GA Southern’s D2L Journey #USGRockEagle13

Eric Floyd and Terri Brown, Georgia Southern University

    • Real-Time Ellucian integration not cross-listing. Lack of quality control for release just before start of term. Hotfix soon after resolved.
    • 10.2 released late (June not May) so missed between terms window. Upgrade broke real-time again, but because delayed until August got the fix before upgrade.
    • Tried cloning from production to test, but decided better to copy 10 courses. (BCE, BCC tools)
    • Lessons learned:
      • TEST! Complexity grows with complexity of the system.
      • Familiarize changes in updates. Do not rely on D2L documentation. Listen to community. heug?
      • Be careful of encouraging third party tools. They can be bought and die.
    • Plan to move to D2L hosting? “Right now we are the tip of the spear… When GeorgiaVIEW’s functionality catches up, then that might be a possibility.”

healthcare.gov

As an information technology professional, when a web site has performance problems, I sigh, gnash my teeth, and gripe just like everyone else. However, twenty minutes later I realize I have been there and feel bad for those having to deal with the mess. Also, should I feel hurt that I am not among the nation’s brightest IT minds since I was not asked to help?

GeorgiaVIEW, one of the projects on which I work, has about four thousand active users on average and with topping out around 5-6 thousand week days and eight during an abnormal event. When users are having problems, they tend to come back which gives them a new session yet the old one has not expired, so the system deals with more and more sessions compounding a performance problem. Some of the descriptions people gave about having problems with healthcare.gov sounded like they came back over and over trying to enter.

The most annoying thing about the healthcare.gov problems though are the pundits. Early on, I heard they should have hired Silicon Valley companies to build the site as though IT people only come from there. They specifically named companies famous for their high profile meltdowns to build the health care exchange as experts in building huge sites without problems. Later came the small companies who build web sites for others, but not at this scale.

It is extremely difficult to build a site to the perfect scale. Overbuilding is expensive, so there is pressure to scale back. Business workflows are murky at best because until people use it, they really are unsure what it is they want. (They just know what was built is not right and why.)

One of Many

The Learning Management System (LMS) has been a despised technology by some ever since I started working with one, WebCT, in 1999. At the time it was deemed crappy technology that had to improve or die. So today in 2012, about 13 years later, I have to roll my eyes at the pundits writing about how the current technology has not significantly changed in a decade (really more than a decade) because it still offers the same tools and will die unless it adapts.

My first few years, 2006-2010, of working at GeorgiaVIEW, our active user counts doubled every 1.5 years. We plateaued at around 290,000 and grow a few thousand a year. Numbers of actions in the system still doubles every 1.5 year. That is insane growth. Growth unlikely fueled by people despising use of the tool. Right now, we are getting pressure to migrate Summer 2012 content for the Fall 2012 start in Desire2Learn1 because instructors roll over the classes from term-to-term. That speaks of long term consistent loyal use not occasional only as little as have to use. For something on the verge of death, it is hard enough keeping the users happy.

I am a database administrator not a faculty member (or dean or vice president for academic affairs or provost). It seems to me though no one would say, “When you teach a class, the white board in the room is the only tool you can use.” Instead, the push would be to add to the available tools in a neverending pursuit of finding better ones. So we see pressures to integrate the LMS with a variety of similar specialized services. Many are textbook replacements or supplementary services designed specifically for student needs. Others are social media. More and more the LMS is just a portal: a place to organize where students really go to learn.

Also, as an IT guy, I think it is important to have a plan B. Things sometimes fail. As a student I was always annoyed when the instructor had to leave the room for 20% of the class to go track down a piece of chalk because the remaining ones were too small to write. I applauded once in my junior year because the instructor happened to have a piece of chalk in her purse just for that contingency. Similarly, faculty members and even students should think about what to do when the LMS is not there. Heck, what should they do if everything the university IT runs like the web sites, email, portal, and network all disappear. It can happen.

When the university bureaucracy selects and administrates a tool, they will adhere to university policy which adheres to higher education laws. When a faculty member selects and administrates a tool, they should do the same. Unfortunately, that means the faculty member becoming familiar with policy and law. Another challenge is running into different interpretations. An example: a user following @VSUENGL1101 on Twitter could be reasonably expected to be a student at Valdosta State University enrolled in the subject English class 1101. Some say that violates the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. Some disagree, so it is being debated. The law is old and did not likely anticipate social media, so naturally there is movement towards an update.

I doubt the LMS will simply die because there is something better. Instead it will remain one of many tools for years to come. Like the land line, television, JavaScript, still camera, WiFi, non-smartphone, and (God forbid) pagers.

Note 1: Desire2Learn objects to their product being called an LMS. They prefer Learning Environment on the grounds it integrates with so many other tools.

P.S. This totally is from a sustaining technology perspective. Guess I should write this from a disruptive technology perspective.

Aspiring to a Billion Pageviews

Read this in an article about Reddit,

But Reddit.com is still one of the internet’s most popular sites with over a billion pageviews a month.

I realize a billion is a big number, but I figured even GeorgiaVIEW could be getting half a billion pageviews a month. January 15th to February 14th (our peak 30 day period), we did about 774 million pageviews. In the last 30 days we did about 600 million while some kids are on spring break (sic?).

There must be online learning systems larger than us like University of Phoenix (500,000 students). If they are comparable to us in the amount of online usage they have, then they could be doing over a billion pageviews. UoP is about 60% larger than us, so they should cross over into the Reddit range.

Surely software as a service online learnings sites like Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Pearson Learning Studio, Unicon, and Moodlerooms push more than a billion pageviews?

Organization Relationships

A friend of mine who I used to work with once remarked (2007-ish) the University System of Georgia does not really work like a system so much as a loose confederation fighting over money. Given I have no access to budgets, I would not know. GeorgiaVIEW works remarkably well given there are only a few people running the system and hoards of people administrating it for their campus. There is a mostly correct mix of grassroots and top down pressure.

The Board of Regents Information Technology Services have fostered a culture of “help requests must go through the tickets”. Tickets allow the team to better triage issues. Tickets show leaders we are helpful. The unintended consequence is weakening the relationships we have. Tickets indicate we are too busy to be helpful. Relationships are accountable so an individual shows vulnerability to me by admitting not understanding, breaking, or other problems. My part of the relationship is to console, advise, or fix the problems. Tickets make all this harder because they are less personal.

When I talk with my coworkers, we covet the connections we hold across the system for they are the true value. How do we develop these relationships inside the formality of processes which fail to incentivise them?

We have email lists, instant messages, weekly Wimba sessions, etc., but there is obviously  a problem when the same people who have these things only tell me about things when they see me in person. I’m reminded of the ITS CIO spending time going to campuses to talk to them about their needs. Maybe that should something we do throughout the organization especially at my level? Also, when I was at Valdosta State, my best information about the needs of faculty members and students came from visiting them not the technology I developed to encourage reporting issues.

Technology is not magic. It does make those who are not communicating start. It just shifts the form and potentially makes it more difficult. Ideally the difficulty will be so slight no one will notice. One can make communication easier by going from a more difficult technology to a more easy form. Still… It is not as good as being there with the person.

Regent NeSmith

I knew some things about William “Dink” H. NeSmith, Jr. a relatively new member of University System of Georgia Board of Regents through a friend and former coworker, Andy Fore, who personally knows Dink.

  • Jesup, Georgia
  • publishes newspapers
  • nice guy

Dink dropped by to tour our facility and answer questions.

One of the more interesting answers to a question about expanding distance learning had to do Dink’s belief online is the direction of the future and with the University of Phoenix operating in our state. He would rather see the money students give them come to us instead. The sense I get is Georgia ONmyLINE intends to help Georgians locate the online class options available to students. The project I work on, GeorgiaVIEW, provides the online class infrastructure. Another project I help intends to provide a more seamless integration between schools for those registering with Georgia ONmyLINE. Guess we are cutting edge?

Students First

Yesterday Gina, a coworker, joined me for lunch. She asked about where GeorgiaVIEW‘s attention is focussed since we recently completed our upgrade to Blackboard Learning System Vista Enterprise 8.

She pointed out students are the most affected by and most important constituent for any decisions we make. Yet the student point of view is almost never considered. Capturing what is good for students might mean installing all the possibilities where students and faculty could compare. It might mean surveys, however, I think self-reporting provides so much erroneous data we could do without it.

My job’s focus is more toward what is the most efficient, least problematic system for me to start/stop, install, upgrade, and review logs. I am still mulling what job position we have who would focus on ensuring whatever we do will provide for the best student experience. Guess really that should be all of us.

State of the LMS

Watched an informative WebEx about The State of the LMS: An Insitution Perspective presented jointly by Delta Initiative and California State University. An true innovator in this market could become the leader.

Market share numbers annoy me. These are always self-reported numbers from a survey. The sample sizes are almost always not very impressive and when broken down doesn’t really represent the market. DI didn’t post a link to where they got the numbers just the name of the group. Some digging and turned up this Background Information About LMS Deployment from the 2008 Campus Computing Survey. For background information it is woefully lacking in important information such as sample size, especially the breakdown of the types of institutions in the categories.

The numbers DI quotes of CC are very different for the same year the Instructional Technology Council reports: Blackboard market share 66% (DI/CC) vs 77% (ITC). An 11% difference makes is huge when the next largest competitor is 10% (DI/CC).

Other missing critical information: Are these longitudinal numbers, aka the same respondants used participate in every year the survey quotes? Or is there a high turnover rate meaning an almost completely different set of people are answering every year so the survey completely relies on the randomness of who is willing to answer the survey? So the numbers could shift just because people refuse to answer giving Blackboard reduced market share only because Moodle customers are more willing to respond to questions about it?

Most of the major LMS products on the market started at a university or as part of a consortium involving universities. I knew the background of most of the products on in Figure 1. Somehow I never put that together.

Will another university take the lead and through innovation cause the next big shakeup? I would have thought the next logical step to address here in the DI presentation would be the innovative things universities are doing which could have an impact. Phil described Personal Learning Environments (not named) as potentially impacting the LMS market, but he was careful to say really PLEs are an unkown. The were no statements about brand new LMSs recently entering or about to enter the market.

Figure 1: Start year and origin of LMSes. Line thickness indicates market share based on Campus Computing numbers. From the DI WebEx.

Network Recording Player - State-wide LMS Strategy 8262009 90839 AM-1

When people use my project as an example, it gets my attention. GeorgiaVIEW was slightly incorrectly described on page 26 Trends: Changing definition of “centralization”.

  1. We do not have an instance per institution which has a significantly higher licensing cost. We do give each institution their own URL to provide consistency for their users. Changing bookmarks, web pages, portals, etc everywhere a URL is listed is a nightmare. So we try to minimize the impact when we move them by a single unchanging URL.We have 10 instances for the 31 institutions (plus 8 intercampus programs like Georgia ONmyLINE) we host. Learn 9 will not have the Vista multiple institution capability, so should we migrate to Learn 9 an instance per institution would have to happen.
  2. We have two primary data centers not have a primary and a backup data center. By having multiple sites, we keep our eggs in multiple baskets.

The primary point about splitting into multiple instances was correct. We performed the two splits because Vista 2 and 3 exhibited performance issues based on both the amount of usage and data. With ten instances we hit 20,000 4,500 users (active in the past 5 minutes recently) but should be capable of 50,000 based on the sizing documents. We also crossed 50 million hits and 30 million page views. We also grow by over a terabyte a term now. All these numbers are still accelerating (grows faster every year). I keep hoping to find we hit a plateau.

Figure 2: LMS consortia around the United States. From the DI WebEx.

Consortia Nationwide

All this growth in my mind means people in general find us useful. I would expect us to have fewer active users and less data growth should everyone hate us. Of course, the kids on Twitter think GeorgiaVIEW hates them. (Only when you cause a meltdown.)

UPDATE: Corrected the active users number. We have two measure active and total. 20,000 is the total or all sessions. 4,500 are active in the past 5 minutes. Thanks to Mark for reading and find the error!

Name Collisions

Blackboard has a conference they call BbWorld. I noticed there are some odd tweets with the same #bbworld hashtag lately. These appear to be about a Blackberry conference to be held next month.

Collisions on names are common enough. For example, here are a couple names our clients use to brand their sites which other places also use.

My own project, GeorgiaVIEW is not immune. Some time ago I noticed the GeorgiaView Consortium (geological remote sensing) at the University of West Georgia.

I guess it is a good thing one Bbworld is in July and the other is in September.

For now I’ll just drop my RSS feed for the hashtag.

GeorgiaVIEW Mascot?

Rat Snake This little snake was found in the hallway at work. I thought the commotion was a continuation over the geyser in a sink until GH asked if I brought my pet to work. Went over the see and snagged this before maintenance took it away. Hope he enjoys life on the other side of the road.

I wish I had brought my dSLR. It really would have broought out the details. This okay I guess for automatic fash.

Here is this one large.

Update: We apparently disagree about what is a little snake. Smaller than six inches in one camp. Smaller than three feet in another camp. Also, this is being used as a good reason to work from home rather than come to the office. 
🙂