cuny first

Alternatives to CUNYFirst

Remember how CUNYFirst, the maligned all-in-one information management system at the City University of New York, tends to fail at the worst possible times, such as the beginning of the semester? For example, last August, CUNYFirst was down as the fall semester was starting and made it difficult for students to access their course schedules and for faculty to access course rosters.

Outages at peak usage times suggest deep-seeded technical problems. Although I don’t have any information on the specific causes of last fall’s outage, I suspect that the hardware powering CUNYFirst, either the database, the web server, or both, were simply overwhelmed by the activity from students, faculty, and administrative staff.

Today, I learned of two alternative access points to CUNYFirst data.

  1. CUNYFirst MyInfo. This access point, requiring CUNY Portal login, allows faculty to view our teaching schedules and student rosters. Instead of requiring a live connection to the CUNYFirst database, which could potentially crash the system, this appears to use a cached data: MyInfo pulls data from CUNYFirst once a day, presumably in the middle of the night. While it might not be live enrollment data, once a day is “good enough.”
  2. QC Courses. This is specific to Queens College and allows anyone to quickly access basic course information without having to login.1 Since the system is essentially public, it does not contain student rosters, but it does list the enrollment count, the catalog and section numbers, and the time and location for each course.

I welcome these solutions because it spares CUNY from having to “glue jets on a bus“, and it spares me from having to use CUNYFirst for looking up course information. With these alternative access points in place, most of us won’t have to bother with CUNYFirst during peak usage time at the beginning of the semester. And I personally won’t have to use CUNYFirst until I need to report attendance in the second or third week of the semester and until I need to report grades in late May. These alternative access points will make the launching this semester significantly less painful than the previous one.


  1. I should note that, after talking to a few colleagues at other CUNY sites, the information management and registration functions at Queens College appear to run smoother than at some other colleges in the system. 

CUNYFirst is Down

Cunyfirst outage

The beginning of the fall semester at CUNY is in three days, and the website that controls everything at CUNY is wreaking havoc yet again.

I tried to get my class roster for the one class I am teaching this semester at Queens College, but CUNYFirst has stymied me twice.

First, I had to change my password because it expires every few months. Since I use 1Password, that’s not that difficult. What takes a long time are two things:

  • remembering the password policy (it’s apparently limited to passwords shorter than 13 characters),
  • waiting over two minutes for the database to update and allow you to log in with your new credentials

Second, apparently CUNYFirst is completely unavailable to all users.

I can’t tell if the people in the above image are trying to fix the problem or whether they represent the CUNY population who cannot access this all-in-one piece of crapware that handles every single function we do at CUNY. Either way, the image is as uninspired as the software that controls one of the biggest public universities in the country.

Update: CUNYFirst appears to be working now.

My First Online Course with Google Classroom

Earlier this week, I submitted the grades for my first online, winter-session class. As I wrote earlier on this site, this was my first experience with a fully online course, either as a student or as a teacher. Aside from speaking with a couple of students who have taken online classes and colleague who has taught a language class over the Internet, I developed this course in a vacuum. This was both liberating and challenging. I felt free to use whatever tools I wanted, but I was also plagued with the uncertainty of whether I was doing things The Right Way, or what technologists refer to as “best practices.”

Since I have taught this class face-to-face for several semesters, I adopted the course into twelve media technologies. Each media technology constitutes a learning unit. The structure is basically as follows:

  1. Manual to Mechanical Media
    1. Writing
    2. Early Print
    3. Mass Print
    4. Photography
  2. Electromechanical Media
    1. Telegraph
    2. Telephone
    3. Motion Pictures
    4. Sound Recording
  3. Electromagnetic and Digital Media
    1. Radio
    2. Television
    3. Computers
    4. Internet

My colleague, who I’ll refer to as Claudine, suggested that I divide the class into a series learning units, each consisting of objectives, assignments, and assessments. I took her advice and, for each media technology, I assigned students to…

  1. audition a short introductory lecture that explains the media technology and emphasizes impacts of that technology on the society that adopted it,
  2. read a chapter from Irving Fang’s textbook Alphabet to Internet and a condensed version of an article from the fifth edition of the anthology Communication in History,
  3. take a quiz on the material.

After studying four media technologies, I assigned students a midterm exam consisting of essays.

The course was mostly asynchronous. Because the course was online, I wanted to provide students with some flexibility. Nothing about the course was live. They did not have to “tune in” to a lecture. Everything was designed to be completed at his or her own pace. However, because the winter session schedule was so compressed and had to “squeeze in” an entire semester’s work in three weeks, I did require students to complete four learning units per week to keep apace.

Here’s how I set up each learning unit of the course:

Google Classroom Ate My Students’ Homework

Google Classroom labels this teacher a "hero" because it will take a superuser to restore these students' deleted work.

Google Classroom labels this teacher a “hero,” presumably because it will take a superuser to restore students’ deleted work.

Starting a year ago this month, Google offered its Apps for Education clients Google Classroom, a free-to-use, stripped-down learning management system. I became intrigued with the offering, especially after both Queens College and Fordham adopted it and began offering workshops to train faculty on how to use it. I adopted it in the middle of this current spring semester, and it did what I wanted…except when it deleted all of my Fordham students’ work.

LMS No More

After teaching university-level classes for more than a decade, I’ve had it with bloated Learning Management Systems. A couple of years ago, I swore off Blackboard and Moodle because, as an adjunct professor, it was too much work to manage three or four courses on multiple learning management platforms. It was much easier to launch a static, public-facing website that all my students could find with an easy-to-remember URL or a web search. They could get a particular week’s readings, for example, in as little as two clicks and usually without ever entering a password.

However, going with a static web site instead of an LMS meant I would lose two key features: a gradebook and a platform to collect assignments electronically.

Rolling-Your-Own Gradebook

The gradebooks on Moodle and Blackboard both suck. Even when I used an LMS, I resorted to recording and calculating my grades on a spreadsheet: first Excel, then Numbers, and now Google Sheets. The added benefit of using a spreadsheet program is that I can upload grades with a tab-delimited or comma-separated values (CSV) file. It not only cuts down on the tedium of inputting grades using slow-responding pull-down menus, it also cuts down on errors.1

Collecting Assignments

Collecting assignments, on the other hand, remained tricky and offered no perfect solution. Having students email me resulted in an alphabet soup of attachments—PDF, RTF, DOCX, ODT, you name it—that I would have to convert, organize, and maybe even print to grade. Google Drive seemed to offer a better solution: students could compose or upload their assignment and then share the document with me. But then I would end up with a ton of files in my own Drive that I would have to organize, too. I also would get annoying email notifications for each student alerting me that I have been invited to view, comment, or edit someone’s document. And, at Queens College, students would have to share their document with jmonroy@qc.cuny.edu but not my more official email address of juan.monroy@qc.cuny.edu. That’s because QC doesn’t use Google Mail, and Google Apps doesn’t know that jmonroy@qc.cuny.edu is the same user as juan.monroy@qc.cuny.edu.

The most basic solution appeared to be having students bring paper copies to class. But as Steve Jobs said about using a stylus for smartphones, nobody wants that: “You have to get them and put them away, and then you lose them.”

Yuck, indeed!

The same goes for hard copies. Students inevitably have printer issues, forget or neglect to staple their pages, or simply don’t bring their assignment to class and then ask, “can I bring it to your mailbox?” For an adjunct who comes to campus only once a week, that’s not practical. I’ve also had it with shuttling student papers from one place to another and organizing them into piles across the floor of my home office. There has to be a better way!

Google Does Homework

Because they each use Google Apps for Education, Google Classroom is available at Queens College and at Fordham University. The platform offers two compelling features. First, it allows you to post announcements to your students, and second, it allows you collect assignments—nicely organized into a Classroom folder in my Google Drive—and respond to each student’s work. I could care less for the announcements feature, but the assignments function seemed to address my quibbles over using Google Drive. Students submit their assignments and they go to a folder in my Google Drive. I can grade an assignment for each student, comment on their document, and “return” it with feedback.

When I went to grade an assignment, I noticed that a particular student, let’s call her Allison, had attached a file from her Drive. When I followed the link, labelled “Drive File,” I got a Not Found: 404 Error message.

I see that Allison attached a "Drive File."

I see that Allison attached a “Drive File.”

But following the "Drive File" link yields this 404-error page.

But following the “Drive File” link yields this 404-error page.

That was odd. I wrote Allison and explained that she must have done something wrong to improperly submit her assignment. I proceeded to grade the next student’s assignment. Brandon also had a “Drive File” link and following it took me to the same 404-error page. The same thing happened for Charlene, for Dmitri, for Evelyn, and for Federico.

Dammit! All the work was gone.

A few panicked web searches led me to a Google Classroom support forum. Having not found a topic relevant to my problem, I started a new one. A tech support forum moderator promptly responded and suggested a puzzling course of action: that we check our Trash. It was basically a case of Classroom moving our files to my Trash, and I should expect to find them there.

I reflexively like to keep my Trash empty because I’m old and remember when hard drive storage was a scarce resource. Keeping the trash empty ensured you had liberated some drive sectors for more important files.

Apparently, because the student’s work ended up mysteriously in my Trash, all the student files were now gone because I emptied the Trash on my Google Drive. Moreover, when I asked a few students to resubmit their assignments, they told me that they couldn’t find their documents. Not only did Classroom delete the files from my Drive, it also deleted it from their Drives too.

I reported that this “new information had come to light,” and the same support forum moderator suggested that we do some workaround to recover our work. Despite suspecting that this workaround didn’t apply to our situation, I had the students try it anyway: unsubmitting and resubmitting their assignments didn’t work. The files were still gone!

And That’s Why We Back Up Our Work

After realizing that the Google support staff could not help us, I called the support staff at Fordham. The Google Apps administrators there were able to restore the Classroom files from a backup and bring back my students’ work.

Compared to other learning management systems, Google Classroom is really limited, but it touts one worthwhile feature that I liked: collecting and grading student work. But after deleting my students’ assignments, it looks like I will have to revert to collecting papers in class. I simply can’t trust Google Classroom to do the one thing it was supposed to do.

It was also a wake up to my students: the cloud is not a backup.


  1. My colleagues at CUNY have warned me to submit my grades on time, otherwise I would have to fill out grade changes for each student on multiple slips of paper. I joked that I would rather do that, using a mail merge or something similar, than deal with those slow-responding pull-down menus on CUNY First. 

New Technologies Fall 2012 Syllabus

The syllabus for my Fall 2012 New Technologies course at CUNY Queens College is now available online.

New Technologies examines the social impact of emerging technologies such as the Internet and new telephonic and audiovisual media. In it, students survey the origins of digital communication and the Internet and engage closely with contemporary scholarship on digital technologies and institutions. We will also consider the impact of the digital revolution on our culture.

Students can enroll through CUNY First.

Twenty-Percent Rule

A few moments ago at a Starbucks in Sylmar, California, after grading a set of take-home exams and posting grades to CUNYFirst, I finished another teaching semester at Queens College. I now get about a week off before starting anew with an online, winter session course that I will be conducting from my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house. This shortens my winter break a bit, but the online course allows me to extend my stay here in California until mid-January. New York is always so cold, sad, and boring in early January, and I am not the least bit bereft about missing out on whatever winter dreariness there is back east.

While I should be excited about finishing another semester and again submitting grades on time, allowing me a peaceful Christmas break, that enthusiasm is tempered because just over 20% of students in my Media Criticism course didn’t receive a passing grade. Nine out of forty-five students outright failed, and one student just stopped attending but still submitted a take-home final exam. In all but two cases, the students just stopped attending class.

Sadly, this is a common occurence at Queens College. I was shocked to see that, in the first class I taught there years ago, about a third of the class failed. Up to that point, I had only limited teaching experiences: as a TA at UCSB and NYU, and teaching one introductory film course at Marymount Manhattan College. In those situations, there was always one or two students who didn’t complete the course, usually because of an extraordinary circumstance, but having ten students fail a single course was a terrible surprise. In my second semester at Queens College, I alerted my students to this fact, imploring them to not repeat this same, terrible feat. For whatever reason, in that second semester, the failure rate was much lower, but since then it has crept back up.

I don’t have a single explanation for why so many Queens College students fail these courses compared to similar courses at other colleges. However, a few factors, however, come to mind:

  • Some students have challenging socioeconomic circumstances.
  • Some students have demanding family obligations, either raising their own children or tending for other needy relatives.
  • Some students work full-time and are taking courses in their scant spare time.
  • Some students’ commutes make it hard to attend class.1
  • Some students are returning to school after an absence and are having a difficult time readjusting to school and/or learning how to “do” college.
  • Some students come from NYC or other urban public schools, where they largely excelled because they stayed out of trouble, not necessarily because they were academically proficient.
  • Some students are stuck in “K-12 mode,” treat the classroom as a battleground between student and teacher, and are consumed by what they “get away with” in class, with assignments, and on exams.

These are some pretty significant obstacles to overcome, and it’s not unreasonable to see how students facing these would have trouble in a college class, especially where I really push the students beyond procedural learning into more conceptual terrain. In other words, my courses are hard because I expect a lot of students, and I haven’t yet come to terms with dumbing down courses for more favorable reviews or a higher passing rate.

For the new year, I am implementing a few new policies at Queens College to help make clear that attending class and participating in the day-to-day assignments, not just the written ones that count towards their final grade, is essential in succeeding in college and beyond.

One step is to implement two new attendance policies:
1. Negative reinforcement: Students may not miss more than four weeks of class for any reason.
2. Positive reinforcement: Students attending more than 12 weeks of class will receive a half-grade bonus to their final grade.
These two seem a lot more consequential than factoring their attendance as a percentage of their final grade.

I’m also instituting a second policy in my Media Criticism course: require students to present on assigned readings. This worked really well in the New Technologies class that I taught years ago but never got to do again. The class relied a lot on readings and developing conceptual frameworks for understanding media. It also spared them from having me lecture, pontificate, and yammer for a three-hour (!) class period.

I hope these policies keep students engaged and invested, not just for my Media Criticism courses, but for all their other courses at the college. We owe it to our students to push them into realizing their greatness, especially in the face of the formidable circumstances many of them face. Allowing them to pass, by doing subpar work or missing many class sessions, is a disservice to what they should expect from us and why they enrolled in the first place.


  1. My eight-mile commute from Brooklyn to Queens College is a lethargic agony. I can bike there in less than an hour, but it’s through some pretty bike-unfriendly terrain. Alternatively, I can take public transportation, which will take about an hour-and-forty minutes to travel those eight miles, via a mix of subway lines and busses. 

UberPOOL Rides are now a Tax-Free Benefit

When I first started working at CUNY in 2008, I signed up for the Commuter Benefits Program offered to its employees. The program, now administered by WageWorks, allows you to set aside an amount of your choosing to be deposited onto a Commuter Card. The amount you set aside, up to $255 per month, will be deducted from your paycheck, pre-tax, meaning that those contributions won’t be taxed and you pocket the savings. 1

For New York City employees using WageWorks, the Commuter Card can be used to buy rides on the following systems:

  • NYC Transit busses and subways
  • Long Island Railroad
  • Metro North Railroad
  • NJ Transit
  • PATH
  • and a bunch of other transit lines in the region.

Another way you can use your Commuter Card is to pay for uberPOOL rides. But before you start booking rides on POOL instead of riding the train or bus, be aware of a few nuances that might make using your Commuter Card a little onerous.

  1. You will only be connected to drivers in full-size vehicles that can carry six or more passengers.
  2. Your ETA may be longer when requesting uberPOOL or $5 POOL with your commuter benefits prepaid cards.

While I appreciate the creative thinking that made possible using transit funds for a certain Uber rides, I would love to be able to use my Commuter Card for bike share expenses. It’s something that other New Yorkers have desired, but alas, that is not yet the case.


  1. Starting this year, New York City requires all employers with twenty or more full-time employees to offer this program for their full-time staff. 

Cash Back on Textbooks through Ebates

Starting Summer 2016, CUNY Queens College moved from eFollett.com to Textbookx as the textbook supplier for the college. After the college announced the new textbook supplier, I noticed that Textbookx is an Ebates store, which earns shoppers cash back for qualifying purchases. I’ve used this since last year and earned some cash through my various online shopping trips.

By shopping on Textbookx through Ebates, students can earn cash back, currently 2.5%, on course textbook purchases. Since I imagine that students would be interested in learning how to earn cash back on textbooks, I made a screencast.


Here’s how to earn cash back on textbooks purchased on Textbookx through Ebates.

  1. Go to Ebates.com.

    Sign in to your account. If you don’t have an account, join through this link and buy something: we’ll each get a $10 bonus.

  2. Find the Textbookx shopping portal.

    Search for ‘textbookx.com’ on Ebates.

  3. Start a Ebates shopping trip on Textbookx.

    Follow the “Shop Now” button to start a shopping trip on Textbookx.

  4. Find the School page for Queens College.

    Follow the “Schools” link and search for ‘Queens College’

  5. Find your classes

    Search for your classes or log in to CUNYFirst to list all of your courses.

  6. Buy your textbooks

    You should receive cash back credit to your Ebates account within a few days. Make sure you add your Paypal account to your Ebates account so you can receive your cash back as soon as possible.

Of course, you’re welcome to buy your textbooks through any source, but since Queens College selected Textbookx as the official textbook supplier, you may as well save some additional cash through Ebates.

Get started on Ebates

Spring Breaks, Compared

The middle of March is upon us, and all around the New York area, many college students and faculty are preparing for Spring Break. The break is always welcomed because it “breaks” up the extended slog of the spring term, which usually lasts for four full months.

This semester, I’m teaching at two colleges: at Pratt Institute and at CUNY Queens College. For my film history class at Pratt, I was able to schedule the midterm exam today, on March 11, just before spring break starts on March 14. However, I couldn’t do the same for the students in my media technologies class at Queens College. Their midterm exam will take place on March 17 (St. Patrick’s Day), but their spring break doesn’t take place until April 28. That is a very late spring break, taking place between the twelfth and thirteenth weeks of class.

Here’s a comparison of spring 2016 semesters at four area colleges where I have worked (Pratt, CUNY, and Fordham) or studied (NYU).

Week NYU Pratt CUNY Fordham
Jan 18 Week 1 Week 1
Jan 25 Week 1 Week 2 Week 2
Feb 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 1 Week 3
Feb 8 Week 3 Week 4 Week 2 Week 4
Feb 15 Week 4 Week 5 Week 3 Week 5
Feb 22 Week 5 Week 6 Week 4 Week 6
Feb 29 Week 6 Week 7 Week 5 Midterm Exam
Mar 7 Midterm Exam Midterm Exam Week 6 Week 8
Mar 14 Spring Break Spring Break Midterm Exam Week 9
Mar 21 Week 8 Week 9 Week 8 Spring Break
Mar 28 Week 9 Week 10 Week 9 Easter Break
Apr 4 Week 10 Week 11 Week 10 Week 10
Apr 11 Week 11 Week 12 Week 11 Week 11
Apr 18 Week 12 Week 13 Week 12 Week 12
Apr 25 Week 13 Week 14 Spring Break Week 13
May 2 Week 14 Studio Days Week 13 Week 14
May 9 Reading Day Final Exam Week 14 Final Exam
May 16 Final Exam ?
May 23 Final Exam

NYU and Pratt both schedule their spring breaks in the middle of March, just after Week 7 at NYU and Week 8 at Pratt. That’s ideal because you can schedule a Midterm Exam the week before and have it wrap up the first half of the course. Fordham schedules their spring break a week later but, because it’s a Jesuit university, it adds an additional Easter Break. For some reason, Fordham dictates that faculty schedule their Midterm Exams in late February. Whereas courses at NYU and at Pratt are divided into halves, the semester at Fordham is broken up into (unequal) thirds: before the midterm, between the midterm and breaks, and after the breaks.

The CUNY schedule, on the other hand, is a mess. As I’ve complained in the past, CUNY should stop scheduling spring break around the spring Easter/Passover holidays because it’s not conducive to learning. My students will endure twelve consecutive weeks of class before they get a break. Once the break is over and they will have emptied their minds of everything I taught them, they will have only two weeks to recover that knowledge before heading into the final exam. Moreover, the students in my class will also bear an additional burden: our final exam is scheduled for two weeks after our last class, despite Finals Week starting on the week of May 16.

My own undergraduate experience was quite different from that of these students. My university was on the quarter system, and spring break was the week between the winter and spring quarters. Once we finished our winter-quarter, final exams in late-March, we were off until classes started again in early April.

It was a true spring break.

Media Technologies, Winter 2016: A Three-Week, Online Course

Today marks two firsts in my teaching: teaching an entirely online course and teaching during the three-week winter session. It’s also novel because I never took a course under either of these conditions as a student.

To better serve its diverse population of non-traditional students, the department of Media Studies at CUNY Queens College has been looking to offer more non-traditional course offerings. Those include more online and hybrid courses and more courses during the three-week winter session. (The department is also offering more courses during the summer sessions.)

My offering during this non-traditional period, Media Technologies, surveys twelve communication technologies. Rather than schedule lectures at a specific time that students watch, I am emphasizing asynchronous, self-directed study.

For each media technology, students will…

  1. audition a short introductory lecture that explains the topic and emphasizes impacts of that technology on the society that adopted it,
  2. read a chapter from Irving Fang’s textbook Alphabet to Internet and a condensed version of an article from the fifth edition of the anthology Communication in History,
  3. take a quiz on the material.

After covering four topics, students will be required to take a weekly midterm exam.

Rather than using Blackboard or some similarly bloated learning management system, the syllabus is available on the open web. Anyone is welcome to audit the course, but submitting assignments requires a Queens College login to access Google Classroom. Office hours, scheduled on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, are conducted via a series of Google Hangouts.

Finally, based on feedback I received from students enrolled in other online classes, I am dispensing with any collaborative requirement. The students I surveyed expresses disappointment and frustration with instructors requiring students to post to blogs, to social networking sites, or an online forum. They indicated that not only was it the most annoying part of the class, but also the least impactful.

The course is currently full. Enrollment is capped at twenty students to allow for personal contact with students registered for the course. This is especially important because we’re not aiming to create a MOOC at the expense of nurturing our undergraduates.

Visit the course syllabus