Open Letter Re: Behind the Blackboard

Hi Blackboard Support,

Today, without warning, you changed Behind the Blackboard. Clients dislike surprises. We like knowing how things work. Give us access to the new thing before we have to deal with it. That way we become familiar with it.

Even if you do not give advance viewing of the service, then advance warning the change would happen today so I can plan around it happening. I had a phone call with one of your employees yesterday. That would have been a good time to tell me. It is a web site, so you could put on your web site to expect the change.

The main problem is I cannot login to this site. My current user id and client id are not accepted. The math problem to foil bot does not accept the correct answers. Others found the password provided did not work. This roll out seems less than ready for production use. I emailed the address on the support page for help.

Thanks,

Ezra

UPDATE 2011-06-10: Apparently there was an email sent on May 27th, about 12 days before change. It looks like many customers just like me did not see the email. Also, this is about the time a coworker’s email address changed to foo@blackboard. In the lists discussing this mess, another client got noemailonrecord101@company.inc.

I guess the old system is not available because apparently we have to tell Blackboard the people who to add to our client id? (Nevermind that because we are a system there are about 40 client ids.)

UPDATE 2011-06-14: I got into the site. Now my default list of tickets belongs to the first client id in the set of our consortium. Since the merger of the WebCT and Blackboard support almost five years ago, I have been working tickets in the client id for the system office. Maybe one day this will work?

Microsoft Outlook 2007 Wishlist

From 2001 to 2006, Microsoft Outlook was the email client I used for work (and on my home computer to access work stuff). Back then, Exchange was not available, so a number of the features were more hacks than reality. However, it worked pretty well.

When I changed jobs, Netscape and Thunderbird were the pre-installed clients. I opted for Thunderbird. It worked pretty well for me. Calendaring was in MeetingMaker. Everything worked pretty well.

Recently work shifted to Exchange, so going back to Outlook made sense. Maybe because I have so much experience, the transition was not as bad as it might have been. Still… These are gotchas which have annoyed me lately:

  1. Editable subject usability: The emails from our client issue tracking system put the description where its hidden. I was really pissed that I could not edit the subject until I figured out unlike most software which changes the shading to show it is now editable, Outlook just lets me edit at any time. Also, editing the subject after it is used by something else like a task results in the change in the email but not the task. (The main reason I want to change them is so it appears correctly in the task list. ) Copying to a second email results in the same problem. Apparently I have to either create a new task and copy-n-paste the subject I want or forward the email to myself.
  2. Spacebar moves to next message instead of next new message: I really like the Thunderbird method of skipping to the next unread message when I hit the spacebar at the end of the current message. It even will find the next unread message in another folder. Outlook just advances to the next message.
  3. Boolean is more than OR: I had this fantastic Thunderbird filter which looked for user@ AND domain.tld. Outlook only honors OR. We have 15 admin nodes and databases which send up reports. Alerts and tickets come from a different source and unaffected by this.
  4. Search ignores special characters: I thought in the past I had sent email to abc-defghi@domain.tld. However, the message bounced, so I searched my email for part of the address “abc-defghi” as its not in the address book. I got results which match “abc” not “abc-defghi”. So it ignored the hyphen and everything after. FAIL!
  5. Send email as plain text or paste a plain text: Yes, I know lots of people have HTML capable clients. I hate Outlook puts my replies in a sickly blue font. When I copy and paste from the elsewhere in the message, it changes the font. So then I have to go and do formatting to have a presentable email. I just want to type and send. I don’t care about fonts, colors, etc. If I did, then I would create a web page. … (Added 2009-JUN-03)

That’s it for now.

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. 
🙁

Better CE/Vista Web Server Log

Some support tickets are more easily solved by knowing both user behavior and environment. An often helpful piece of information is what web browser they used. To add this, shut down the cluster, edit /VISTA_HOME/config/config.xml to include the cs(User-Agent), and start the cluster. This line will need to appear for every node. At startup, the nodes will download a new copy of the file.

<elf-fields>date time time-taken c-ip x-weblogic.servlet.logging.ELFWebCTSession sc-status cs-method cs-uri-stem cs-uri-query bytes cs(User-Agent) x-weblogic.servlet.logging.E LFWebCTExtras</elf-fields>

Command:
cp config.xml config.xml.bak
sed -s s/bytes x-/bytes cs(User-Agent) x-/g config.xml.bak > config.xml

Probably this could be edited in the Weblogic 9.2 console. I haven’t looked yet.

Bb Suggestions

WebCT used a suggestion form to collect product improvement ideas from the various users (instructors, instructional technologists, administrators, etc.). I’m not sure if the switch to opening enhancement request support tickets under Blackboard was something new to improve the support model overall or just a change for former WebCT customers as support integrated. Interestingly, Blackboard recently returned to the suggestion form.

So… Send in your feature requests. I am too busy working on getting the bugs fixed to work on new features.

Open Response To Bb ACSS

17. What is the single most important thing Blackboard can do to create a better client experience for your institution?

Provide successful workarounds or bug fixes to the identified issues in a timely manner. A timely manner means within 5 days to the user and 180 days to me. By the end of 5 days, the affected users have given up on ever getting a solution. We know we have lost that user ever giving us the benefit of the doubt about our service again. We only keep the ticket open in hopes of preventing the same issue from happening to another user and losing them as well.

All you other Blackboard customers out there. What did you put here? Or any of the other freeform answers. If you didn’t get to do the survey, then what would you have liked to put there?

Pointless

So I wanted to open a support ticket. However, in thinking about what I can ask for the company to do arrayed against what they are willing to offer for support, I realized… I am not going to get a resoultion for the ticket.

  1. It is functioning as designed.
  2. They are just going to tell us the workarounds we have already implemented.

So, what is the point? Other than distracting employees of the company with something they are never going to solve, I get no benefit. I just get to be the passive-aggressive, CYAer, paper pusher who gets to point at the fact I opened a pointless support ticket to justify my employment.

Yes, the problem could trigger a cascade of events which would result in the failure of services for about 3,000 active users. We stood at the brink twice yesterday and the day before. Because we DBAs are responsive, we saved it. The next time we will do the same.

The company is not going to release another patch for the product unless forced to do so (aka glaring security hole). So even if we could convince them of a bug, then no resolution would be provided in this version. I’ll have to replicate to see if the same problem exists in a newer version they do adequately support. If so, then I would have justification in opening a ticket.

Now… how to I identify an 8GB section archive…

ST:XP Shutting Down

Star Trek: The Experience is shutting down September First? Geeks don’t make the annual pilgrimage to pray at the alter of the captain’s chair. Maybe Vegas is too expensive. Between dropping hundreds monthly on movie tickets, DVDs, comics, and video games, spending three months rent to see ST:XP doesn’t have the right magic.

Zemanta Pixie

Try Again

The worst response technical support can give me is to suggest I try something I have already tried without success. An explanation why this suggestion is going to work this time when the previous attempt(s) did not work would help. Otherwise, why would I expect it to work this time when it didn’t last time? The response to…

Perhaps you can explain why this will work now when we explained in the first note that we have already tried this and found BbVista would not start?

was

I’m conferring with our development team about how it will work now vs. earlier when it did not. Thanks.

This wasn’t our usual support person. This is, I think, someone covering our cases and thought to get us to close the ticket easily. You know reach Ticket Inbox Zero. Someone who doesn’t realize I blog about stuff like this because… Well… It annoys me.

Better: Closed or Resolved

I just read:

Clients are receiving responses to and closures of long-outstanding tickets. In the past quarter we’ve reduced the number of outstanding tickets by 15% (1500 tickets).

We closed several tickets because it was decided no resolution was ever going to be provided after the ticket was open for 6 months without the tier 3 or higher folks providing a single response other than, “Maybe we can look at it next week.” Hopefully these were not in this count.

On the other hand, an attempt at a fix for a critical bug may actually be tried? Right now we have one campus with about 1,500 students affected. Those numbers will bloom to 30,000 or more students by the start of Fall term.