Automating ArcGIS Online Group Management for Courses

10-21-2021 01:55 PM
Occasional Contributor III
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ArcGIS Online groups can help with organizing and delivering content for courses. If you are following best practices for ArcGIS Online in higher-education, then instructors will already be empowered to create and manage groups for their own courses in your organization. 

You could also go a step further, and automate the creation and management of course groups. The overall path is to connect ArcGIS Online group management to a campus system of record that knows which students are enrolled in which courses. A couple of ways you can do this include: SAML based groups in ArcGIS Online, and an open-source integration service, kartograafr.


SAML Based Groups in ArcGIS Online

If your institution maintains course groups in a SAML-accessible directory, then you can leverage ArcGIS Online's support for SAML-based groups. Common SAML-accessible directory technologies used by educational institutions include Microsoft Active Directory (AD) or Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP). 

If you have already enabled Single-Sign-On (SSO) using SAML for your ArcGIS Online instance, then you may already have noticed the configuration option for "Enable SAML based group membership." This option can be used to automatically manage group memberships in ArcGIS Online by linking them to a group with the same name in your directory.

For instance, let's assume you have a group in your directory called "arcgis-earth-380-001", which contains a list of all the students in your course. You can then create a group in ArcGIS Online with the same name, and for, "How can people join this group," select the option for, "Being a member of a SAML group". Now when a user who is a member of that directory group logs into ArcGIS Online, they will be recognized as a member of that ArcGIS Online group automatically. You do not need to manually add them to that ArcGIS Online group.

Guidance on how to set up SAML groups can be found under Set up SAML logins, look for the bullet point on "Enable SAML based group membership". You will likely need to collaborate with the same folks that helped you configure Single-Sign-On via SAML for your ArcGIS Online organization.

Performance with SAML based groups in ArcGIS Online will degrade, however, if you have many groups in your directory, which is usually the case. So you need a way to filter for a subset of groups that you want to use with ArcGIS Online. For instance, you could use a naming convention to limit which SAML groups are visible to ArcGIS Online. As an example, you could configure SAML to only surface groups whose name starts with "arcgis-", and the rest of the groups in the directory would be hidden to ArcGIS Online.

Note that this approach can be used for any groups in your directory. You do not have to constrain it to just course groups. 


kartograafr - An Open-Source Integration for Canvas and ArcGIS Online

Another approach is to deploy a service for integrating ArcGIS Online with a campus system of record. If your institution uses Canvas as its Learning Management System (LMS), then check out kartograafr, an open-source solution we developed at the University of Michigan. 

kartograafr enables you to link ArcGIS Online group management with Canvas course rosters at the Assignment level. In other words, kartograafr can be used to automatically create an ArcGIS Online group for a specific assignment in a course, and the membership of the group will be kept in sync with the Canvas course roster.

In its current version, kartograafr checks a configuration page in Canvas to know which courses may be using the ArcGIS-Canvas integration. So instructors need to provide the URL for their course to the kartograafr administrators, and they add it to the configuration page. The instructor also needs to add "ArcGIS Group" as an Outcome option for Assignments in their Canvas course. (A Canvas administrator can do the one-time setup of the "ArcGIS Group" Outcome to make it available to instructors.) Together these steps enable the linking of ArcGIS Online group membership to the courses' roster in Canvas.

For courses being monitored by kartograafr, it keeps an eye out for "ArcGIS Group" as an Outcome for the Rubric of an Assignment. An instructor can set that in Canvas when they are creating or modifying an Assignment. For each assignment that has "ArcGIS Group" as an Outcome, kartograafr will create and manage a separate group. The ArcGIS Online group name is derived from the Course and Assignment names in Canvas.

If students add or drop a course, kartograafr will update the memberships of the corresponding ArcGIS Online groups for that course. Memberships are kept in sync with the courses' Canvas roster based on the frequency at which you schedule kartograafr to run. At our institution it is configured to run once every 30-minutes, at 15-minutes and 45-minutes past the hour. 

Note that if a student drops a course, none of their content is lost. When the student drops the course, they are automatically removed from the Canvas roster, then kartograafr propagates that change to ArcGIS Online, and the student is removed from the ArcGIS Online group. Once the student is removed, any content they own, which they shared with the group, will have that group removed from its sharing settings. If they rejoin the course later on, then their content still exists, and they can re-share it to the appropriate group. 

kartograafr is open-source, so please feel free to contact the authors through github, and help develop it further! Perhaps your institution uses Blackboard, and you could contribute a Blackboard integration for kartograafr?

One of the things our instructors would love to see added to kartograafr is automated cloning of students' submissions at the close of an Assignment. Instructors want to own a copy of record for grading purposes, which the student cannot edit past the due date; and, the student gets to retain their original item(s) to perhaps work on further, if the first submission was a draft, or to incorporate into their GIS portfolio. Currently we offer this as a manual, administrator-assisted option, as cloning is not a uniform operation in ArcGIS Online, and how you do it depends on the type of item(s) involved (e.g., Clone an ArcGIS StoryMap.)


Course Groups versus Assignment Groups

For either approach discussed above -- SAML-based groups or kartograafr -- we found the best approach was to have separate groups created for each assignment in a course, rather than a single group to use throughout the course.

We originally explored using a single group per course, however, in courses with multiple assignments, feedback indicated the single group was becoming too cluttered to be useful. Content from multiple assignments -- either items being shared by the instructor to the students for starting projects, or submissions from students for multiple exercises -- made it challenging to keep track of what was what as the course progressed. So we switched kartograafr to manage groups at the Assignment level instead.

If an instructor still wants a single group for a specific purpose with kartograafr, then they can create a Canvas Assignment that is valid for the whole semester.

If you are using SAML groups, then it may not be possible to have individual course groups per assignment. Most institutions I have encountered are only generating a single automatic group in their directory for a course. So you potentially will run into the problem of too many items in one group for it to help with organizing or delivering your course's content.



About the Author
University of Michigan IT Advocate, GIS Evangelist, Cloud-Computing Champion, AR/MR/VR/XR Visionary, Software Poet, and paleoceanographer/geologist.