Blackboard iPhone App

People have been contacting me all day about the Blackboard iPhone App. Both Blackboard and the Chronicle of Higher Education posted blogs about its release.

I find it interesting Jessica mentioned a Georgia student is the inspiration in the Bb blog post. There are over 200,000 students in Georgia who cannot use this application because it relies on Blackboard Sync which only operates for Academic Suite (Classic) products. Blackboard says the Sync product isn’t available to the CE/Vista products used by all but a few schools in the University System of Georgia.

The odds are good the poor student who needs the app can’t use it.

Also, the USG is exactly the kind of client who Blackboard says should wait and see before migrating to Learn.

Blackboard Learn Password Changes

Normally when presenting the opportunity to change a password, a user is required to provide the current password in addition to the new. It ensures the one changing the password already knows the password. 

According to Olaf Ritman, Blackboard Academic Suite 6, 7, 8 and Learn 9 ignore asking for the current password. Can anyone with access to one of these confirm?

We run Blackboard Vista 3 and 8. Neither have this particular issue. Since our product is the end of the line and Learn is the future, I pay a little more attention to what is happening on the other side of the academic house.

Any thoughts on the scale of this as a security risk? Olaf makes the point any user leaving the browser logged into the site could have their password changed.

Course Management Systems are Dead!

Heh. Blackboard Vista is headed for a brick wall? Who knew?

7. Course Management Systems are Dead! Long Live Course Management Systems! Proprietary course management systems are heading for a brick wall. The combination of economic pressures combined with saturated markets and the maturing stage of the life cycle of these once innovative platforms means that 2009 may well be the year of change or a year of serious planning for change. Relatively inexpensive and feature-comparable open source alternatives combined with some now learned experience in the process of transition from closed to open systems for the inventory of repeating courses makes real change in this once bedrock of education technology a growing possibility. As product managers and management view these trend lines, I think we might see incumbent players make a valiant effort to re-invent themselves before the market drops out from underneath them. Look for the number of major campuses moving (or making serious threats to move) from closed systems to open ones to climb in the year ahead. The Year Ahead in Higher Ed Technology

It is true the big player in proprietary CMS / LMS / VLE software has lagged in innovation for quite a while. Remember though Blackboard bought WebCT and kept around the other product while hemorrhaging former WebCT employees. That alone kept them extremely busy not to lose every customer they bought. The next version, Blackboard 9 should be available soon. That is the litmus test for their future success.

Bb9 is a newer version of Academic Suite, aka Classic. There is no direct upgrade path from CE / Vista to Bb9. There is a Co-Production upgrade path where one can run both versions side-by-side with a portal interface to access either version without having to login again. Content still has to be extracted from the old and placed in the new. (Since we are running Vista 3 and Vista 8 side-by-side now, this doedsn’t give me warm fuzzies.) This was the upgrade path some WebCT and Blackboard clients took getting from Vista 3 to 4 only to find Vista 4 was junkware. Similarly, those leaving CE4 for CE6 were frustrated by the move. So, I would predict:

  1. Those on Classic 8 now will go to Blackboard 9 ASAP.
  2. Smaller colleges on CE 8 who through turnover no longer have the people burned by the CE4->CE6 migration will probably move to Blackboard 9 this summer prior to Fall.
  3. Smaller colleges on CE 8 who still remember will migrate after AP1 (maybe a year after Bb9 release).
  4. Larger colleges on CE or Vista 8 will move some time between AP1 and AP2.
  5. Consortia groups like GeorgiaVIEW, Utah State System, or Connecticut State University System will wait and see.

That last group doesn’t take change easily. They have the nimbleness of a Supertanker cargo ship.

I am still waiting for the tweets about Moodle and Sakai, the open source alternatives, to change from in general “X sucks, but at least its not Blackboard.” to “X is the best there is.” If “at least its not Blackboard” is the only thing going for the software, then people will stay where they are to see where things go. There needs to be compelling reasons to change.

Unfortunately the cries of the students and the faculty in the minority are not enough. Most people are happy enough. They can accomplish the important things. They get frustrated that IT took the system down, data center power issues, network issues, or a performance issue. None of which go away by picking FOSS.

Off the Twitter Timeline: Icons

I laughed at reading this one.

Dear Blackboard: If you include icons in your interface, they should f’ing well be clickable. Everyone but you knows this. jazzmodeus

I thought this might refer to the new item icons. Jason works for Emory (doing instructional design) and taking classes at Florida State. Both use Academic Suite. So its probably not what I thought….

In Blackboard CE/Vista, the “course list” [1] can show icons to alert about new things to do. These can be about waiting assessments, discussion, mail, etc. If users click on the icon, then they can see the items causing the notice. At least, when left at the defaults.

One of the schools we host discovered when students entered a tool by clicking on these icon, the subsequent activity would not be tracked. The work around was to turn off the link rather than the icons entirely.

We agreed with the school and labored to convince Blackboard this was a major security problem. Unfortunately, the people who post the support bulletins have yet to post something about this problem. Its not a major item unless you are the student being accused of cheating because your activity doesn’t show appropriately.

[1] course list – This name bugs me….

  • The name is a hold over from when instruction took place in courses. In this system they take place in sections. So why not section list?
  • MyWebCT is dumb. MyBlackboard is dumber. “My” is 2004-ish portal cutesy, personalization name buzzword. Similarly, “e” and “i” are similarly dumb.

Eduyawn

Edupunk is “Do It Yourself” in education or instruction technology. Free or at least cheap tools suitable for classroom use are so ubiquitous, the faculty have plenty of alternatives to the monolithic “enterprise” LMS.

If edupunk was a boat, then what would it be? A bamboo raft?

Kid at an Apple IIeThis is not something new. My mom conned her principal into letting her have an Apple IIe for her classroom where she refused the computer teacher’s help. Instead, Mom found and installed programs herself for what she wanted to do. She was not going to become an extension of the computer teacher’s classroom. She maintained this DIY approach throughout her career. She was always annoyed with technology in education classes because she already knew about most of the technology they taught teachers to use and offered her experiences in not only how to make it work better but more recent technology which looked more promising.

Her approach was simple but methodical.

  1. Try something.
  2. Covertly pay attention to what the students are doing.
  3. Evaluate the effectiveness.
  4. Keep successful approaches and ditch failures.

This was her method in both K-12 and higher education. If she were faced with using something like Blackboard Vista or Academic Suite, then I have no doubt she would be looking for greener pastures. At the same time, she is proud of me for having the job that I do: running the monolithic “enterprise” LMS.

* Picture by Greg G. It was licensed Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.

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If a Learning Management System Was a Boat…

I saw a CompSci.ca blog post for If a programming language was a boat… (through WIRED) and laughed at the descriptions of C, ColdFusion, Java, Perl, PHP, and Ruby.

Java is a cargo ship. It’s very bulky. It’s very enterprise~y. Though it can also carry a lot of weight. Will carry a project, but not very fun to drive.

PHP is a bamboo raft. A series of hacks held together by string. Still keeps afloat though.

Blackboard Vista / CE 6+

Vista is an aircraft carrier. Bulky, enterprise-y, and a floating city which requires an entire armada of support (SafeAssign, Wimba, Luminis) to really fulfill its billed purpose. We see the “Mission Accomplished” banner with each new release. Marketing likes to describe it as a cruise liner, but I am sure it is because they are just recycling the Academic Suite points.

Blackboard Academic Suite

Academic Suite is a cruise liner. Swimming pools, mini-golf, and all you can eat buffets with little of substance.

Sakai

Sakai is Noah’s Ark. Good in the great flood and built by divine guidance. However, we live in the present reality… not ancient Babylonian mythology or the Jewish mythology which adopted the story. Do you really want to take a trip in something that may not even exist?

Moodle

Moodle is a houseboat. Yes, it is on the water, so technically it is a boat, but you only really use it tied up to a dock. You don’t want to take it out on the ocean or try to have too many people use it.

Anyone have thoughts on Desire2Learn, ANGEL, or any other systems?

Product Confusion

Someone hit my web site looking for “blackboard administrator certification”. So I was curious out what was out there on the Internet for this. I ran across a Blackboard training web site. In looking though the offerings, I was struck by the use of two different names for the same product. (I don’t mean like CE6 is Vista 4 Lite. There are minor differences in the products.)

  1. Academic Suite
  2. Bb Classic

As far as I can tell, these are the same exact products. Its confusing, so I don’t know for sure.

Certification Courses

Today I received an email announcing new certification courses from Blackboard. Every administrator around our system did as well. We have a large body of certified trainers and administrators with multiple individuals at every campus who have been through the certification plus all the functional support have been through both training and admin certification.

I’m not a big fan of certifications as a way of determining what people know. I do think having so many people go through the certification has allowed us to use jargon consistently. Pre-cert, we’d have to waste time explaining what the jargon means. Post-cert, everyone seems to understand these terms. Sure, we are constantly expanding the terms used, but its nice to have a common basis.

Back to the email…. Here are the certifications mentioned in the email:

  • Blackboard Learning System™ GUI Administrator Certification
  • Blackboard Learning System™ Server Administrator Certification (NEW)
  • Campus Edition GUI Administrator Certification
  • Vista GUI Administrator Certification

The points of the message were, I think to announce the new “server administrator” certification and remind people about the existing ones. Initially I was interested because I thought it meant there is a new certification for Vista, whose license name is Blackboard Learning System™ – Vista Enterprise Edition (say that 3x fast), but no… Its just for Academic Suite.

I think Blackboard’s marketing department should do a better job of understanding which products their customers use. Highlighting to over 60 people here in Georgia they are offering cool things to the clients who were not spoils of the WebCT buy isn’t helping Blackboard.

tag: , Blackboard Inc, WebCT

A More Usable Usability

Previously I have seen usability describing ease of using a web site. These four essences of usability are interesting.

I believe that to satisfy customers, a Web site must fulfill four distinct needs:

  • Availability: A site that’s unreachable, for any reason, is useless.
  • Responsiveness: Having reached the site, pages that download slowly are likely to drive customers to try an alternate site.
  • Clarity: If the site is sufficiently responsive to keep the customer’s attention, other design qualities come into play. It must be simple and natural to use – easy to learn, predictable, and consistent.
  • Utility: Last comes utility — does the site actually deliver the information or service the customer was looking for in the first place?

Web Usability: A Simple Framework

The first two items deal with system administration issues like the network, server(s), database, or application. Redundancy and proactive dealing with problems before they impact the system hopefully maximizes availibility. Optimization for performance hopefully maximizes responsiveness. An unhealthy database could fail to deliver information.

The last two items deal with design issues. More utility issues are likely based in design than tuning.


UPDATE: In my past life as a “Webmaster,” my fingers were dirty in all four aspects of usability. These were my servers and while not my design, I certainly influenced it by cleaning up the HTML and presentation. We created in-house everything except some outsourced photography and the Apache web server.

Blackboard’s Vista is a proprietary application with decent opportunities for instructional designers to provide clarity and utility. As much as it provides, clients often purchase or create additional applications to integrate with Vista to fill in holes Blackboard left. Okay, technically, WebCT left those holes, but Blackboard took the same model with Academic Suite. Blackboard doesn’t really intend to fill in those holes. They should for issues affecting most of their customers on each platform. This is the same approach taken by open source products with the caveat that third party companies are not filling in the holes, customers are developing their own solutions and providing back to the community.

The declining responsiveness of Vista over time definitely seems to create one frustrating difficulty for some clients. As the database tables get larger, responsiveness of the sites declines. Ouch. Delete it all… Oh, wait… Can we really do that?