D2L Drops Utah Lawsuit

Higher education is very litigious. Students sue universities over encroaching on personal beliefs. People who fail to get accepted sue over discrimination or reverse discrimination. Employees claim wrongful termination. Publishers claim copyright infringement. Software companies battling over patents. Equal funding of historically black colleges and universities to non-black counterparts.

We are involved in selecting a new LMS. The Utah Education Network is one of the few Blackboard clients very comparable to us. I track their performance issues because I expect when we reach the same size we could have the same problems. Their selection of Instructure Canvas caused quite a buzz. D2L going for the buzzkill with a lawsuit perhaps stirred up even more buzz. Unfortunately, it seemed all against D2L.

D2L milked being the victim in the Blackboard patent lawsuit. Now they want to be the victim in suing a tiny company over winning the UEN LMS contract. Some speculated this was all so D2L can get a hold of the documentation explaining why they lost to a company they consider inferior. (The letter explaining why they could not possibly be the real reason.)

Dropping the lawsuit was a good move for D2L, I think. What they would lose in the “court of public opinion” certainly outweighs anything they could gain through a lawsuit.

Anyhow, a good of this is others involved in a selection process hopefully will make sure to be more transparent in order to avoid a similar situation.

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.

Less Is More

Mashable has an interesting article about why Twitter persists despite frequent performance issues: “Less is more. Simplicity is power.” By providing little more than an API, upon which numerous others have built tools, it doesn’t so directly compete with other services.

I wonder if perhaps this is the right approach for a learning system? One size no longer fits all. Blackboard Vista is chock full of dozenss of tools and hundreds of settings. This made their products a behemoth to administrate. A lighter system where only the tools people wish to use could help.

On the flip side, a project like GeorgiaVIEW serves thousands of faculty members. All the tools in Blackboard Vista are not enough to satisfy all of the faculty. They want us to integrate with dozens of third party tools, namely the one which will make their class work. An easy API to write against would ultimately mean we would have more tools than we struggle to administrate today.

I guess this is my rejection of the Personal Learning Environment. As great as it is for students and the faculty, the IT who have to support them will fail to support them.

Anthropomorphism

Do you talk about computers, software, or web sites as manifesting human-like behaviors? Personally, I have.

At work, we manage several machines who collectively provide the GeorgiaVIEW service. When a machine is completely unresponsive, then we refer to it as having died. When a machine stops a performance issue, we refer to it as happy. I call my car cranky when it fails to run well.

Besides, electronics and vehicles, are there other examples?

User Interface v. SQL Reports and Tracking

Blackboard Vista tracks student activity. This tracking data is viewed as a critical feature of Vista. Our instructors depended on the information until we revoked their ability to run reports themselves due to performance issues. Campus administrators can still generate reports (though some still fail). We doubt the solution to this is Blackboard improving the queries to create the reports. We favor deleting tracking data (data preserved outside of Vista) to resolve the performance issues.

We developed SQL reports to look at the tracking data where the user in question was not a student. Yes, the data is limited, but in determining when and where a user was active, can help determine where to look in logs. When we hit the performance issues we started using these reports where the user interface reports failed to generate.

My understanding was the user interface and SQL reports on tracking were the same. Both looked at the same data. The user interface reports were just sexier wrapped in HTML and using icons. I compared a user interface report to a SQL report. Just prior to doing this, I was thinking, WebCT was stupid for not tracking when students look at the list of assessments. Turns out “Assessment list viewed” was tracked in the user interface all along but was missing in our sqlplus queries. WTF?

The data has to be there. The problem has to be our approach in sqlplus is inadvertently excluding the information from the reports. Because these reports must be accurate, I’ll crack this nut… Or become nuts myself.

CRACKED THE NUT: So, part of the data WebCT collected was the name of pages. There is a page name table which was inner joined to the user action table. So pages without a name were not reported. George suggested an outer join. I placed it on the page name table which now lets us see the formerly missing tracked actions. For the specific case where I found this, I now get all the missing actions.

Considering a Blackboard (it’s their problem now) feature request to ensure every page in the application has a title. I consider it developer laziness (someone else said worthlessness) that some pages might not have something so core and simple.

ANOTHER TRICK: Oracle’s NVL function displays a piece of text instead of a null value. Awesome for the above.

Hairy


Hairy
Originally uploaded by sneezypb.

Definitely time for a haircut.

About a week ago I decided I needed one. However, its been quite hectic. As most of you know, I work for the University System of Georgia’s Office of Instructional and Information Technology, specifically a project to provide system wide (35 schools) online classes. We have one of the largest implementations in the country (120,000 active students).

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