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.

One of Many

The Learning Management System (LMS) has been a despised technology by some ever since I started working with one, WebCT, in 1999. At the time it was deemed crappy technology that had to improve or die. So today in 2012, about 13 years later, I have to roll my eyes at the pundits writing about how the current technology has not significantly changed in a decade (really more than a decade) because it still offers the same tools and will die unless it adapts.

My first few years, 2006-2010, of working at GeorgiaVIEW, our active user counts doubled every 1.5 years. We plateaued at around 290,000 and grow a few thousand a year. Numbers of actions in the system still doubles every 1.5 year. That is insane growth. Growth unlikely fueled by people despising use of the tool. Right now, we are getting pressure to migrate Summer 2012 content for the Fall 2012 start in Desire2Learn1 because instructors roll over the classes from term-to-term. That speaks of long term consistent loyal use not occasional only as little as have to use. For something on the verge of death, it is hard enough keeping the users happy.

I am a database administrator not a faculty member (or dean or vice president for academic affairs or provost). It seems to me though no one would say, “When you teach a class, the white board in the room is the only tool you can use.” Instead, the push would be to add to the available tools in a neverending pursuit of finding better ones. So we see pressures to integrate the LMS with a variety of similar specialized services. Many are textbook replacements or supplementary services designed specifically for student needs. Others are social media. More and more the LMS is just a portal: a place to organize where students really go to learn.

Also, as an IT guy, I think it is important to have a plan B. Things sometimes fail. As a student I was always annoyed when the instructor had to leave the room for 20% of the class to go track down a piece of chalk because the remaining ones were too small to write. I applauded once in my junior year because the instructor happened to have a piece of chalk in her purse just for that contingency. Similarly, faculty members and even students should think about what to do when the LMS is not there. Heck, what should they do if everything the university IT runs like the web sites, email, portal, and network all disappear. It can happen.

When the university bureaucracy selects and administrates a tool, they will adhere to university policy which adheres to higher education laws. When a faculty member selects and administrates a tool, they should do the same. Unfortunately, that means the faculty member becoming familiar with policy and law. Another challenge is running into different interpretations. An example: a user following @VSUENGL1101 on Twitter could be reasonably expected to be a student at Valdosta State University enrolled in the subject English class 1101. Some say that violates the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. Some disagree, so it is being debated. The law is old and did not likely anticipate social media, so naturally there is movement towards an update.

I doubt the LMS will simply die because there is something better. Instead it will remain one of many tools for years to come. Like the land line, television, JavaScript, still camera, WiFi, non-smartphone, and (God forbid) pagers.

Note 1: Desire2Learn objects to their product being called an LMS. They prefer Learning Environment on the grounds it integrates with so many other tools.

P.S. This totally is from a sustaining technology perspective. Guess I should write this from a disruptive technology perspective.

Should CS Be Required?

Each of the nearly 2,000 freshmen entering Georgia Institute of Technology each year must take a computer science course regardless of their major, says Charles Isbell, associate dean for academic affairs at the school’s College of Computing… Similar to traditional general education requirements such as philosophy or world history, the purpose of each courses is to turn out well-rounded graduates, Isbell says.

“Why you need to take a CS1 … is the same reason why you need to take humanities, why you need to take a science, why you need to take a math,” he says. “It’s not because you’re going to be programming …. it’s because each of those represents a different way of thinking.”

Computer science was not a requirement at my alma mater (not GT). Introduction to Computers was an easy core class lots of students took. The class offered by Mathematics and Computer Science was about the components of a desktop, using Microsoft Office, and making a web page. The College of Education and the College of Business offered their own versions tailored to their disciplines.

At first, I did not want to go through a class on “This is a mouse. This is a keyboard.” At the time I was looking at upgrading from an AT form factor to ATX. Microsoft Word 95 was my fifth word processor. Plus I had made the web site for African American Studies for the university. In the end I took the class because it would improve my GPA. Like, I thought, it was an easy A, but the instructor did challenge me by making me available to help the others in the class.

This was not a real CS class though. I had already taken one, FORTRAN, which apparently did not count towards my core to graduate, oddly enough. I took another, Introduction to Programming, where I picked up some Java. Both programming classes gave me novel practice at the time for how I solve problems, plan, and researched. They were good for me.

Despite not graduating with a computer degree, I did have a strong computer background and ended up in a computer profession. So my perspective pretty much is skewed in a positive direction for all college students taking computer science classes.

Research in Higher Ed

SC lawmakers want to professors at universities to teach more instead of doing research. An Associated Press article “SC budget would make professors teach more classes”:

College professors should be in the classroom teaching at least nine credit hours each semester because the state is having a tough time paying for college budgets, said state Rep. Murrell Smith, a Republican from Sumter.

“I think we need to have professors in the classroom and not on sabbatical and out researching and doing things to that effect,” Smith said.

The committee adopts temporary law changes that would be part of the state’s $5.2 billion budget. The full Ways and Means Committee will vote on those next week.

This is exactly the kind of thing I try to explain to my mom. Lawmakers are responding to the desires of parents. Parents hear the stories from their kids about being taught by teaching assistants. The parents feel like to get their money’s worth their kids should be taught by the professors instead. After all, the professors are the true content experts. (No one tells stories about the good teaching assistants unless they are better than the professor at teaching the class.) I agree interacting with professors is likely the best way for students to get access to most current and useful knowledge.

The thing which seems to be neglected is doing the research makes professors the experts students should know. Take away the research and over time one really ought to go back to the teaching assistants.

Good research will also bring in money to the university. Especially in sciences and technology, this money would go into updating research labs which exposes the students to stuff which makes them marketable to employers.

Anya Kamenetz: DIY U: The Coming Transformation of Higher Education

The solution to the upcoming fall of higher education is openness of content and sell the services beyond the content. Lower the cost by sharing. Will be interesting to see whether higher education would actually go in this direction.

Instead what I have seen is colleges trying to figure out how much of a premium to charge completely online classes over the normal tuition. The boundaries were in-state and out-of-state tuition. Charging less than in-state tuition was seen as crazy because the assumption was no in-state students would take a class online when they lived close enough to show up in class.

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!

Name Collisions

Blackboard has a conference they call BbWorld. I noticed there are some odd tweets with the same #bbworld hashtag lately. These appear to be about a Blackberry conference to be held next month.

Collisions on names are common enough. For example, here are a couple names our clients use to brand their sites which other places also use.

My own project, GeorgiaVIEW is not immune. Some time ago I noticed the GeorgiaView Consortium (geological remote sensing) at the University of West Georgia.

I guess it is a good thing one Bbworld is in July and the other is in September.

For now I’ll just drop my RSS feed for the hashtag.

Turnitin.com

I’m surprised I have not blogged here about the student lawsuit against Turnitin.com? An anti-plagiarism service, Turnitin has students or faculty members upload papers into the database. By comparing new papers to the database, it gives ratings as to whether it is likely a student plagiarized.

Now the search goes out for any student who has a paper that’s being held by TurnItIn that they did not upload themselves. Students Settle with TurnItIn

In theory I could be someone in this situation. Back in 2005, a coworker asked my mother if someone by my name was related to her. This coworker was taking some classes at the university I attended. Turnitin had threw up a cautionary flag on the Originality Report because it was somewhat similar to something with my name on it. The problem is this product came into use at the university after the time I was a student. So I never submitted anything to it. The department from which I got my degree kept a copy of my papers (many submitted by email) and used this product at the time.

Another possibility is this tidbit about the product: Over 11 Billion Web Pages Crawled & Archived. I was actively blogging before and at the time of the incident. Assuming it could identify my name out of all that content, this match could have come from my blogging.

When I contacted Turnitin about this back in 2005, they told me I would have to remove my paper. I re-explained that I didn’t submit the paper. So Turnitin explained that whoever did put the paper in the system would have to remove it. The guy acknowledged the difficulty of the situation in identifying who posted it.

Email Harvesters

Good Sign I missed the story about brothers convicted of harvesting emails the first time. Well, I noticed a followup.

Back around 2001, the CIO received complaints about performance for the web server. So, I went log trolling to see what the web server was doing. A single IP dominated the HTTP requests. This one IP passed various last names into the email directory. Some quick research revealed Apache could block requests from that IP. That calmed things down enough for me to identify the owner of the IP. The CIO then bullied the ISP to provide contact information for the company involved.

Previous little adventures like this landed me a permanent job, so I jumped at similar challenges.

Well, a few years later, it happened again. This time my boss had made me develop a script for the dissemination of the anti-virus software package to home users. Basically, it used email authentication for verification if someone could get the download link. So, I applied the same technique to the email directory. Well, this upset some people who legitimately needed email addresses. So the human workers would provide email addresses to people with a legitimate need.

I’m glad since I’ve left, VSU no longer looks up email addresses for people. (I thought some of the requests questionable.) Also, my little email authentication script was before LDAP was available to the university. I think the new solution much better.

One the more vocal complainers about my having stopped non-VSU access to the email directory was my current employer. We apparently list email addresses for employees freely. Which makes me wonder how much spam we get is due to the brothers described at the beginning of this story? Or other email harvesters? Just hitting the send button potentially exposes the email address.

No worries. I’m sure Glenn is protecting me. 🙂