CTools introduces new features, look and feel
CTools welcomed 2013 with a makeover. The campus online service was upgraded to version 2.9 and introduced a new look and feel for the CTools home page Dec. 29.
The redesigned Web interface provides a fresh, clean look to the site, and incorporates new communication elements with more CTools-specific information for new and current site users. Below the surface, the new version also provides several new features, enhanced navigation and improvements to stability, security and accessibility.
Some performance issues occurred shortly after Dec. 29, which is not unexpected for a significant release. Fine-tuning quickly stabilized the system. Close monitoring will continue to help provide a smooth CTools experience, especially during this busy start of the term.
"The CTools team is excited about the upgrade to 2.9," explained Sean DeMonner, director of the Information and Technology Services Teaching and Learning group. "Our team actively seeks to improve the capabilities and performance within CTools as we maintain and upgrade the service. Plans for this new release and the redesign of our home page have been going on for several months and future releases are being scoped now."
Enhanced user interface
Many enhancements have been made throughout this version of CTools to improve navigation and ease of use. One improvement is single-click access for site creation, tab management and site publication.
Another simple but significant improvement is a new toggle found on a site's tool listing. The list can be minimized in an instant allowing the usable area of the CTools window to be enlarged. This makes CTools more conducive for the use of large-format video and graphics. It also aids in providing more screen real estate when integrating with external services like Box and Google Docs.
The speed and efficiency of navigating sites has increased in CTools 2.9. A new pull-down "drawer" provides more flexibility in arranging and accessing sites. Searching for a specific site is much easier as well. Individuals now can search for a specific site from their own list of sites and, when opening a site, go directly to a specific tool rather than the tool's homepage.
In addition, the process for adding academic citations to a site's resources list has been streamlined.
Upgraded rich text editor
The rich text editor within CTools has been upgraded and now supports copying text from Microsoft Word. It also provides greatly improved accessibility, eliminating considerable barriers to screen reader and keyboard-only customers.
The new text editor now acts like any other form element and allows tabbing in and out of forms for smoother workflow. Accessible handles to the text editor controls (make text bold, include links, create a list, etc.) are visible as well. Simply tab into the menu and navigate the choices and select the desired option.
The rich text editor upgrade also supports content from the HathiTrust partnership of major research institutions. Used throughout CTools, tools such as Announcements, Assignments and Resources use the editor and benefit from its new capabilities.
Added functionality for faculty
• New feature in Gradebook: Faculty now have the opportunity to drop the highest and the lowest.
• Site-specific language selection: The Site Creation tool provides the option of choosing one of 25 different languages and dialects for their sites. This feature is especially useful for those instructors who want their site content and navigation to be in a common language (e.g. immersive language learning courses).
• Lesson Builder pilot: CTools 2.9 incorporates a limited winter pilot of Lesson Builder. This tool gives instructors a long sought after environment to meld together content from multiple tools and provide it to students in a sequenced fashion.
A new security feature of CTools is a Timeout window. This alert displays on screens for site visitors who have been inactive for one hour. Individuals can click "Keep My Session Active" to remain logged in to CTools, but if no action is taken the system will automatically log out.
The Timeout alert has the added benefit of helping to remind people to refresh their sessions and avoid losing work they may have submitted over an expired session.
The CTools 2.9 release has been thoroughly tested by the Sakai Accessibility team in Michigan and Indiana. Most of the common tools and all menus have been tested and altered for screen readers and keyboard-only customers. All of the links have focus attributes and all menus are keyboard accessible by using the arrow keys.
The 2.9 release moves CTools forward in its purpose of helping instructors, researchers and students create and manage course and project websites. The true success of the release will be measured in how well it is received.