Teaching Online Science Classes Using Plone


Jeff Pittman

Track Type

  • Education
  •  Case Study



Individual Plone web sites are being used in the Spring 2008 semester at Lamar University, in the Department of Earth and Space Sciences (ESS), for online science classes in Historical Geology,  Oceanography, and Meteorology. Class sizes are 30 for Historical, 27 for Oceanography, and 12 for Meteorology. Historical is a four hour class with a lab. The other two are three hour credit classes.


The setup is a common one: Server: RHEL 3.0 (ESS department server) Front end: Apache 2.0 Zope: Version 2.10.5-final Python  Version 2.4.2 Plone: Version 3.0.5 Theme: NuPlone Workflow: Intranet/Extranet Add-ons: Ploneboard, Maps, Custom Apps

The Zope/Plone setup was created using a buildout procedure, produced by the paster command 'paster create -t plone3_buildout spring08'. The spring08 buildout was then modified for handling installation of PIL, Maps, Ploneboard, and NuPlone, before executing the boostrap procedure. Three separate Plone sites were created for the classes, all running within one Zope process, configured standalone. Apache rewrite rules direct traffic to the Zope process running on a separate port from the department website at ess.lamar.edu, and configured by the necessary modifications so that the URLs for the class Plone sites are resolved at subdirectories thereof.


Site management choices included: setting the workflow for each Plone site to Intranet/Extranet as the default, and for folders, Intranet Workflow for folders

enabling user ("home") folders

setting the calendar, Events and News listings to show items with state "Internally published"

setting localhost for the mail server (sendmail)

turning off display of comments and images in the navigation

setting individual forums of message boards to private

creating RSS news feeds from sources dedicated to subject areas


A Ploneboard message board was added to a folder named Communications, and forums created for website help, assignment Q&A, and general topical discussion. Other Ploneboard message boards are created as needed for separate assignment areas. Each message board is configured to use local settings, to act independently.


An important aspect of Python scripting has been the logic used to randomly assign students in lead and "helper" roles on individual questions in question sets, and for the creation of links on pages that make it easy for students to find their assignments. In similar fashion, Python scripting is important for creating specialized assignments, such as the automatic creation of Location objects from geographic data, and for running content searching and tabulation routines for assessment.


During the semester, emphasis changed from use of basic content creation, the commenting system, Ploneboard forums, and the Maps software, to augmentation with add-on software for teaching, including GeologicTimeScale, PhylogeneticTree, BlindWatchmaker, and other custom content types designed for specific assignment settings. StudyGuide is used to provide students with a check-off list and personal knowledge rating system to self-monitor and -motivate for exam preparation.


The Spring 2008 semester is the maiden voyage for use of Plone in this setting, and plans are already underway for its use in new online courses for Summer and Fall, including Dinosaurs and Evolution and Physical Geology. Enhancements planned include incorporation with the campus user directory system, a better introduction to the system for students, a more complete scripting tool set for assessment, exploration of security models, and development of more software add-ons for specific assignments.


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