Enlightened Empathy

At the time AirBNB was so small, Joe Gebbia personally went to listers to photograph homes for the listings. In taking these photos…

“We got so close that we go to step into their shoes for a moment and see the world through their eyes, and really see the pain points that they were feeling,” says Gebbia. That’s the basis of innovation — you take an enlightened and empathetic point of view and combine it with your own unique point of view to create something new. In a short period of time, the quality of listings improved and number of options increased.

In the How I Built This with Guy Raz podcast, Gebbia calls this Enlightened Empathy.

While doing web design, we talked to the administrators for the department who wanted a site. In doing support for the sites, I would get to talk to users to understand what they were trying to accomplish and make tweaks or major re-designs to make that experience better.

There is a whole profession, User Experience Designer, built around the idea of engaging representative users to understand how they use technology to ensure the design reflects how people will use it.

Learning Tech

I learned electronics as a kid by messing around with old radios that were easy to tamper with because they were designed to be fixed.

Lee Felsesnsteinin The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson

The story I tell about how I ended up working in information technology is about having a computer all my life as a child, breaking it, and most importantly knowing that I had to fix it before my parents found that I had. The typical takeaway is that I was intelligent, talented, etc. But, really that reveals the wrong assumption.

More correct takeaway is by this point in computer history, people designed computers to be fixed. The above quote suggests radios were initially custom built, which made them expensive to fix. To accomplish mass production, modular components make it easier to assemble but also as a side benefit easy to swap failed parts. Computers followed the same path but not only on the hardware side but the also software. Modularity to software is how we can patch, install new software, change settings, etc to fix issues.

Even today, I see people look appalled that smartphones can be successfully sold without an easy way for the owner to replace the battery or a microSD slot to add storage. We like to be able to fix our stuff. Maybe it is our Do-It-Yourself cultural biases at play.

Making things fixable lowers the bar to tinker with it. Tinkerability makes something more accessible to learn where, when, how, why it behaves the way it does. Those experiences in turn make a user self-taught into a power user and eventually into a computer administrator who really is just a power user given the keys to offlimits parts.

IT Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow proposed a theory in A Theory of Human MotivationPsychological Review, motivation works to fulfill baser needs before addressing loftier needs. In a discussion the other day, I mentioned we have to have a rock solid infrastructure and stability of services to the point they are a utility and no users think about them causing them problems before we can focus well on innovation.

It occurred today maybe this would be an information technology equivalent to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The IT Value Hierarchy proposes something that looks like what I was thinking.

    • Paradigm Shift at the top
    • Competitive Differentiation
    • Integrated Information
    • Security and Stability
    • Infrastructure at the base

Once the infrastructure issues are solved such that the foundation is solid, then organizational focus can turn to security and stability. Without a solid infrastructure, security and stability are undermined. People fight fires that distract them from what they should be doing. The investments in equipment and time should be prioritized to ensure these.  The message from leadership should recognize the infrastructure foundation as more of a priority to get right than innovation at the time. Signalling the paradigm shift is most important means we should neglect the foundation. Not that we really can neglect the foundation, it just becomes a constant barrage of emergencies such that the paradigm shift becomes painful.

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!

Feedback Loops

Remakes don’t scare me. Some are good. Some are bad. 

The thing to remember is, “Its just a movie.” The world won’t end over a poor movie. There’s always another one in a few weeks to either like or hate. If it stands up to the test of time, then you’ll buy the Blue-ray and next three formats over the next 30 years. If not, then just ignore it ever existed… Much like I’ve done with Superman III, Superman IV, Star Trek The Final Frontier, and hundreds of other movies.

Getting worked up over change? Not worth it.

Quibblers would have kept “Star Trek” more like its old self. Quibblers inhibit revolution. Quibblers would deny the basic law of forward motion in pop culture:

If you love something, they will remake it.

But if you really love it, you will set it free, and let them.

The Trouble With Quibbles

Film makers should keep in mind, the types of people involved in  fads: connectors, mavens, salesperson. Fans are mavens. People are going to trust the opinion of these fans. So if the fans’ concerns are just a few quibbles but still an endorsement, then the general public will flock to the movie. If these quibbles amount to wide rejection of the movie by the existing fans, then the general public will mostly stay away from it.

Quibbles are not really the issue. Endorsements are. 

I think you missed that there is a life-cycle to most such endeavors, and feedback is very useful at specific times, and disruptive (in a bad way) at others.

So, the problem with “fan feedback” non-stop is that they tend to fall into a mob mentality, off being “trolls” about any innovation. But, that said, remember that early forms of the Batman movie with the Heath L Joker was shown to fans (at a Comic Con) to get feedback on the style and whether too over the top. The feedback was used to find the balance and deal with the nature of the ending. Fans were given leaks and teasers (semi-trailers) along the way as well, but the mob rule was not allowed not hound the people making it.

That said, what makes a movie work or not is very different from what made its source material work. The reason the Spiderman movies worked for a large audience who knew nothing about the comics had a lot to do with the simpler nature of the comics. Batman has always been more complex in the psychology of its heroes and villains, as much by what does not happen as what does. Watchman is trickier given its narrative model and how much it connected with its time (Cold War, etc).

— PaulK
The Downside of Feedback

Design by committee sucks. So fans should not take over the process. However, total rejection of fan criticisms probably will result in rejection by the fans and slow sales.

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.

Rock Eagle Debrief


  1. SMART (Section Migration Archive and Restore Tool) created for us by the Georgia Digital Innovation Group seemed well received. I’m glad. DIG worked tirelessly on it on an absurdly short schedule.
  2. Information is strewn about in too many places. There isn’t one place to go for information. Instead between Blackboard, VistaSWAT, and GeorgiaVIEW about 29. I amazed I do find information.
  3. Blackboard NG 9 is too tempting for some.
  4. Vista does DTD valdiation but not very well. We need to XML validation before our XML files are run. As we do not control the source of these files and errors by those creating the files cause problems, we run them in test before running in production. I am thinking of something along the lines of validating the file and finding the errors and reporting to the submitter the problems in the file. Also, it should do XML schema validation so we can ensure the data is as correct as possible before we load it.
  1. If you run *nix servers, then you need Yaketystats. I have been using it for 2 years. It revolutionized how I go about solving problems. If you are familiar with my Monitoring post, then this is the #2 in that post.
That is all for now. I am sure I will post more later.

Blackboard Won Suit Against D2L

Blackboard acquired patent ‘138 and brought a lawsuit against Desire2Learn. I would say 80-90% of the commentary about this case has been from anti-Blackboard crowd with about 90% of the rest from the let’s-wait-and-see crowd. Blackboard very much has been mum on the subject. I do not recall a blog of a single Blackboard supporter saying how great it will be for them to win this case. All I have seen are assurances from Bb they do not intend to sue into the ground open source (after EDUCAUSE got on Bb’s case).

I understand motivations for filing a patent request. I understand why they started the lawsuit after getting the patent. What I don’t understand is the reasoning for why the patent was awarded. Also, I don’t understand why Blackboard won the lawsuit. In truth, I probably both have more and less information.

  1. Examiner’s notes would describe the other bases of information about the decision.
  2. Transcripts of the trial would describe what information the jury heard.

Lacking, this information, I cannot really put myself in the shoes of the people who made these decisions to understand why they were made.

In the realm of public opinion, Blackboard certainly has given its vocal detractors very strong ammunition. Mainly the complaints are about using lawsuits to suppress smaller companies and establish dominance rather than innovation to win over new customers. It is about fear and uncertainty.

Drink the Kool-Aid!!

Everything to Everyone

This is intended to be a more thoughtful response to Laura regarding Course Management Systems and the need for innovation.

Currently, Course Management Systems are bloatware. They got this way by trying to provide everything to everyone. One instructor wants a feature, the university presses for this feature, the CMS programmers put in the feature. Okay, maybe not even 1/2 the time, but given that we have about 15,000 instructors, even a tenth getting a tenth of what they want adds up very quickly. Where they overlap is where companies feel the pressure to add these features.

In my experience, people have found CE and Vista clunky and difficult to use since 2001ish. Basically, that was when the shiny newness wore off at Valdosta State. If anything, then its gotten worse over time. Personally, I think this is the case because its not easy to use. Part of this lack of ease is because of the sheer number of possible actions required to accomplish frequent tasks. Another part is the overwhelming possible branches one might take [1] in the decision tree. Part of what makes us intelligent is visualizing the goal and taking the steps necessary to get is there. When software is not easy to use, the users feel stupid because they cannot figure out how to get to the goal.

Think about the complaints we have been seeing about CE6 from people using CE4. They are griping about features they are used to using disappearing. No one wants to lose the features or options they frequently use. They also wish the features or options they never use would disappear.

From what I’ve seen, instructors will make use of what the university
provides. When universities don’t provide what instructors want, then
these instructors will find what they want elsewhere and make use of
it. Large companies take a long time to integrate new features. By the
time they figure out the user base wants something, incorporate it,
release it, and customers implement it, the users have become used to
using it elsewhere are not attracted to a feature they’ve been using
for years elsewhere. So then we invoke FERPA and whatever to move them
to the CMS which is more clunky than what they were using already.

So enough with my griping… What is the solution? Well, maybe we should think about what a Course Management System should do?

  1. Course management: This means it provides the university administration means by which they can control access to classes. Its not for the faculty so much as provosts, vice presidents, and registrars to be comfortable the university is not allowing students to take something without paying the institution.
  2. Learning: Specifically, these are communication of concepts and evaluation of concept comprehension.

In a nutshell, #1 is the course list and administration screens while #2 is the course internals. If our focus is recreating the university in an online environment, then the CMS is the right approach. By importing the data from the student information system, we build a hierarchy just like the course catalog and put students into virtual representations of these classes. This mindset is where instructors want to build classes that consist of their lectures, the assignments, and the assessments. Its the face-to-face class online. Thankfully, online classes are moving to using tools to better utilize the advantages of the WWW. However, the focus is more towards improving peer discussion.

Maybe this approach isn’t the best one for learning? Last month I read a few articles off a web site advocating a different model: students gathering and creating information themselves (Personal Learning Environment). The instructor in this model becomes more of a mentor like independent study or how universities functioned at the time of our Founding Fathers. I’ve been hearing this is the direction education ought to take for over a decade now. However, I think its unlikely as its easier on the instructor to use the bird shot approach. 🙂

My Approach: The CMS is only an integration framework to provide access to tools. It doesn’t try to provide these tools at all. There are hundreds of wiki products who are better at some things depending on how its used. Why should the CMS think it can do it better than all of them? Same thing applies to blogs, social bookmarking, file sharing, etc. This means universities will provide a number of these tools and support dozens of different applications and integrate them all. We will have to better understand data flow, security, how all these pedagogically work well together. It’ll be a nightmare.

[1] One of things I unfortunately still do is recreate the user’s actions by figuring out what they clicked on in the recorded session. Much of the problems we see are user error, probably through not understanding the ramifications of the action.

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