Universities and SIS “Innovation”

Several years ago, while I worked at a medium-sized university, there was a very similar incident like what happened in Student Is Sanctioned for Creating Class-Registration Web Site. A student wanted into a full class. So he built an application to routinely check for whether a seat was available in the Student Information System. The database administrator for the SIS noticed too much traffic from this user while looking into why the system was working too hard. My impression was the level of traffic was not at the Denial of Service level, but still something that needed to be addressed to improve the experience of others.

The CIO had a chat with the student. At the time it amused me because years before I had been in the same chair as the kid. After, the CIO joked about wondering whether to hire the student, the same as he had joked about me and a friend.

The student went on to develop a student organization site and other good things. He found the right outlet for him to express in code things to scratch his itches. Personally, I think this is good for the students and good for the university. However, a close eye needs to be kept on these students to ensure they make secure, stable, and long-term viable products. When the student graduates, there needs to be a plan for someone taking over the upkeep.

Since then, I have run across even professionals making these students’ mistakes of slamming a system with traffic. One administrator wanted to check whether we were up, so he wrote a JavaScript web page that would hit the development site we provided. It had one two machines, so when five people had that page open at the same time, they somehow got 4 on the same machine which croaked at that kind of load. Weblogic, in my experience, does not handle the same transaction for the same session when the first has not yet completed. Each subsequent transaction takes even longer than the first until it builds up to the point it is taking minutes to complete what should take a fraction of a second.

In general, developers will contact us about developing something to work against our system. We try to be helpful and advise what are likely successful directions. There are still mavericks, who will write something that causes a problem and we try to track down who it is slamming our systems. I consider it part of the job of running a system people want to use. Someone will try to accomplish things outside the normal enter a URL, type in a username, type in a password, click, click, click…. Heck, we write scripts to get around this.

These events are all opportunities to meeting and educating developers.

Confidentiality

A student wants Blackboard Vista to not reveal his or her last name. The student has already gone to the Registrar and gotten a confidentiality flag placed on the record. As I understand it, this flag in Banner is a FERPA protection to prevent the record from being provided to parties external to the university. It does not provide anonymity within the university. That electronic systems are being scrubbed of the student’s last name means something more than just confidentiality.

We only create new and not update from our student information system (SIS). So in general, the last name should not revert.

The instructor must know who the student is in order to correctly assign grades. If grades were automatically sent back to the SIS, then it would match the IMS id to the what is in the SIS. The user name or any other name is immaterial and not a confounder to the process. Unfortunately, our faculty has to manually transfer the grades. Some rely on the WebCT id / username. Others rely on the first and last name. I guess without names, this latter group is going to have to deal with relying on the WebCT id.

Only username, first and last name, and role are populated into the grade book. So moving the last name to another name field (like other, prefix, or suffix) would not help.

The last name appears to be part of their scheme for creating usernames, so they will likely need to change the username if the point is to not let anyone know what it is. The school in question does not appear to populate their Vista user records with a school email address. So I don’t know if the same would need to be done with it as well.

Blackboard Vista 3.0.7 does have issues with renaming the last name. While many things are immediately updated (good), some things are not. This is not a comprehensive list.

  1. The last name in the grade book was not updated. Removing the user from the section and restoring it to the section changed the name to the correct one.
  2. The last name in discussions was not updated.

So while renaming the account is easy to do, not everything takes place as quicklly as we would like.

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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.

B for a Be

Are online students really students? We like to think seeing is believing, but who meets a student who takes a completely online class? Apparently, seeing is also interpolating…. at Stanford, anyway. Is this a single case? How easy is it for someone to take an academic year’s worth of classes without anyone catching on to the scam?

An 18-year-old Fullerton woman spent the past eight months posing as a freshman biology major at Stanford, buying textbooks, sneaking into meals and even moving into a dorm with an unsuspecting roommate.

… Her story started unraveling this month, and now the university — and her stunned circle of friends and dormmates — are looking back on how a woman described as a sweet student could have pulled off such a ruse.

At my alma mater, you could audit a class. Talking to the right professor, you could get put on his or her role informally should there be room. Later, working in IT on an online class system, how students who didn’t exist in the student information system could take the online class was a frequently reoccuring question from faculty members.