Citekey: @Mazza2007

Mazza, R., & Botturi, L. (2007). Monitoring an Online Course with the GISMO Tool: A Case Study. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 18(2), 251–265. Retrieved from


This paper introduces GISMO, an interesting visual analytics tool integrated into Moodle to support monitoring of learning activities. Activities tracked by GISMO are mostly behavioral (e.g., accessing course materials and posting/reading forum posts). By turning data into a range of (simple) visualizations GISMO could help the instructor (it’s only accessible to instructors) monitor students and find areas of the course to be redesigned.

(The tool itself could be broadly categorized as ‘surveillance-oriented analytics’ for teachers. It is a general purpose tool, as the authors nicely admit, which does not make assumptions about learning.)


GISMO provides visualizations of behavioral, cognitive and social data from the course, allowing constant monitoring of students’ activities, engagement and learning outcomes. (p. 1)

One of the problems that the students may face when learning online is the lack of support by the instructors and by other peers in the course. (p. 1)

Regularly monitoring the students’ activities and being aware of what the students are doing in the course are essential conditions to provide adaptive and effective tutoring. Typical questions that the tutor has to address: “Are students participating in discussions?”, “Have they read the course materials?”, and, “How well do they perform on quizzes?” (p. 2)

Although generic LMS are very effective in facilitating the delivery of distance courses, they provide very little help to instructors to gain understanding of cognitive and social processes in distance classes. (p. 2)

GISMO instead adopts the Information Visualization paradigm (Spence, 2001; Card, Mackinlay, & Shneiderman, 1999), which consists of presenting data in a visual form and relying on the perceptual abilities of human vision for their interpretation. (p. 2)

GISMO – a Graphical Interactive Student Monitoring System (p. 3)

GISMO implements some of the visualizations found useful by teachers, based on our experience with the CourseVis research, within a new context, namely the Edukalibre project (Botturi et al., 2005) funded by the European Union. (p. 3)

It is integrated into the Moodle LMS (Moodle, 2002) and is visible only to the instructors and tutors of courses as an additional block. (p. 3)

However, GISMO can be adapted to support other learning platforms, thanks to a software Application Programming Interface (API) (p. 3)

Case Study (p. 3)

This section analyzes the case of a completely online course in a master program. (p. 3)

The Benefits of GISMO (p. 4)

To these ends, GISMO has proven to be a powerful tool for at least three activities: (a) monitoring class and individual behavior, (b) assessing participation in discussion forums, and (c) redesigning the course according to students’ needs. (p. 5)

GISMO is offering a synthetic view of the class behavior in terms of logins, access to resources, and participation in activities. (p. 5)

A simple matrix formed by students’ names (on Y-axis) and dates of the course (on X-axis) is used to represent the course accesses. Each blue square represents at least one access to the course made by the student on the selected date. The histogram at the bottom shows the global number of hits to the course made by all students on each date. (p. 5)

During the Instructional Design course, the teaching assistant used the GISMO overview tool every third week in order to monitor the class’ progress in the activities. (p. 7)

surveillance? (p. 8)

“slackers” who did a very low number of logins (p. 8)

On the other hand, the second student logged in frequently during the first two weeks and then abandoned the course. (p. 8)

The evaluation of forum participation covers an important position in the Instructional Design course (p. 8)

GISMO does not provide a complete support to that, but in the case of the Instructional Design course, (a) it allowed identifying at a glance potential “slackers” who did not reach the minimum required number of messages, and (b) it made it easy to retrieve additional data on those cases. (p. 8)

For each student of the course, the chart indicates the number of messages posted (with a red square), number of messages read (with a blue circle), and the number of threads started by the student in the discussions (with the green triangle). (p. 9)

The GISMO interface allows the teaching staff to identify at once people who post “because you need to” without actually being involved in the discussion and also reading others’ postings. (p. 9)

A final critical point in online courses is redesign (Botturi, 2003): What was actually useful to students? What did they actually use? (p. 10)

GISMO’s visualizations offer a set of synthetic and detailed views about resources (p. 10)

Figure 9. A graph reporting an overview of students’ accesses to resources of the course (p. 11)

Figure 10. Details for the accesses to a specific resource of the course (p. 11)

Some Issues (p. 12)

It also has indicated that the correct interpretation of some data and visualizations require some learning and attention. (p. 12)

Secondly, it is important to understand the actual meaning of data (p. 13)

Finally, different students have different needs, and the same behavior does not imply the same learning. (p. 13)


Also, some past works attempt to visualize the communication pattern of a course, identify recurring events and roles, and assess the degree of student engagement in social activities (Reffay & Chanier, 2002; Xiong & Donath, 1999). (p. 13)

GISMO is released as Free Software and can be freely downloaded from the project website ( (p. 14)

Reffay, C., & Chanier, T. (2002). Social network analysis used for modeling collaboration in distance learning groups. In S. Cerri, G. Gouardères, & F. Paraguacu. (Eds.) Intelligent Tutoring Systems. Proceedings of ITS 2002, Biarritz, (pp. 31-40). LNCS 2363. Berlin: Springer. (p. 15)

Xiong, R., & Donath, J. (1999). PeopleGarden: Creating data portraits for users. In Proceedings of the 12th Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology, (pp. 37-44). New York, USA: ACM Press. (p. 15)

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