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SPARK F.A.Q. for Instructors

What is SPARK?

SPARK is the learning management system (LMS) for on-campus courses at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Developed by Blackboard, but dubbed “SPARK” by the Office of Information Technologies (OIT), SPARK offers tools for the development, delivery, and administration of course materials online.

Please note that SPARK will only be available for teaching until the end of Fall 2012. All courses with an online component at the UMass Amherst campus need to move to Moodle by January 2013. For more information see About the Move to Moodle

SPARK is used for on-campus, residential courses. Fully online courses offered through UMassOnline by University Without Walls (CPE) use Blackboard Vista as their learning management system. 

What can SPARK do for me?

Use of SPARK is not exclusive to online courses; many of its tools complement traditional face-to-face courses. Some SPARK features include:

  • Create course content. In SPARK, you have the ability to create a syllabus, post lecture notes, and use other course organization tools.
  • Post course materials online. Place class readings, handouts, and even audio and video files online in a central location accessible to everyone in your course from any computer with an Internet connection.
  • Create interactive content. Using Studymate, you can generate flash-based assessments and learning activities for your students.
  • Share content between courses. SPARK allows you to manage multiple sections quickly and easily and reuse course materials from one semester to the next.
  • Test your students. Use SPARK's built-in tools to create quizzes and have students submit their homework. Use Respondus to create assessments that you can use in hard copy as well as online.
  • Maintain academic integrity. SPARK features Turnitin, a service which determines the originality of student work. Ask your students to submit their work through Turnitin or use the service to examine individual pieces of student work.
  • Allow students to work together. In SPARK, students have newer and greater opportunities for communication and collaboration at their disposal.
  • Stay in touch. SPARK's communications tools allow you to stay in touch with students outside of class time.
  • Create a conversation. SPARK's bulletin board discussions provide a forum for students to post comments and respond to each other.
  • See what your students see. A streamlined navigation and friendly interface allows you to regularly switch between the student and teacher views.

Where can instructors get help with SPARK?

Faculty and graduate student instructors using SPARK can get training and support from OIT Academic Computing. Support includes:

  • Online documentation: Visit our SPARK Knowledge Base page to start learning about SPARK and its tools.
  • Workshops: Faculty and graduate student instructors can attend SPARK workshops offered by Academic Computing throughout the year (with special concentrations in June and January). See our Workshop Schedule to find out when the next SPARK workshop is offered.
  • One-on-one consulting: Faculty and graduate student instructors may also schedule one-on-one help sessions through the Instructional Media Lab. Call 545-2823 or email instruct@oit.umass.edu to set up an appointment.

Note: For SPARK account information (user name and password), contact the OIT Help Center. You can submit an online help request, chat online with a Help Center Consultant, call 545-9400 or stop by A109 LGRC (Mon – Fri, 9:00 a.m. - 4:45 p.m.).

Where can students get help with SPARK?

Students can contact the OIT Help Center or check our Help for Students documentation.

For SPARK account information (user name and password), please advise students to contact the OIT Help Center. They can submit an online help request, chat online with a Help Center Consultant, call 545-9400 or stop by A109 LGRC (Mon – Fri, 9:00 a.m. - 4:45 p.m.).

How do I access my SPARK course(s)?

To access your SPARK course:

  1. Go to https://spark.oit.umass.edu/. We recommend that you bookmark this page in your Web browser.
  2. On the SPARK Entry page, click Go to SPARK Log in page.
  3. On the Log in to SPARK page:
    • In the Net ID field, enter your NetID (OIT Account user name).
    • In the Password field, enter your OIT Account password.
    • Click Log in. Your My Blackboard page will open, listing all your active course sections.
      Note: You cannot bookmark this page.
  4. On your My Blackboard page, click a course title to view its Home page.

I am having trouble logging in to SPARK. What should I do?

Make sure that:

  1. You are trying to log in to the correct system. UMass Amherst currently has two options: SPARK (on-campus courses), and UMassOnline (fully online courses). Visit our Learning Management page and follow the link to the appropriate system.
  2. You have an active OIT Account and that you are using the correct NetID (OIT Account user name) and password.
  3. You are listed in SPIRE as the instructor of record for the course. Contact the Academic Scheduling Representative in your department to update this information in SPIRE.
  4. The computer you are using meets OIT's recommendations:
    Recommended & Minimum Computer Configurations (Windows)
    Recommended & Minimum Computer Configurations (Macintosh)
  5. You don’t have any viruses or malware (a.k.a. spyware and/or adware) on your computer. To learn more about malware, visit our Virus and Security center.
  6. If you have a firewall enabled (or you are not sure whether you do or not), ask your IT administrator or your Internet Service Provider (ISP) how to set it up so you can access SPARK.

If these steps do not resolve your problems, please contact the Instructional Media Lab at: instruct@oit.umass.edu or 545-2823.

How do I get a course account on SPARK?

Primary Instructors can request SPARK courses in SPIRE. The request form must be filled out for each semester you wish to use SPARK for your course(s).

After you submit the form, Academic Computing will process your request and inform you via email when your course account is created. Because this is a manual process (your course is not automatically created when you submit the form), it may take a day or so before your course is ready. Please plan accordingly.

Some things to keep in mind when requesting a SPARK course:

  • Only Primary Instructors may request SPARK courses. If you are not a Primary Instructor for a course, the course will not appear on your list of SPARK-eligible classes in SPIRE.
  • Instructors are responsible for populating all course content, setting up course functions, and for student management (except for adding students to their course; this is handled by the SPARK Administrator).
  • SPARK courses can be created at any point in the semester.
  • Instructors can allow or deny students access to their SPARK course throughout the semester.

How do students get access to SPARK?

Students who are enrolled in your course in SPIRE will automatically be added to your SPARK roster. Students access SPARK using their NetID (OIT Account user name) and password. Only students who are registered for your course in SPIRE will be given automatic access to your course in SPARK. For more information about granting non-registered students access to a course, see our SPARK Access for Teaching Assistants documentation.

SPARK course rosters are updated automatically each weekday with student data from SPIRE. If a student has not officially registered, there may be up to a 24-hour delay between when a student registers for a course and when that student appears in SPARK.

Why is a student who appears on my SPIRE roster unable to access my SPARK course?

There are a few possible situations that could be causing a student who is registered in SPIRE to be unable to log into your SPARK course. Some troubleshooting to consider:

  • Make sure the student is logging in to SPARK and not UMassOnline (there are links to both on our Learning Management page).
  • Consider how long ago the student officially registered for the course in SPIRE. SPARK course rosters are updated automatically each weekday with student data from SPIRE. There may be up to a 24 hour delay between when a student registers for a course and when that student appears in SPARK.
  • The student must have an active OIT Account. Students can get help with their NetID and password by coming in person with their student ID card to the OIT Help Center (A109 LGRC). Professors should direct student problems to the Help Center.

Do 5-college students have access to SPARK?

To access SPARK, 5-college students must:

  • Appear in SPIRE as being registered for your course.
  • Log in to SPARK using their NetID (OIT Account user name) and password.

5-college students who are enrolled in a UMass course will be sent a NetID (OIT Account user name) and password via email as soon as their enrollment appears in SPIRE. More about OIT Accounts.

Why am I seeing an over-quota error message when I try to upload content to SPARK?

Instructors should keep their My Files areas as empty as possible. This area should only have smaller files that are currently in use in your courses. For larger files, consider using UDrive. If you get an error message when trying to upload content into SPARK or when creating printable versions of submissions, we recommend that you clean out the My Files storage area. If the problem persists, email instruct@oit.umass.edu.

Why do I get an error message when trying to import my WebCT CE course into SPARK?

If you get an error message while trying to upload your exported WebCT CE course into the My Files area of SPARK, it is possible that the file you are trying to upload is too large or that you are trying to store too much in the My Files area of SPARK. By default, My Files has a limit of 100 MB of space.

  • Make sure that the .zip file you exported from WebCT CE is not larger than 100 MB. If it is, contact the Instructional Media Lab (Call 545-2823 or email instruct@oit.umass.edu) for SPARK help.
  • Check to see if you have a lot of content already stored in the My Files area of SPARK. If there is a large amount of content, try deleting any files you don’t need or moving them into an area designated for one of your specific courses (“Class Files”) rather than keeping them in the general My Files area.

Why does SPARK not display properly in my browser?

If you are not using a compatible browser and the correct version of Java, SPARK may not display properly, or certain tools such as the HTML Creator or File Manager may not work correctly.

On the SPARK Log In page, click Run Browser Check to check your browser and Java compatibility and set your browser for use with SPARK. SPARK will identify your browser and tell you whether or not it is supported.

Why can't I view some tools fully in SPARK?

If you have a pop-up blocker or a firewall installed, some SPARK features may not work properly. These features include announcements, discussions, assignments, assessments, chat, mail, and the file manager tool.

To access all areas of SPARK, you must be able to open pop-up windows in your browser. You may have disabled pop-ups directly or indirectly through your Web browser, through the use of a dedicated program (e.g., Pop-Up Zapper), or another application that can also block pop-ups (e.g., Google Toolbar).

Turn Off Pop-up Blocking
Be sure to turn off pop-up blocking software before logging into SPARK, or set up the software to allow pop-ups within SPARK. For more information on disabling pop-up blocking software, go to Blackboard Browser Tuneup page and read the information under Solutions to Common Browser problems.

Modify Firewall Settings
If you are experiencing trouble logging in to SPARK, accessing the chat tool, whiteboard, etc., you may be connecting to the Internet from behind a security firewall. Ask your system or network administrator or your ISP (Internet Service Provider) whether you have a firewall, and how to set it up so you can access SPARK.

Can my graduate TA(s) have access to my SPARK course?

Yes.
He/she must be officially listed in SPIRE as a Teaching Assistant. This must be done by your Departmental Academic Scheduling Representative. If you don't know who does scheduling in your department, check with your departmental administrators. Once listed in SPIRE, your TA's information will be transferred from SPIRE into SPARK automatically on the following day. For more information on TA Access, see our TA Access and Special Accounts documentation.

Once the TA has access to the SPARK course, you must set the permissions of what level of access you wish for them to have. To set the level of access: On the Build tab, under Instructor Tools, click Manage Course > Settings > Admin > Teaching Assistant Settings and give the TA the desired level of access. Default privileges are limited and do not include access to the Grade Book. Settings apply to ALL TAs in a course.

Can my undergraduate TA(s) have access to my SPARK course?

Yes.

All undergraduate TAs will be input into SPARK automatically, via a feed from SPIRE. In order for your Undergraduate TA to have access to SPARK, you must contact your Academic Scheduling Representative and request that he or she be input into SPIRE under the SPARK Only category. For more information, see our SPARK Access for TAs, Co-Instructors and Guests documentation.

Can my TA(s) export grade data for use in Excel?

Yes.
The grade book download process for TAs is different than for instructors. SPARK's designers did not include an option to allow TAs to export the Grade Book, so there are some additional steps that serve as a workaround when you are not available to export the data. In this process, the TA will basically copy the data from the Grade Book and paste it into an Excel file. The instructions for this process are outlined in our Export Student Grade Book Data from SPARK document.

Can I make a discussion topic that is anonymous to students but not to me?

This is not currently an option in SPARK discussions. If a topic is made anonymous, it is anonymous to everyone, including the instructor and Teaching Assistants. If you have already created an anonymous discussion topic, it is not possible to switch the topic setting to something other than anonymous. Instead, a new discussion topic should be created.