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.

Asterisks in the sky

Happy (Con)trails

Originally uploaded by Ezra S F

Flickr member Zack Sheppard did me a huge favor yesterday picking this picture for a Flickr blog about Asterisks in the sky. So in one day this picture was exposed to 5,931 people.

Several of those looked at the adjacent picture and others for a total of 10,640 hits yesterday. Lots of comments on many of my photos.

Wow. Just wow.

Useful User Agents

Rather than depend on end users to accurately report the browser used, I look for the user-agent in the web server logs. (Yes, I know it can be spoofed. Power users would be trying different things to resolve their own issues not coming to us.)

Followers of this blog may recall I changed the Weblogic config.xml to record user agents to the webserver.log.

One trick I use is the double quotes in awk to identify just the user agent. This information is then sorting by name to count (uniq -c) how many of each is present. Finally, I sort again by number with the largest at the top to see which are the most common.

grep <term> webserver.log | awk -F\” ‘{print $2}’ | sort | uniq -c | sort -n -r

This is what I will use looking for a specific user. If I am looking at a wider range, such as the user age for hits on a page, then I probably will use the head command to look at the top 20.

A “feature” of this is getting the build (Firefox 3.011) rather than just the version (Firefox 3). For getting the version, I tend to use something more like this to count the found version out of the log.

grep <term> webserver.log | awk -F\” ‘{print $2}’ | grep -c ‘<version>’

I have yet to see many CE/Vista URIs with the names of web browsers. So these are the most common versions one would likely find (what to grep – name – notes):

  1. MSIE # – Microsoft Internet Explorer – I’ve seen 5 through 8 in the last few months.
  2. Firefox # – Mozilla Firefox – I’ve seen 2 through 3.5. There is enough difference between 3 and 3.5 (also 2 and 2.5) I would count them separately.
  3. Safari – Apple/WebKit – In searching for this one, I would add to the search a ‘grep -v Chrome’ or to eliminate Google Chrome user agents.
  4. Chrome # – Google Chrome – Only versions 1 and 2.

Naturally there many, many others. It surprised me to see iPhone and Android on the list.

Tracking Specific File Use

CE/Vista Reports and Tracking displays summaries of activity. If an instructor seeks to know who clicked on a specific file, then Reports and Tracking falls down on the job.

Course Instructor can produce a report of the raw tracking data. However, access to the role falls under the Administration tab so people running the system need to make a user specifically to enroll themselves at the course level to get the reports. (Annoying.)

Instead the administrators for my campuses pass up to my level of support requests to generate reports. For providing these I have SQL to produce a report. This example is for users who clicked on a specific file. Anything in bold is what the SQL composer will need to alter.

set lines 200 pages 9999
col user format a20
col action format a32
col pagename format a80

clear breaks computes
break on User skip 1
compute count of Action on User

select tp.user_name "User",ta.name "Action",
      to_char(tua.event_time,'MM/DD/RR HH24:MI:SS') "Time",
      NVL(tpg.name,'--') "PageName"
  from trk_person tp, trk_action ta, trk_user_action tua,
      trk_page tpg, learning_context lc
  where tp.id = tua.trk_person_id
    and ta.id = tua.trk_action_id
    and tua.trk_page_id = tpg.id (+)
    and tua.trk_learning_context_id = lc.id
    and lc.id = 1234567890
    and tpg.name like '%filename.doc%'
  order by tp.user_name,tua.event_time


  • User aka tp.user_name – This is the student’s account.
  • Action aka ta.name – This is an artifact of the original script. You might drop it as meaningless from this report.
  • Time aka tua.event_time – Day and time the action took place.
  • PageName aka tpg.name – Confirmation of the file name. Keep if using like in a select on this.


I use the learning context id (lc.id aka learning_context.id) because in my multi-institution environment, the same name of a section could be used in many places. This id ensures I data from multiple sections.

The tricky part is identifying the file name. HTML files generally will show up as the name of in the title tag (hope the instructor never updates it). Office documents generally will show as the file name. Here are a couple approaches to determining how to use tpg.name (aka trk_page.name).

  1. Look at the file in the user interface.
  2. Run the report without limiting results to any tpg.name. Identify out of the results the name you wish to search and use: tpg.name = ‘page name

Most tracked actions do have a page name. However, some actions do not. This SQL is designed to print a “–” in those cases.

Computer Metaphors

An effective way to explain something is to use a metaphor. This can be especially effective by picking an metaphorical object or behavior with which the audience is already familiar.

The one I see most often is comparing computers to a car. This morning I saw this on an email list describing a person’s experience  migrating to Vista 8 from Vista 3.

It is like I have traded in a familiar (though frustrating) car for one that has the lights, wipers, and radio in new locations.

Also this morning, Vista 8 was compared to a malfunctioning pen forced on faculty who would rather use a better pen. Nevermind all pens are not used exactly the same. (Fountain vs rollerball) Some require more maintenance and care than others.

A coworker always says Free Open Source Software like Sakai or Moodle are free as in free puppies not free beer. Nevermind proprietary bought systems like Blackboard are bought as in bought puppies.


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.

Superhero Economy

Watched a number of episodes of Justice League Unlimited today. Buildings, roads, and machines get pulverized by the violent actions. Someone rebuilds all the destroyed stuff because in the next episode, everything is pristine to get pulverized again. So much rebuilding must suck for insurance premiums. However, it does ensure lots of construction employment, material sales, structural engineering services, and designers.


… And you thought they were just weekend morning cartoons!

Racial Profiling

Walking home from the bus in high school, I saw police cars and officers in front of my house. Their presence made me extremely apprehensive. The only little assurance was my father talking to the officers. Someone broke into the house and stole some of our stuff.

We felt violated. Our own home was unsafe.

At the time however, the people with guns with a tendency to keep their hands near them were much more threatening than some anonymous teen who wanted some quick cash.

Police officers are the good guys.

Take this scenario:

  1. You’ve spent almost a full day on a plane or in airports flying from Shanghai to Boston so you are extremely jet-lagged.
  2. (SUGGESTED ADDITION) You picked up the flu while in China (remember Avian Bird Flu?).
  3. Your front door won’t open when you get home, so you end up gaining access to the house from the back door. Eventually with help you do get it opened.
  4. While calling someone to come fix the door, a police officer shows up to question you about being the owner of the house. (Let’s ignore that Harvard owns it. You just reside there.)

This is like Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: “Nothing at all was right.” Except… This state of mind was interpreted by the police officer this way:

“From the time he opened the door it seemed that he was very upset, very put off that I was there in the first place,” Sergeant Crowley told the station, WEEI. “Not just what he said, but the tone in which he said it, just seemed very peculiar — even more so now that I know how educated he is.” NYT

This seems like the perfect opportunity to ask questions about Dr. Gates’ day to establish something of a rapport to ascertain why he might be so upset. It’s not so peculiar when the context is known. I bet if all this had been placed in context at the time, then this would not be front page news.

Cosmological Constants

Guess I am pretty dense. As many books and TV shows as I have read or seen about Einstein, physics, and cosmology, I just understood something for the first time since it was extremely plainly laid out for me. An ever expanding universe requires one or more forces to push matter further apart: cosmological constant. Forces attract or repel. Gravity attracts matter. Yet there is something, still unknown, repelling matter.

TED Talk: Liz Coleman’s call to reinvent liberal arts education

About this talk from the TED site:

Bennington president Liz Coleman delivers a call-to-arms for radical reform in higher education. Bucking the trend to push students toward increasingly narrow areas of study, she proposes a truly cross-disciplinary education — one that dynamically combines all areas of study to address the great problems of our day.

She goes further than this blurb would indicate. She claims the drive towards professional degrees, aka “learning more and more about less and less”, results in a toxic brew dismantling Liberal Arts education. Losing this cross-disciplinary approach results in an inability to tackle the country’s and world’s problems which often require more than one discipline to understand them.

Focus on higher education as a means to a profession ignores these questions:

  • What kind of a world are we making?
  • What kind of a world should we be making?
  • What kind of a world can we be making?

Parents are sending their children to college to get a good job. Solving the world’s problems isn’t part of the American dream. Well… outside of academia.