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.

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.

Odd Tracking File Recording

Every time a Vista 3 node is shut down without going through the initiated shut down process, there is a chance of incorrect data written to the tracking files (in NodeA/tracking/). Normally it leaves strange characters or partial lines at the end of the file. This is the first time I have seen it write the contents of another log instead of the tracking data.

click – 1.0 – 1244228052889 – 1135588340001 – “nova.view.usg.edu-1244227762853-6288” – SSTU – discussion – “compiled-message-viewed” – “page name” – 558711383 –

click – 1.0 – 1244228052891 – 15.0; .NET CLR 1.1.4322)”

2009-04-23      20:58:35        0.0030  xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx    JxH1zg4fZT1LTGcpmyNW    200     GET     /webct/libraryjs.dowebct        locale=en_US    0       “Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.0; .NET CLR 1.1.4322)”

Even better. The node went down on June 5th at around 3pm. The lines from the other log were from April 23rd at 8:58pm.

Why am I surprised to see new incorrect behavior? Especially when the node was really confused?

Blackboard iPhone App

People have been contacting me all day about the Blackboard iPhone App. Both Blackboard and the Chronicle of Higher Education posted blogs about its release.

I find it interesting Jessica mentioned a Georgia student is the inspiration in the Bb blog post. There are over 200,000 students in Georgia who cannot use this application because it relies on Blackboard Sync which only operates for Academic Suite (Classic) products. Blackboard says the Sync product isn’t available to the CE/Vista products used by all but a few schools in the University System of Georgia.

The odds are good the poor student who needs the app can’t use it.

Also, the USG is exactly the kind of client who Blackboard says should wait and see before migrating to Learn.

How Not To Break a Frame

Correct:

<script language=”Javascript” type=”text/javascript”>
if (top != self)
{
top.location = window.location;
}
</script>

Incorrect:

<script language=”Javascript” type=”text/javascript”>
if (top != self)
{
top.location = “/webct/urw/lc18361011.tp0/logonDisplay.dowebct”;
}
</script>

The problem with incorrect is the address used here is not the address in the location bar.  The one in the location bar has the values required to login. Instead I get something which causes users to be unable to login. Example: So we send someone to http://westga.view.usg.edu. They get redirected to another address in which we provide the glicid, insId, and insName. Correct breaks the frame and gives the browser back the same address. Incorrect breaks the frame and gives the browser back a different, non-functional address. Bad. Bad. Bad.

WebCT Vista 3 used the Correct JavaScript which just passes back the address used. Blackbord Vista 8 for some reason changes what worked to Incorrect.

Yay for first day of classes.
🙁

UPDATE 1:

It gets better… Bb Vista’s Custom Login and Institution List pages are unaffected (aka use the Vista 3 style JS). Only going to the generated logon page, loginDisplay.dowebct, has the issue.

More IMS Import Headaches

I got this error while trying to run an XML IMS import using the WebCT / Blackboard CE/Vista siapi.sh script…

A unit of type Institution cannot have a unit of type Campus as a child.

Guess being on vacation last week spaced my neurons. Normally, I ignore Blackboard errors as meaningless. This time I listened to the error and sent myself off in the wrong direction trying to figure out what was wrong with the typevalue element of the XML was wrong. Typevalue defines the level of the context. So while my level was set to 30 in the XML, for some reason it must be ignoring it, right?

Wrong! The problem was really that the relationship.sourcedid.source was set to “DBA IMS IMPORT USG_COL” instead of “DBA SIAPI Import USG_COL”. So it was unable to find the parent object. So the error makes no sense to me now.

Can I have my two hours back?

Nothing We Can Do?

A statement by a faculty member to the effect of, “There isn’t anything our IT people can do to resolve this problem. The web application is overloaded,” puts the people running the application on the defensive. The problem turned out to be resolved with changes to the local browser environment (remove all the installs of Java and replace with a single known good version). In other words, it wasn’t only because the web application was overloaded and could have been resolved by their IT people consulting the knowledge base intended to provide the information to resolve exactly this kind of stuff.

The last situation we want to have is an overloaded server before we even hit the heavy usage period.

We Need a 4th Vista DBA / Technical Support

Work for OIIT!

Become our 4th DBA / technical support person for our team.

  • Located in Athens, GA (college town, UGA football)
  • $, benefits, generous leave, rare snow
  • we love open source
PDF of GeorgiaVIEW DBA position

Check out the PDF (right) for more information.

Sorry for the convoluted route to the application…

  • Click this link to go to our HR site.
  • Click the “View Job Postings / Apply for Job” link.
  • Check the “Information Instructional Tech” box.
  • Enter “learning” for the keyword and click search.
  • Systems Support Specialist 3” is our DBA position. We also have a Business Systems Analyst position for a less technical position.

We’d love to have you.

Page View Metric Dying

First Metricocracy measured hits. Pictures and other junk on pages inflated the results so Metricocracy decided on either unique visitors or page views. Now, the Metricocracy wants us to measure attention. Attention is engagement, how much time users spend on a page.

What do we really want to know? Really it is the potential value of the property. The assumption around attention is the longer someone spends on a web site, the more money that site gains in advertisement revenue. The rationale being users who barely glance at pages and spend little time on the site are not going to click ads. Does this really mean users who linger and spend large amounts of time on the site are going to click more ads?

This means to me attention is just another contrived metric which doesn’t measure what is really sought. I guess advertisement companies and the hosts brandishing them really do not want to report the click through rates?

My web browsing habits skew the attention metric way higher than it ought to be. First, I have a tendency to open several items in a window and leave them lingering. While my eyes spent a minute looking the content, the page spent minutes to hours in a window… waiting for the opportunity. Second, I actively block images from advertisement sources and block Flash except when required.

As a DBA, page views also has debatable usefulness. On the one hand we could use it because it represents a count of objects requiring calls to the database and rendering by application and web server code. Hits represent all requests for all content, simple or complex, so is more inclusive. Bandwidth throughput represents how much data is sucked out or pushed into the systems.

We DBAs also provide supporting information to the project leaders. Currently they look at the number of users or classrooms who have been active throughout the term. Attention could provide another perspective to enhance the overall picture of how much use our systems get.

Cat Finnegan, who conducts research with GeorgiaVIEW tracking data, measures learning effectiveness. To me, that is the ultimate point of this project. If students are learning with the system, then it is successful. If we can change how we do things to help them learn better, then we ought to make that change. If another product can help students learn better, then that is the system we ought to use.

Ultimately, I don’t think there is a single useful metric. Hits, unique users, page views, attention, bandwith, active users, etc., all provide a nuanced view of what is happening. I’ve used them all for different purposes.

Dumbfounded By The Numbers

Chancellor Eroll B. Davis Jr told the Georgia Board of Regents, “We grew essentially by a large university.” The USG gained 10,077 students (my alma mater has ~11,000) in a year. They calculate these fall term to fall term.

In the same fall term to fall term time period, in the same same university system, GeorgiaVIEW gained about 59,000 students (assumes 1/10th of 65,000 active user growth are instructors/designers). Its only 9x the system growth rate. It actually reflects a slowing in the growth rate for GeorgiaVIEW. Partly this is because we are fast approaching the number of potential users. Market penetration becomes more difficult when people are using it.

Fortunately, users will become more intelligent in their use over time. So, even though the number of users may plateau, because each user will use the system more, the amount of use will continue to increase.

Unfortunately, another DBA and I consider the number of users a more or less uninformative statistic. It looks good in news papers as its something the general public probably understands. Other numbers mean more for us:

  1. Hits – The count of items downloaded from the web servers. We often use hits as a measure of user activity. Unfortunately, we are only collecting this at the daily or monthly values.
  2. Who Is Online (Total / Active) – SQL pulls from the WIO table a count of all the rows (Total) and those whose time in the table is recent (Active). Both have issues… For example, users failing to logout and inflate the total. Active has weird spikes which suggests to me these tables are reaped every 1/2 hour or so.
  3. Storage – Amount of information stored by the users. For example, our storage growth is 2.23 times the previous year (slowing down from 2.25). The number of new users has largely slowed, but the amount of storage staying fairly consistent means to me the users are doing more with the system.

Amy’s presentation at BbWorld 2007 on capacity planning is a much more authoritative approach than this blog post.
🙂