Broken

At 30:00 Steve Jobs talks about how innovation came about because people wanted something for themselves to use that was actually good. Maybe this is the takeaway message for dealing with any technology, especially in education. If <name your institution’s LMS> sucks, then look around and cobble together something actually good. Or failing that make your own. Don’t rely on a corporation making profits to suddenly improve.

Email is the most important app I use. I’ve used everything out there… I know we could improve the productivity at Apple 30% just by getting them good email… If something so obvious as email is so broken… there is no answer to these questions [1] except, “Let’s go do it.”

[1] Actually, I think the answer is licensing. A manager wants to pay one bill for software everyone uses. People who hate the software either spend the time to find a free alternative and/or pay the money for a license to an alternative.

LMS Non-Negotiables

I listened in on the first town hall meeting for our USG LMS Transition Task Force on Thursday. There are 3 more town halls this week and a final one December 9th. It sounds like the task force is looking for what items are non-negotiable, extremely important, nice to have. Here are the non-negotiable items from the list. Here are my thoughts.

  • Security: Agree. Student data is critical information to keep away from those who ought not see it while giving access to those who should. I would include in this an audit log of administrative actions such as changing passwords, resetting virtual classrooms, or anything else which possibly could be abused.
  • Scalable: Agree. We’ve seen fantastic usage growth other the years. When I started with this project four years ago, we had only around 100,000 active users. We now approaching 300,000 active users. Even each user does more now than then. There is no reason we will see an end to usage growth.
  • Integrates with enterprise systems (i.e. Banner): Agree. There is a need for a relatively easy way to ensure the faculty and the students have accounts which are placed in the correct virtual classrooms. I’ve seen a desire for real-time integration. The Luminis Data Integration Suite always looked to cause more problems than it would solve.
  • 508 Compliance: Agree. Every user ought to be able to get the information in the class. However, to truly meet this I would think that would include fixing faculty uploaded content so that is accessible.
  • Don’t go backwards (features and functionality meet or exceed current functionality): Unsure. I’m not aware of an LMS option which meets every feature we currently have in Vista 8. The only way to meet this one is to negotiate which are the non-negotiable features.
  • Cross-platform and cross-browser support: Could not agree more. Most web sites I visit work in any web browser I choose. Vista 8 has limited supported operating system and browser combinations. Don’t forget the cantankerous Java Applets multiple versions of Java behave erratically and prior to Java 1.6.0_11 left in place older versions. Also sometimes new versions of Java suddenly do not work.
  • Ease of use and good user interface (student, instructor, administrator): Agree. More is not always better. I sense a frustration about a lack of efficiency accomplishing tasks.
  • Timely support and response: Agree. I understand this one to mean fix the problem in 1-2 weeks not a year plus.
  • Good communication regarding downtime: Unsure of the intent. Vista 8 has a pretty good announcements tool. Does it mean be more aggressive in telling the users when the system will go down next for a scheduled maintenance? I wonder if it means my organization (hosting) ought to take a firmer hand rather than continue to depend on the campuses in letting end users know.
  • Back up and restore capability (minimum 1 year – nice to go back farther)/archiving/back-up without significant downtime: Unsure of the intent. Our system backups are daily without any downtime involved. My best guess is it means something like a wiki history for all content and tools and maybe the whole virtual classroom. Should something bad happen the faculty member ought to be empowered to fix it and not depend on going to an administrator every time. While Vista 8 allows faculty to make their own backups, this was disabled to avoid performance issues. Also, the restore overwrites everything and not selective enough to ensure the faculty would not lose other data trying to retrieve something specific. Imagine losing 10 weeks of work in order to retrieve an accidentally deleted file. (Administrators have unintentionally done this.)
  • Ability to bring in guests to the system (i.e. collaboration): Agree. In a bricks-and-mortar classroom, the faculty can just ask a guest to come to the right room in a building. With Vista, the virtual classroom is more like a fortress requiring the faculty member to complete some kind of paperwork/memo to get an id so the guest can pass through security.

For those of you in similar searches, does this list look similar to yours? What would you add?

Some things I am surprised are not non-negotiable.

  • Better grade book: The existing one in Vista 8 is cumbersome, especially the grade calculator. A key use of the LMS is for students to understand their performance in the class. However, keeping up with the calculated grade at any given point is a lot of work for the faculty.
  • Reporting and analytics: The faculty, advisors, and tutors need to know which students are having difficulty.  Department heads and deans need to know which instructors are failing to spend enough effort teaching a class. People composing budgets need to know how much the LMS and auxiliary software are used.
  • Administrator becomes another user: Similar to *nix’s “su – user”, some problems only become apparent when using the correct account. Rather than change the password, take a look, and give the user the new password, administrators need an easier way of reviewing.

Please Don’t Write Off the LMS Just Yet

Found the Educational Technology Trends 2010 quite interesting. Especially the part which predicts yet again (still?) the death of the LMS.

Both learning and learning content are moving away from traditional centripetal models, in which everything happens at set locations and is controlled at the institutional/publisher level (top-down), and moving toward centrifugal models that are learner-focused (bottom-up) and in which learning happens wherever a student happens to be. This means new platform models for learning (post-LMS), greater mobile access, more flexible e-commerce models, and a renewed explosion in generic online learning.

I suspect the relationship between the LMS and what is next is more like  LMS : post-LMS/PLE/DIY U :: book : Internet. The Internet has not as of yet killed off the book. We still have plenty of books available. Even books are shifting towards digital. The Internet just moved into greater prominence and changed how we think. Similarly, new platforms may result in something which we will think of as how students learn in higher education, but the LMS will still be around for a very long while. (Which is good because it means I still have a job for a while.)

Another Ironic Keynote

Earlier today, Blackboard announced the keynote will be given by Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U as the DevCon keynote. It continues the tradition of ironic keynote speakers in even years:

  • 2008 Michael Wesch who spoke on how the traditional one-to-many classroom model isn’t good for helping students learn. The two LMS products Blackboard makes continue the one-to-many model online. He advocated using free online Web 2.0 tools to aggregate the information students collectively relevant research and provide to the many-to-many class discussion.
  • 2006 David Weinberger who spoke on how digitalization changes how we organize information. He was previously a contributor to The Cluetrain Manifesto, whose point was corporations need to have honest conversations with customers because we do talk to each other and discover deception.

How does DIY U continue the irony in 2010? Well, the idea is to get rid of the education model where students solely look to experts (aka professor) to provide information. Students use the abundance of information available online for free such as OpenCourseWare and use the experts to give practical application experience. An LMS is designed to place the expert (the instructor role) as the provider of the information, the exact opposite of what Anya advocates.

Ideally, Blackboard arranges these to pressure themselves to adapt to the changing landscape.

If so, then based on the 2006 keynote, Blackboard should have a culture of engineers and developers willing to frankly talk to me about the products. They should be hanging out on the email lists where I seek peer solutions offering their own given their insider access. They should be on Twitter. There are a few who do this, but they are by far rare.

I’ve already argued how the LMS is Web 1.5 not 2.0.

Maybe in 2012.

The LMS is So Web 1.5

The claims Blackboard’s Learn 9 provides a Web 2.0 experience has bothered me for a while now. First, it was the drag-n-drop. While cool, that isn’t Web 2.0 in my opinion. A little more on track is the claim:

The all-new Web 2.0 experience in Release 9 makes it easy to meaningfully combine information from different sources. The Challenges Are Real, But So Are the Solutions

Integrating with a social network like Facebook is a start, but again, in my opinion, it still isn’t Web 2.0.

So, what is Web 2.0? I did some digging. I think the Tim O’Reilly approach meets my expectation best. He quotes Eric Schmidt’s “Don’t fight the Internet.” as well as provide his own more in depth.

Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the Internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform. Chief among those rules is this: Build applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them. (This is what I’ve elsewhere called “harnessing collective intelligence.”) Web 2.0 Compact Definition: Trying Again

Users expect a site on the Internet to meet their needs or they eventually move on to a site which does. There are so many web sites out there providing equivalent features to those commonly found in an LMS. There is the danger of irrelevance. This is why every LMS company or group strives to continually add new features (aka innovating). The bar continually gets raised, so LMS software continually needs to meet this higher standard.

Tim additionally provides some other rules which you can see at the above link.

When an LMS reachs the point where the resources of the Internet helps people learn, then it will be a Web 2.0. As long as an expert or leader imparts knowledge on students, the LMS is still something different than Web 2.0. Sorry…. The irony? This is exactly what Michael Wesch and PLE advocates preach.

LMS Security

This morning there was a flurry of effort to locate an article called “Hacking WebCT.” My coworker was able to locate it. We were disappointed. 

The main points of the article were:

  1. Lazy administrators make compromising user accounts easy.
  2. Lazy instructors make getting questions for assessments easy.

These apply to any LMS. So, here is some advice to counter the issues raised in this article.

 

Accounts

Default passwords are the bane of any system. Make users change them. (Yes, this increases support tickets.) This usually comes about because the administrators did not integrate the LMS authentication with LDAP, Kerberos, or CAS  which allows for central management of accounts. Central management of accounts means fewer accounts are likely to sit around with easily guessed intially imposed credentials. 

Linking many services together also raises the exposure should one account account me compromised. Enforce decently strong passwords. Too strong and frequently changed password will encourage users to employ means of remembering passwords which defeat the point. Passwords probably should not ever be just birthdays.

Not sure what advice to provide about the potential of a student installing a keylogger on a computer in a classroom?

 

Assessment Cheating

A long availability period (like a week) provides opportunities for enterprising students to exploit the issues with passwords to see and research questions in advance. Instead, a quiz with a short availability period like an hour means less time to go look at the other account, record the questions, research them, then go back into the proper account and take the assessment.

Instructors should use custome questions. Students can obtain questionss provided by publishers in ePacks or with textbooks from previous students, the same textbooks the instructor received, or even web sites online which sell the information. 

High stakes testing ensures students are looking to cheat. When the value of questions is high, these easier methods than knowing the material ensures a war between students and instructors over cheating. Of course, lowering the value of the questions increases the workload of the instructor. 
🙁

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.

Blind Not Insane

The National Federation of the Blind is upset about a movie portraying people who are blind as behaving badly.

Pyyhkala, 36, of Boston, said he has read the book and seen parts of the film. He said his grievances stem from the film’s potential to sway public attitude about blindness. He said the movie exacerbates stereotypes and gives false information to uninformed viewers. [Link] (Since starting this post now requires a login?)

I haven’t seen the film or read the book, but the trailer for the films shows the people being put into quarrantine for a medical epidemic where people go blind. Stories generally portray people as acting incompetent and fearful when they are trapped in an unfamiliar situation. The whole point is to create an environment whereby a person, the hero or heroine, who is the bright light of reason and to whom everyone else appeals can rise to the challenge.

Blindness happens to use people who are blind, most likely because a the author was trying to be creative and use something readers would find new. Jose Saramago: “Stupidity doesn’t choose between the blind and the non-blind.” [Link]

Chris Danielsen, a national federation spokesman, said while he understands that the film plays on the public’s fear of sudden blindness, the idea that loss of sight is equal to incompetence and immorality is “outrageous” and “vicious.” Everyday tasks like getting dressed and using the bathroom do not become impossible if a person loses their sight, Danielsen said.

Works of fiction do not depict reality. Otherwise… they would not be fiction. Stop giving movies more meaning than they actually have. Otherwise, you give them power they didn’t already have.

The Catholic Church’s opposition to the Golden Compass made me read the book and go see the movie (latter was awful). I wouldn’t have cared otherwise. Denouncing it made me wonder what they had to fear from something so silly as a book and movie. After seeing the trailer, I wasn’t interested in Blindness. After reading about the opposition, I am interested. I don’t have much luck with movies from books lately, so I may go book first.

Monopoly Fears

Something brought up my abandoned Friendster blog, which had a link to fiftymillimeter which used to be my favorite photography site by people in Athens prior to me even moving here. Why “used to be”? Well over a year ago, they stopped posting to the site. Sad, I know. Still, I was curious, Where are they now? I ran across Twitter-Free Fridays looking for Toby Joe Boudroux.

What I found interesting about this post was his approach to whether or not Twitter is or is not a monopoly. I agree with the first part. The last sentence surprised me.

Being at the top of an emerging market segment does not constitute a monopoly. Unfair practices, abuses of that dominance to limit fair access to resources and outlets – those are monopolistic. If Twitter struck a deal with Mozilla that blacklisted other microblogging services, we’d have something to talk about. Opening APIs freely and allowing supplemental markets to emerge hardly seems consistent with railroad barons.

Supplemental markets would be the equivalent of a railroad baron allowing new train stations or business to sell to the customers using the trains. Open APIs allow other corporations to find a niche. However, they are not a direct competitor. For example, with Twitter, the API is not used by Pownce or Jaiku. Friendfeed who fits in both the lifestream market and the micro-blog markets does use the API. More commonly, the Twitter API is used by companies like Summize or Twitpic in searching or posting content.

If economists or lawyers determining whether a company with a large market share is monopolistic are influenced by open APIs creating supplemental markets, then this could be a strategy to avoiding DOJ further scrutiny? At Bbworld / DevCon, a frequent point of pride from the Blackboard folks was the anticipation of Bb9 to have a more open, accessible, and useful API. This API will be able to do everything the current one in the Classic line can currently do. The anticipated additions to this API could benefit many supplemental markets. (Let’s just forget at the same time, they are saying API for the CE/Vista products is a dead-end development path.)

Scoring points with the DOJ (and more importantly the court of public opinion) could never hurt while trying to sue a much smaller competitor like Desire2Learn. Some characterize Bb as not likely to stop until D2L no longer exists. Who knows? I doubt even Chasen knows. Still, it would far fetched to characterize just this as making Blackboard a monopoly.

There are pleny of alternative LMS products to the Blackboard Learning System: Moodle, Sakai, ANGEL, eCollege, and many, many more. Heck, the rumor mill would indicate more and more higher education institutions are considering and even changing to the alternatives. Blackboard acknowleges institutions likely run multiple products. With Bb 9, they encourage people to use the Learning Environment Connector to single sign-on to into the other products. With the Bb9 frame remaining so they know who got them there, of course.  Don’t forget about a Personal Learning Environment,

Certainly I dislike that Blackboard hears my objections and continues to act in ways contrary to them. However, that happens within my own team. Neither group are criminal for ignoring me.

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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