for groups on a per-assignment basis, making it easier to add multiple extensions at once. This is in the same interface as the other offsets and extensions.
  • Unpaid students will now be removed from courses two weeks after the grace period ends. Such students will be cleared out of current courses over the course of the next day or two (since we did not have this cleaner in place when the grace periods ended for this semester's courses, there are more students than usual for the system to clear out).
As you have probably seen, the US release (www.saplinglearning.com) took longer than anticipated when an error on one of our volumes forced us to restore the site from a backup made as part of the release process. We apologize for the inconvenience.

UPDATE: The site was down from 2:54am to 10:12am Central for the update. We apologize again for the inconvenience.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sapling Learning v1.21 Release Notes

We had a small release this week (the second release on our regular every-other-week release schedule). These are what we fixed:

  • Due Date Extensions and Available From Offsets: We fixed a rare bug that resulted in students having two copies of extensions or offsets for the same assignment (which made it difficult for you to update their due dates or available from dates).
  • We toned down the screen reader popup. Hopefully it will be less annoying now. We've started work on a replacement that will make it completely unnecessary while keeping us in compliance with disability laws.
  • We made some improvements on the Vector Diagrams Module, coming soon to Physics content near you.
We'll have another set of fixes in two weeks. See you then!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Sapling Learning v1.20.1 Release Notes

We're pushing out another minor release today to fix a rare issue in our refund system. If you were affected by this bug, we'll contact you soon to sort out the issue.

Sapling Learning v1.20 Release Notes

This morning we pushed out a small bug-fix release. This is what it fixed:

  • Your mouse pointer will no longer disappear at the left edge of the Sidebar.
  • In the Sidebar, due dates and available from dates will now always display the correct times to students (they were off by an hour or two in some circumstances).
  • When you set a new due date or available from date on an activity, group offsets and extensions will now properly apply.
  • When you create a new individual due date extension after the due date, that assignment will properly re-open for that student.
  • Students on the High School server can no longer accidentally break their password.
  • We also released an update to our behind-the-scenes course-creation system on the High School server. 
We will continue with our regular biweekly release schedule next Monday. Let me know if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for the software at feedback@saplinglearning.com.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Sapling Learning v1.19 Release Notes

This week we released an update to our software on all servers. This was the first release of a new regular, every-other-week release schedule:
This week's release contained several new features and bug fixes (over 90 separate issues). Here's some of what it contained:


  • Easier Facebook connection for existing users.
  • We now show "Institution" on user profiles, rather than "City, State" and "Country."
  • Better validation of registration forms to avoid some common issues.
  • Changes to the available profile fields on our high school servers.
Student Assignments:
  • Improvements to our beta Anywhere Activities (assignments that can be embedded within books or on web pages, etc).
  • Interface improvements to the assignment Sidebar.
  • Improvements to the due date view in the assignment Sidebar (but this has a bug that will be fixed Monday; if the due date in the Sidebar doesn't match the due date on your course page, the due date on your course page is the correct value).
  • Screen Reader text for text areas (we know it's kind of annoying right now, bear with us; we had to get something in place for our visually impaired students, we'll clean it up a bit in our next major release).
Instructor Assignment Settings:
  • Your TechTA can now reset assignments for individual students (they used to have to go through a more complicated process to do so).
  • Your TechTA can now change the score on an individual question for an individual student (again, they used to have to put in a request for this to happen).
  • Your TechTA can now reset an individual question for an individual student, to allow them to try again (all three of these features will eventually be made available to instructors, after the TechTAs help me find any remaining kinks).
  • You can now set up an "Available From Offset" for assignments, making assignments available for certain groups or individual students later or earlier than others. This could be used to make a post-lab assignment available to each section of a lab after their lab session, for example, or to let one student into an assignment early.
  • We updated the "Uncategorized" setting on your Activities and Due Dates page to "Default," to make it clearer what that category is for.
  • Assignments Stats now show an Average for each student.
  • We fixed a bug making it difficult to reuse images in questions you author.
  • We made a number of changes to our Vector Diagrams module for physics (although we still have a few more fixes to make to finalize this module).
Course Management:
  • You can now import assignments from previous courses (or from your current course, if you want to duplicate an assignment). Your TechTA can walk you through how that works.
  • We added a "Clock" block, which you can find under "Turn editing on" and then in the "Blocks" drop-down at the bottom of the rightmost column. This block shows the current server time, adjusted to the user's time zone setting. It also warns students if their time zone doesn't match their institution's time zone, and allows them to quickly fix it.
  • We also made a number of behind-the-scenes changes to course settings to make it easier for your TechTA to create your course.
  • The friendly faces staring down from the top of every page are much smaller on the main page (after you log in), and we removed them from every other page. You can now see more of your course without scrolling.
  • We made several improvements to the payment system. Unfortunately, a typo in these changes currently prevents many of you from using "Switch role to Student," but we will fix that issue in our next major release.
  • We fixed and updated several things on the "landing page" (the part of the site you see before you log in).
  • We made several tweaks to the database to speed up some things.
  • We made numerous bug fixes.
We will have a small release Monday to fix a few issues (I'll post release notes for that once it's out). We also hope to give you some more visibility soon into some things we're working on, such as this pad-shaped thing (see photo at right) that we're working on for Fall 2012.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sporadic Site Slowness, 8/29

Last night (8/29) we experienced sporadic site slow-downs for many users from approximately 7:13 pm CDT to 10:29 pm CDT. This was caused by an unoptimized configuration setting on our servers which capped the number of users allowed to access the site at any one time. The issue has been resolved, and the site is now running faster than it ever has.

We're extending due dates by 24 hours for students who might have been affected by the slow-downs.

If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please contact your TechTA (for instructors) or support@saplinglearning.com (for students). We apologize for any frustration the slowness may have caused.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Sapling Learning v1.18 Release Notes

Last week, we released several new features to both the US and Canadian higher-education servers. A lot of the changes in this update were behind-the-scenes, but these are the things you might notice:

  • Instructor Quick-Edit on Activities and Due Dates: Instructors can now edit all of the settings (except "Description") for every assignment in your course at once from the "Activities and Due Dates" page. This should be helpful if you want to change the policies for several assignments at once, for example. We also added a "Save All" button on that page to commit all of your updates (the changes you made don't "stick" until you click the individual save icon for each one or the "Save All" button at the bottom).
Course Settings
  • Subject and Term: We now explicitly track the Subject and Term (1st semester of  2, 2nd quarter of 3, etc) for courses, so that we can offer better statistics in future updates.
  • Name Changes: Users can now request name changes after account creation. We changed this to a by-request system to help combat a way we knew might work for cheating purposes, but which it doesn't look like any students had discovered; now they'll never get a chance.
  • User Institution Settings: On sign-up, we now ask users to choose their Institution (college, university, etc) instead of to tell us their City, State, and Country. We're putting this in place to allow us to streamline the account-creation and course-selection process for the Spring. We'll also start suggesting the appropriate timezone to users based on their institution to help avoid a rare but annoying issue (when students select the wrong timezone and are therefore told the wrong time for due dates).
  • Cleaner Login: The Canada server received the Facebook login fixes and the updated login-box look.
  • New Payment System: We completed overhauled the back-end to handle payments in our system. This will allow us to make several improvements (such as the multi-course discounts described below). The thing you're most likely to encounter right now is that we can upload rosters to enroll students in a course even with for-pay courses now.
  • Easier Refunds: We updated our refund system to make it easier for us (or even instructors) to grant refunds to students. After we get a few more safeguards in place, we'll also be able to open up self-directed refunds to students (so they'll be able to request a refund within 60 days of purchase and receive the refund immediately).
  • Grace Periods: Students now have two weeks to use most courses for free before they have to pay. We hope this will make things easier for students who later drop the course (they can simply use the course without paying if they aren't sure, then only pay when they've made their final decision).
  • Multi-Course Discounts: We can now offer a discount for students who purchase multiple quarters or semesters of a course at once (for example, for $29.99 courses, students can purchase two semesters at $49.99 and save $9.99).
Let us know at feedback@saplinglearning.com if you have any comments about these or any other features, or especially if you have an idea for a neat new feature. We're constantly developing new features, and we have a very long list of things we'd like to do, but it never hurts to hear what people want.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sapling Learning v1.17 Release Notes

We released a minor update this morning, continuing our data restructuring and fixing a few small issues. The most noticeable change (for those of you who use Firefox 4) is that you can now set due-date extensions in Firefox 4.

We will have a much larger release in about a month, but we do not currently anticipate significant downtime for that update.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sapling Learning v1.16 Release Notes

This morning we released another update to the site. This one wasn't as noticeable as our last release, but we're hoping you'll find it helpful. Here's what it included.


  • Web Help & Videos Drawer: We've added another drawer to the Activity Sidebar, containing a web search tailored to the subject of the assignment (general chemistry, biochemistry, etc) and the topic of the question (stoichiometry, SN1 reactions, etc). If we don't have anything specific in our Help With This Topic drawer, hopefully the web can help students out. This drawer is disabled if you disable resources for the assignment.
  • Better Data Structure: This won't be visible yet, but we've made another improvement to the way we store student responses for assignments. This will allow us to streamline some things in the future (and speed up load times), and to produce much more detailed reports about how students performed on assignments. Once we finish crunching the existing data into this new format (it's happening in the background over the next week or two), we'll show you a preview of what this new format will allow us to show you.
User Accounts and Login:
  • Facebook Connect Improvements: We've made our Facebook Connect integration easier to use. This should clear up any problems users have had using Facebook to log into the site. Note: We don't share any information with Facebook, we only use it to make creating accounts and logging in faster and easier.
Course Settings:
  • Course Institutions: We've added a formal "Institution" setting to the settings for each course. This will be invisible to you (your TechTA set it already), but it will allow us to make it easier soon for students to find your course.
  • Better Scrolling: We removed the extra horizontal scrollbar in the gradebook, letting the scrollbar at the bottom of your browser window do the work. It looks a little ugly right now if your gradebook extends into the right margin, but we wanted to get the functionality in place right away. We'll clean up around the edges in an upcoming release.
In addition to those changes, we made several minor fixes to the new site, and a few behind-the-scenes bug fixes.

We'll have another major release around July, introducing several big changes for the Fall.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sapling Learning in Canada

We're pleased to announce that SaplingLearning.ca is now available for our friends north of the border. This server has the same functionality as SaplingLearning.com, but all information for the Canadian version is stored on servers physically located in Canada.

If you already use Sapling Learning at a Canadian school, your TechTA will let you know when to transition to the new server (most likely at the start of the next semester; if your course is already started for the summer, it won't happen just yet).

If you have any questions about the Canadian server, ask your TechTA, or let us know at casupport@saplinglearning.com.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Post Mortem: What Happened During the Amazon Outage

Thursday morning, 4/21/2011, at 5:26AM CDT, we intended to very briefly take our site down for a routine maintenance task. Had all gone as planned, the site would have been down for only a few seconds while we applied a patch to the front page of the site. Unfortunately, not everything went as planned.

We use the Amazon AWS cloud hosting service because they are very stable, and keep things running much better than any other hosting company we've worked with before. They also make multiple copies of every bit of data we save, which is normally a very good thing (it would take many many hard drives failing simultaneously for any student data to be lost). See more about our choice in this post.

That morning, at 2:47AM CDT, Amazon performed their own routine maintenance on their AWS cloud hosting service. They've posted their own post mortem, but it all boils down to a couple key points:

  • During the maintenance, someone made a typo, pointing some of their servers to the wrong back up location. This caused the copying of the data to fail, so, each time something changed on a website, that website and the drives it was on locked up. It also caused the system that lets us restart our server to fail, causing our site to stay stuck offline during our few-second switch.
  • Since the servers weren't able to reach the drives they thought they should reach while copying, they reported that something was wrong with those drives. If something is wrong with a drive, Amazon automatically takes that drive offline until they can inspect it and see what was wrong. Many, many drives were reported as broken, so all of those drives went offline. Amazon didn't have enough reserve capacity to handle this drive outage, causing their servers to run out of space.
We were able to get to our data, copy it to another server, and relaunch, but it took a long time for us to do so. Since we keep track of what students enter every time they answer, we have a very large amount of data, and just downloading it and uploading it takes several hours in each direction. We're working to make that less of an issue (see below).

Amazon is still working to make things more bulletproof, but they've already done a lot to prevent these problems from happening in the future. 
  • They're implementing more automation and other safeguards to stop the typo from occurring in the first place.
  • They've already added a lot of reserve capacity, and are adding more. My guess is hard drive salespeople in Virginia, where the servers are located, made a lot of money that day selling high-capacity drives to Amazon.
We are also taking our own steps to avoid similar issues in the future. By the Fall semester, we hope to mirror our data to multiple servers in both the US and Canada, so that, if another Amazon outage occurs, we can quickly move our site to one of these other locations with very minimal downtime.

We have heard of other homework systems being down for multiple days at a time, and we consider that absolutely unacceptable. It took Amazon going down to take us out for those 13 hours, and we don't plan to let that happen again.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sapling's Cloud Computing Choice

Sapling Learning, and indeed much of the Internet, has been greatly affected by the current failures within the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). We are very troubled by the outage and the issues that it is creating for professors and students that use our site. We at Sapling wanted to share with you what the Amazon "cloud" is and why Sapling chose to host our site within Amazon's EC2 services.

Amazon EC2 is a cloud web service that provides resizable computing capacity, and allows companies to easily configure their web services in response to load. This easy scalability, combined with Amazon's proven uptime record, is why many prominent businesses, including Netflix, Eli Lilly, Autodesk, Ericsson, Yelp, PBS, and ShareThis, have migrated their Web sites and software to EC2. NASA uses Amazon's servers to process telemetry data from the Mars rovers. Amazon EC2 Service Level Agreement guarantees an Annual Uptime Percentage of 99.95%, and has performed well beyond this measure. 

In 2010, at the same time as Netflix, Sapling began moving our Web hosting to Amazon EC2. Stability and scalability were our main reasons for doing so. Until this month, Sapling was very proud of our 99.99% uptime. To put this in perspective, in 2009 Gmail had only a 99.90% reliability rate, with its stated goal to reach 99.99%. In March 2010, Twitter had 99.74% uptime. Up until today, we have been very happy with our decision, especially considering that our previous hosting company has been down at least two times since we moved to Amazon EC2, and we had not had any issues.

Unfortunately, Sapling and many other technology companies are affected by the current EC2 failure. These include leading Internet companies with millions of users such as Foursquare, Reddit, Hootsuite, and Quora, and because of the pervasive nature of this outage across the Internet, the Amazon failure has been prominently featured in the national news.

We are currently working parallel paths to resolve the solution, one of these will assure restoration of Sapling's site for tomorrow's classes in case Amazon is not able to get its cloud services issues fixed before then. Once we are back up and running, we will then begin to implement a strategy that will guard against even this unprecedented cloud downtime. 

Update on Site Availability

Sapling Learning has been unavailable for much of this morning, starting at about 6 AM Eastern to the present. Sapling is hosted on the Amazon Cloud, and the entire US-EAST-1 Region is experiencing connectivity issues. Sapling Learning, among thousands of other companies, has chosen to host our services on the Amazon Cloud for its excellent reliability and scalability. We are confident that Amazon will have their issues resolved quickly.

When the site is back up, your Technology TAs will grant an extension of 24 hours to any assignment that was due today. Please email your TechTA if you do not want the extension, or if you would prefer a longer extension for your classes.

We will post updates about Amazon's availability here hourly until this issue is resolved. Please visit this site for more details.

We apologize for the inconvenience that this has caused you and your students.

UPDATE (10:55 AM): We are still working to get the site back up. We apologize for the continued confusion. If your students have any questions, please forward them along to support@saplinglearning.com.

UPDATE (10:59 AM): Amazon has posted an explanation of the issue:
8:54 AM PDT We'd like to provide additional color on what were working on right now (please note that we always know more and understand issues better after we fully recover and dive deep into the post mortem). A networking event early this morning triggered a large amount of re-mirroring of EBS volumes in US-EAST-1. This re-mirroring created a shortage of capacity in one of the US-EAST-1 Availability Zones, which impacted new EBS volume creation as well as the pace with which we could re-mirror and recover affected EBS volumes. Additionally, one of our internal control planes for EBS has become inundated such that it's difficult to create new EBS volumes and EBS backed instances. We are working as quickly as possible to add capacity to that one Availability Zone to speed up the re-mirroring, and working to restore the control plane issue. We're starting to see progress on these efforts, but are not there yet. We will continue to provide updates when we have them.
UPDATE (11:39 AM): We're working on setting up the site on the USWEST half of the Amazon cloud, but it will take a while to get the very large amount of data we store transferred. Either through Amazon's fix or our own, we will have the site up as soon as possible. We will update you as soon as we have a time estimate.

UPDATE (1:01 PM): Amazon reports that they have made "significant progress" in stabilizing the cloud servers. We hope to have the issues resolved soon.

UPDATE (1:22 PM): Amazon estimates that, at worst, it will take a "few hours" for the servers to be back up. More information is available through Amazon's RSS feed, but we'll continue to also update here.

UPDATE (2:45 PM): Amazon is reporting some success of launching instances on the cloud servers. We hope to be back up soon.

UPDATE (3:46 PM): We're making progress, but the site is still down.

UPDATE (4:19 PM): We think we're getting very close.

UPDATE (5:01 PM): Amazon has brought up 3 of 4 zones in the USEAST-1 region. We, unforunately, are on the fourth zone. We are continuing to try to work around this outage, and to put safeties in place to avoid extensive outages like this in the future.

UPDATE (6:22 PM): There is a lot of activity from the server guys right now, but we are not disturbing them to get details. It looks like it's getting very close.

UPDATE (6:35 PM): We're up! We pride ourselves on our 99.95% uptime, and apologize for today's frustrations.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sapling Learning for High School

Sapling Learning is pleased to announce online homework and problem-solving practice for high-school Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and IPC aligned to TEKS and STAAR EOC. Learn more at hs.saplinglearning.com. Additionally, we will know in a matter of months whether we've been approved by the TEA, which means that Texas high schools will be able to use TEA allocated funds toward the purchase of Sapling Learning for their classes.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sapling's Digital Content Ecosystem

This week at the ACS Spring Meeting, we are introducing our new general chemistry eBook, Chemistry 5e by John Olmsted and Greg Williams. This book will be available under our new microcontent publishing model. We will be giving two talks at this conference:

  • Tuesday, 9:15 AM, Disney's Grand California Hotel, Trillium B: Microcontent publishing: A new model for development and dissemination of educational support materials (p. TECH-99 of the on-site program, talk 1340)
  • Tuesday, 3:30 PM - 6:00 PM, Anaheim Convention Center, Room 211A: Independent Online Homework and eBooks (a workshop on editing and earning royalties for content in our online homework and eBook system) (p. 29 of the on-site program)

For those of you unable to attend our sessions, this blog gives a brief overview of how things work.

If you have content you'd like to make available to your students, and you think instructors at other schools might like to use that same content, we'd like to let you get compensated for that effort. For questions, we'll pay a royalty based on the percentage of all questions in a course that you provide. In short, if you provide 50% of the questions used in a course, you'll get 50% of the available question royalty. Similarly, for eBook content, we'll pay a royalty based on the percentage of all eBook sections used in each course. The exact percentages can scale depending how much of the work you do, but the idea is to make it easy for people to mix-and-match content to fit their needs.

If you have content that you think would fit this model, let Brian Arneson know at publish@saplinglearning.com. We'll update the blog over the coming weeks with more details about what this means for your courses and how you can take advantage of this model, both as an author and as an instructor. Let us know in the comments if you have any questions you'd like us to answer in those posts.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sapling Learning v1.15 Release Notes

At the end of this week we're releasing a huge update to SaplingLearning.com. Along with some bug fixes and other improvements, the entire look of the site is changing. We realize it might be a bit of a shock to change the look this dramatically in the middle of the semester, but everything will still be where it always has been (not to mention that there really isn't a time that isn't "in the middle of the semester" for at least one course on our site).

The new look extends throughout the site, and we're hoping it will make everything clearer and easier to use.

In addition to the new look, we're releasing several improvements.

Activities (aka Assignments):
  • Help With This Topic Drawer: We've added a drawer to the Activity Sidebar, containing links to resources related to the topic of the question you're viewing. When these resources are available and resources are enabled for your course, they will appear in this drawer. For example, Marc Loudon's Organic Chemistry textbook is available in organic chemistry courses, with the appropriate sections linked from each question.
  • Activity Sizing: Activities will now properly size to fit your browser window.
  • Sidebar Hiding: You can now collapse the sidebar to give you more space for the assignment itself in small windows.
  • Back-end Improvements: The database structure in which we store activities has been greatly improved. The improvements may not be immediately obvious, but we can now continue to improve the speed at which activities save and load. 
Activity Editing:
  • Improved Conflict Resolution: It is possible, under certain conditions, for the activity editor to get "out of sync," for example if multiple people are editing the assignment. We've improved the checks the activity editor does when you make changes to eliminate the issues this can cause.
  • Authoring Bug Fixes: For those of you who write content for your courses, we hope we've tracked down the last of the issues that cause you to have to log out and back in sometimes while editing your content. If you continue to have issues while authoring, please let me know
  • Cleaner Extension Interface: Adding due-date extensions for groups of students should now be considerably less confusing.
Anywhere Activities:
  • Introducing Anywhere Activities: Last month I mentioned that we had a new feature in the works to allow Sapling Learning assignments to be embedded on any webpage. This feature is now ready. We do not yet have an instructor interface implemented to give you the code to add to your page to use these, but, if you have a use for them, let me know and we can get you started. The instructor interface for creating these links (similar to embedding a YouTube video) will be available in a future release.
  • Instructor Editing of Anywhere Activities: When you embed an Anywhere Activity on your site, if you're logged in with your instructor account, you'll be able to edit that activity wherever you have it embedded (rather than returning to SaplingLearning.com to edit it). You'll also be able to jump right to the gradebook or assignment statistics to see how your students are doing on that activity.
User Accounts and Login:
  • Facebook Connect Account Creation: Students can now use Facebook Connect to quickly create their accounts using their information from Facebook (such as name and location).
  • Facebook Connect Login: Students (and instructors) can also connect their Sapling Learning accounts to their Facebook accounts, speeding up the login process.
If you need help sorting out any of the new features, your TechTA should be able to walk you through them, or ask us in person at the Spring 2011 ACS National Meeting, March 27-31 in Anaheim, California.

    Monday, February 28, 2011

    Data Mining: Student Performance by OS

    As a follow-up to last week's post, I decided to take a look at student performance by operating system. This data comes from a single assignment in one large course, to try to eliminate other variables. Within this course, 173 students had logged in during the time frame of the assignment exclusively from Windows machines, and 193 students had logged in exclusively from Macs.
    On average, the Mac-using students scored 6.2 points (out of 100) higher than the Windows-using students. Many students (about 10%) had logged in from both Mac and Windows machines, so I added those to the chart.
    The dual-OS users scored even higher than their Mac-exclusive fellow-students, scoring 3.2 points higher than Mac users, and 9.4 points higher than Windows users.

    While it might be tempting to surmise from this data that Mac users are smarter than Windows users (and, given the attention we expect such a finding would generate, we welcome that over-simplification in posts about this blog), I strongly suspect any effect we're seeing here is simply a measure of socio-economic background. Macs tend to be more expensive than Windows machines, and socio-economic background has often been found to correlate with performance.

    We plan to take another look at these numbers on a larger scale (and with a more complete statistical analysis), but this initial data seemed interesting enough to share.

    Monday, February 21, 2011

    Data Mining: 6 Things I Learned from Student Login Times

    With students visiting our site every day to do their homework, we've built up a large database of information. In this article (and future articles like it), we'll see what we can see in that data. This data is based on student logins between January 9, 2011, and February 13, 2011, adjusted to the student's local timezone.

    #1. Weekends = Friday + Saturday

    We noticed this one a while back just from our Google Analytics data: at least as far as students working on homework are concerned, the work week runs Sunday through Thursday, leaving Friday and Saturday for extracurricular activities.

    #2. Any Time's a Good Time for Homework

    Although more students log in per hour from about 7pm-10pm (their local time) than during other hours, login times spread throughout the day. One hour is 4.2% of a day, and there are 13 time slots (11am through 11pm) that are at or above that percentage of the daily logins. Even at 4am and 5am we get several hundred logins most days, but those are definitely our least-active hours. That's why we wake up early on release days to push releases out starting then.

    #3. Students Who Use Macs Prepare for the Weekend

    This difference is very small, and it may not be statistically significant, but our Mac users (shown in red here) appear to start their weeks early to prepare for the weekend. A greater percentage of our Mac logins occur on Sunday and Monday compared to Windows users. Conversely, Thursday through Saturday are slightly weighted toward PC.

    #4. Early to Bed and Early to Rise Makes a Student (ever-so-slightly-more) Likely to Use a PC

    A similar trend appears when I group the data by hour, rather than by day of the week. Through about noon, a greater percentage of our PC-using students log in than do our Mac users. Things mostly level out during the day, and then the Mac users begin to top their PC-using counterparts.

    A Break for Pie

    Most of our students still use Windows. However, Mac's share is definitely growing. Over the last year, Mac's share of the student pie has grown by about 10%.

    Our students use a healthy mix of the four biggest browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Google Chrome), plus occasional logins from virtually every other browser out there (including, for example, 9 logins from Sony Playstations). As with OS, student use has definitely changed in the last year, but this pie is more divided. Both IE and Firefox have lost students, while Chrome use has more than doubled (and continues to increase every month). Safari use has also increased, but not everyone switching to Mac is switching to Safari.

    #5. Geeks are Slightly More Likely to Work on Saturday

    A few trends can be spotted in the browser login data if you squint. For example, the Safari daily logins, unsurprisingly, track with the Mac logins: Safari users get on the site earlier in the week, and then disappear for Friday and Saturday. Somewhat similarly, a smaller percentage of Internet Explorer users log in on Sundays than on other days (when compared to the other browsers). As a Chrome user looking at stats on a Saturday, I also found it interesting that users of Firefox and Chrome log in more on Saturday than do their Safari- and IE-using counterparts. Since Firefox and Chrome require the user to specifically install them (while Safari and IE are the default browsers for Mac and PC, respectively), one (stereotypically unsurprising) way to look at this is that the geekier users log in more on Saturday than do their less-tech-loving cohorts.

    #6. IE and Firefox Users Like Mornings, Chrome and Safari Users Like Nights

    Like with the Mac/PC time-of-day stats, our Internet Explorer and Firefox users start logging on earlier than our Safari and Chrome users. IE usage drops off faster than Firefox usage, though, until, around midnight, Firefox users are more likely to log on than even night-loving Safari users.

    To be clear, I've drawn a lot of conclusions from very slight differences in this article. However, we may have to take a deeper look. Each of these groupings involves hundreds  or thousands of data points, so these small differences very well could be significant.

    I plan to do more of these data mining expeditions to see what we might see. What else would you like to know?

    Monday, February 14, 2011

    Three Years of SaplingLearning.com

    We started SaplingLearning.com in 2008 with a few dozen pilot users at a handful of schools. I tried to plot the information about that first semester on the map to the right, but nothing shows up. Statistically speaking, when we started two years ago, we knew we had a good idea (homework software independent of textbooks, so you could make the decision about homework separate from the decision about your textbook), but we essentially did not have any users.

    In 2009, we started to get some traction. We added Biochemistry and Chemical Engineering: Mass and Energy Balances to our General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, and GOB options, and secured our first partnership to supply homework for Loudon's Organic Chemistry from Roberts & Company. By the end of 2009, we were up to thousands of students at dozens of schools.

    2010 was our best year yet. We added Analytical Chemistry and Introductory Chemistry, and wrote content for our new Physics homework that is currently being piloted. We also added partnerships with both the US (biochemistry) and UK (general chemistry) branches of Oxford University Press, as well as Taylor & Francis (organic chemistry) and University Science Books (general chemistry). We also made a number of software improvements, and began work on exciting new features that will be released this year, including our upcoming eBooks.

    What else can we do to help you help us turn the map green in 2011? What would you like to see?

    Monday, February 7, 2011

    Unconventional Wisdom: General Chemistry

    There are some differences in style that we as chemistry instructors accept, or even embrace. For example, many of us point out to students that the groups of the periodic table can be numbered in multiple ways. Sure, we may have a personal preference, but we acknowledge that students are better off knowing all systems in the long run. During my time developing Sapling Learning's general chemistry library and accommodating more than 20 different textbooks, I've learned a few conventions that most of us assume are universal.

    1. STP
    In 1982 [PDF], IUPAC recommended that standard pressure be 1 bar (not 1 atm) and redefined STP as such in 1990 [PDF], which means standard molar volume is 22.7 L, not 22.4 L. A few books have adopted this convention (namely McQuarrie et al.), but most do not [PDF]. Since the difference would cause students to get different answers, we've maintained two different sets of questions on this topic in our library.

    2. Units of K
    IUPAC distinguishes between Kc, Kp, and the thermodynamic equilibrium constant. Whereas thermodynamic K must be unitless, some textbooks (namely McQuarrie et al.) assert that Kc and Kp need not be. Rather, they can have units such as M, M2, atm-1, or even unitless, depending on how the terms cancel. Since this would not affect answers, I figured it would be fine to expose students to both conventions (if they even notice). You may notice that equilibrium questions with the McQuarrie banner allow Kc and Kp to have units, whereas those with the Sapling banner always show K as unitless. Of course, if we hear from you that you'd prefer not to mix the conventions, we'd consider making two separate sets of questions like we did for STP.
    Update: We've gone ahead and made alternate versions of the McQuarrie questions so that users of traditional textbooks can have a perfectly unitless K experience. If you're interested in learning more about McQuarrie's approach, please take a look at this preface [PDF] for the 4th edition of his textbook.

    3. Units of ΔHrxn (and similarly ΔSrxn and ΔGrxn)
    Version A: kJ/molVersion B: kJ
    In some books (we call them "Version A" books) the coefficients from the chemical reaction are considered unitless, so ΔHrxn comes out in units of kJ/mol (where the "per mole" is assumed to mean per mole of reaction). In other books (we call them "Version B" books) the coefficients from the chemical reaction have units of moles, so ΔHrxn comes out in units of kJ, and that value is specific to the reaction as written (but also understood to be scalable per mole of reaction). Although this difference does not affect the students' answer in any way, some instructors strongly prefer one method over the other for pedagogical reasons. Thus, we went ahead and made separate sets of questions, one for each convention.

    The table to the right is a non-comprehensive list of popular General Chemistry textbooks (first author only) classified by which version they use.

    4. The Rydberg formula
    The Rydberg constant is expressed differently from book to book.

    If RH = 2.18 × 10–18 J, then the Rydberg formula is E = –RH(1/n2) and 1/λ = –(RH)/(hc) × (1/n2)
    If RH = 1.097 × 107 m–1, then the formula is 1/λ = –RH(1/n2) and E = –RHhc(1/n2)
    If RH = 3.29 × 1015 Hz, then the formula is ν = –RH(1/n2).

    RH in JRH in m–1RH in HzRH not defined
    (value shown in formulas)
    Obviously students should know how to interconvert between energy, frequency, and wavelength, but it would be dangerous for a student to take RH = 1.097 × 107 and plug it into the equation E = –RH(1/n2). So in Sapling Learning questions, we've been careful to put the value directly into all equations rather than using the symbol RH. For example, a hint might show E = –(2.18 × 10–18 J)(1/n2). Some textbooks also use this style for presenting equations and thus, refrain from defining RH. The table above is the non-comprehensive breakdown of textbooks (first author only).

    Do you have any concerns about these not-quite-convention conventions, or the way we handle them (particularly the units of K)? Let us know in the comments.

    Tuesday, February 1, 2011

    Seedling: Anywhere Activity

    Along with the visible features released in Version 1.14, we also released the framework for an upcoming new feature, which we're currently calling Anywhere Activities. Anywhere Activities will allow you to embed Sapling Learning homework assignments anywhere you want: on your personal blog, or your course webpage, or perhaps your university's wiki. Most importantly, Anywhere Activities can also be embedded within ebooks, allowing your students to do their homework in context as they complete their reading assignments.

    Anywhere Activities will customize to the person viewing the page. Students from your course will see your version of that activity, while students who don't have an account on SaplingLearning.com might see a sample question or two, or even a static graphic. When a student takes an Anywhere Activity, their score on that assignment will report to the correct gradebook, allowing you to see how they did as they worked through the reading assignment. They will also be able to return to the assignment wherever they left off, just like a normal assignment.

    We still have a ways to go before Anywhere Activities will be available, but we'd love to hear if you would like to use them, and, if so, where you think you'd put them. Reply below with your comments, or let me know at jon.harmon@saplinglearning.com.

    Monday, January 17, 2011

    Sapling Learning v1.14 Release Notes

    This week we're releasing the next update to SaplingLearning.com. We intended to only release a couple features to help with lab courses, but we ended up rolling a few extra features into this release, including one big one.

    • Introducing the Activity Sidebar: In November, I mentioned we were working on the Activity Sidebar. The first version of the Activity Sidebar will be available in this release. The Sidebar currently contains up to three drawers (depending on your course and assignment settings): Assignment Information (always present, open by default), Subject Resources (present if enabled and present for this subject), Technical Support and Bug Reports (always present). We'll add more drawers in coming releases.
    Groups (aka Sections)
    • Student Self-Enrollment in Groups: Students can now add themselves to course sections, using a special enrollment key (password) to indicate which group they should be in. This makes it much easier to manage multi-section courses.
    • Group Due Date Offsets: You can now set up a "standing extension" for a group. For example, if you have lab groups that meet on Monday and Wednesday, you can give everyone in the Wednesday section a two-day extension on every activity, automatically.
    Miscellaneous Fixes
    • Grades: We shortened the length of assignment titles in the gradebook, cutting down on the need for horizontal scrolling.
    • Extensions: Better error-handling (mostly for old, mis-set extensions that were hard to edit).
    • Profile Pictures: You can now upload profile pictures again.
    • Spacing of PayPal Payment Box: The PayPal box had a big gap above it where the enrollment key box goes when needed. That space is now gone.
    • Sorting Module: A rare bug in the sorting module caused images to very occasionally fail to load. This bug has been fixed.
    We also released the prototype of a new feature in this release, but that isn't quite ready for general use. I'll be back next week to tell you about it, and to let you know how you can see it while we work the kinks out.

    Monday, January 10, 2011

    Sapling Learning Physics

    Here at Sapling, we are always looking for ways to improve not just the software that runs our homework products, but also what subjects we can support with that software. Sapling's content team was initially comprised of chemists so they did what they know - write questions for chemistry courses. Since then our content team has expanded to include many science disciplines. In that vein, we are pleased to announce our newest addition - Sapling Learning Physics.

    I am the team lead for our physics project and in charge of overseeing the development of the new content as well as representing Sapling physics at conferences and in meetings with professors. While in graduate school working on my physics PhD, I was a teaching assistant for many semesters. I got started with Sapling Learning in the same way as many of our current team members - as a contract author. When Sapling decided to start their physics project they brought me on full time.

    We have a team of PhD level physicists developing our physics content, each with many years of teaching experience that has given them an understanding of common misconceptions held by students and what guidance will best help them learn how to work out these questions on their own. Together we are working towards an initial goal of 1200 items intended to cover both semesters of introductory level physics for both algebra and calculus based courses. These courses will be available for use starting in the fall semester of 2011.

    When we develop content for new disciplines like this at Sapling, we always go through a pilot semester first. Pilots are usually arranged with professors who have previously expressed interest in a subject that we hadn't yet developed. These professors understand that the course is still in development but they have an interest in helping to develop new tools for teaching their students. Because our content is being completed while the course is in progress, these pilots are offered for free to the students in the course. In exchange, Sapling gets valuable student testing data as well as feedback from both students and professors that we will incorporate to make the courses even better for future semesters.

    We currently have pilot courses starting for the 2011 Spring semester. If you would like to try out Sapling in your class for this spring, it is not too late to get everything set up. Additionally, if you are already committed to another online homework system and would like to compare Sapling to your existing system, we can set up a trial of a few homework assignments for you and your students.

    If you are interested in learning more about Sapling Learning's physics offerings, we are exhibiting at the AAPT Winter Meeting that is going on right now in Jacksonville, FL. Or you can e-mail me directly at carl.knutson[at]saplinglearning.com.