Organization Relationships

A friend of mine who I used to work with once remarked (2007-ish) the University System of Georgia does not really work like a system so much as a loose confederation fighting over money. Given I have no access to budgets, I would not know. GeorgiaVIEW works remarkably well given there are only a few people running the system and hoards of people administrating it for their campus. There is a mostly correct mix of grassroots and top down pressure.

The Board of Regents Information Technology Services have fostered a culture of “help requests must go through the tickets”. Tickets allow the team to better triage issues. Tickets show leaders we are helpful. The unintended consequence is weakening the relationships we have. Tickets indicate we are too busy to be helpful. Relationships are accountable so an individual shows vulnerability to me by admitting not understanding, breaking, or other problems. My part of the relationship is to console, advise, or fix the problems. Tickets make all this harder because they are less personal.

When I talk with my coworkers, we covet the connections we hold across the system for they are the true value. How do we develop these relationships inside the formality of processes which fail to incentivise them?

We have email lists, instant messages, weekly Wimba sessions, etc., but there is obviously  a problem when the same people who have these things only tell me about things when they see me in person. I’m reminded of the ITS CIO spending time going to campuses to talk to them about their needs. Maybe that should something we do throughout the organization especially at my level? Also, when I was at Valdosta State, my best information about the needs of faculty members and students came from visiting them not the technology I developed to encourage reporting issues.

Technology is not magic. It does make those who are not communicating start. It just shifts the form and potentially makes it more difficult. Ideally the difficulty will be so slight no one will notice. One can make communication easier by going from a more difficult technology to a more easy form. Still… It is not as good as being there with the person.

USG Annual Computing Conference

Some of you may have noticed me posting on Twitter using the #usgre10 hashtag. This was the recommended tag to use when posting about the conference.

In talking to a director at a university in the University System of Georgia, he said something interesting which had been said to my CIO, “More good for the USG will be accomplished here at Rock Eagle in these two days then the rest of the year.” (This sounds like When Ideas Have Sex or Where Good Ideas Come From.) This conference had been canceled due to lack of funding from both internal and corporate sponsorship. Due to demand from many universities, the conference was restored.

First, one-on-one conversations happen which might not otherwise occur. My former boss at Valdosta State asked me about a decision my group had made which his assistant director kept pushing back as unacceptable. He explained what he’d understood. I explained what I understood. Suddenly it made more sense to him. I was then able to explain it to the assistant director so she understood. A huge problem went away from 15 minutes of conversation? That is a huge win-win for everyone.

Second, getting to see sessions on the work being done at other schools in the system I wish I knew was being done. UGA developed a tool called El Cid which accomplishes many of the needs we have with one “institution” with 43 different administrators because multiple schools participate in various programs. The administrators were provided rights I disagree are appropriate because their needs are not available at the level where they do have access. El Cid could allow them to do those things for their areas without having the rights to mess up other areas.

Third, criticism which might not otherwise be expressed. As much as it pains me to hear it, I do need to hear the complaints people have about the products we run, the service we provide, and the planned directions. With the phone calls, tickets, emails, surveys, and other communication we do, it seems like what is being done is okay. However, get those same people into a room and the criticism comes flooding forth. This is the food we need understand so we can make improvements.

UPDATE: 2010-OCT-22 at 17:12

Fourth, the wishlists which might otherwise languish. I suspect people are hesitant to put requests in writing which might be negative. We like tickets because they can be tracked and provide a history. However, we also put requirements on opening a ticket like the section, the users, and the time. These requirements mean people may not open a ticket because they do not have enough information. They also may not open a ticket because these requirements make it sound like the bar is extremely high to warrant of spending the effort. The act of speaking to me eliminates the filter.

Fifth, while we have email, phone, instant messenger, wikis, Twitter, (and soon Sharepoint and Office Communicator,) etc., the reality is none of these methods establish the strong social bonds we get from face-t0-face. A strong community has social bonds as the foundation. These tools work well when the social bonds are already there.

MH Operations

We have been getting these messages for months. Some good folks at Blackboard have caused them to stop for a while, but they just resume. Probably it is multiple cases of the same issue.

LDAP Issues: Dear Valued Customer, The MH Operations team has determined that your MH application server(s) are not able to communicate with your local LDAP server infrastructure. Please notify your TSM when LDAP service is available so that we can confirm that there are no other issues with your hosted Blackboard environment.

The last time, alerts for Valdosta State’s Transaction System (a different product than we run) were being sent to us. A DBA for Vista was listed as a technical contact for TS which she doesn’t run or even know she was considered a technical contact. No one working with TS at Valdosta State had been getting these alerts. So they were excited at the prospect of knowing when there was a problem! I put Blackboard in touch with the people at Valdosta.

In a way, I understand my organization is involved in purchasing the licensing. However, Blackboard needs to do a better job of making sure their customers are informed.

  1. Put the name of the affected product in the notice.
  2. Put the name of the affected URL or IP in the notice.
  3. Put the name of the customer’s organization in the notice.

CE/Vista and Banner Integration

This is the second time I have worked on making Vista integration work with Banner. The first was 2005 in Vista 3.0.3 at Valdosta State. The production here at GeorgiaVIEW was set up by Harold, Jill, and Amy years ago and integrated into the install scripts or part of the cloned databases.

So now I am working on getting it to work in Vista 8. The IMS imports worked the first time like a charm. When I turned to using the Luminis adapter, the person records worked fine but the group contexts failed in Vista 8 and worked fine in Vista 3. So the “siapi.sh luminis import restrict” works fine.

Command-line

We have 41 institutions in Vista 3 currently. So imports are automated to some degree to preserve the sanity of Jill (and to a lesser degree Amy and myself). Rather than put in the UI all the settings, we have a properties file defining the location, glcid, sourcedid.source and sourcedid.id for each institution. This allows us to easily pass the values when importing at the command-line.

My first approach was to leave the settings identical to what I used to create persons and group records with IMS. This essentially uses the glcid of the institution and sourcedid of the institution. This is what resulted in the person records working and groups not. Fail.

I realized my error in logic must be the lack of a division-to-group relationship as the error described the groups cannot be related to an institution. So I changed the properties to use the division values for the sourcedid. Fail.

So I went looking in “Guide to Integration with the SunGard Luminis Data Integration Suite” for what I ought to use at the command-line. I didn’t find a solution. Just the same command-line lacking even the glcid and sourcedid.
🙁

XML

Giving up on the command-line approach for now, I added the relationship element to the XML so the group would become a child of one of the divisions I created with IMS. It sorta worked! The groups all imported but the course failed with the exact same error the groups formerly succeeded. To add insult to injury, simply running the import again on the exact same file had the courses import.

Mistakes

A mistake I made was reading the documentation: “Guide to Integration with the SunGard Luminis Data Integration Suite”.

Sungard Libraries:

  1. Page 8 says imq.jar and mbclient.jar do not come with CE/Vista and must be obtained from Sungard. All three of us thought in Vista 3.x these were automatically placed so we didn’t need to place them. Best I can tell, these were installed by Vista. I found $WEBCTDOMAIN/customconfig/startup.properties references both files in CUSTOM_CLASSPATH and setEnv.sh references CUSTOM_CLASSPATH. (This document has notes for what CE customers need to do and no note about CE users needing to go get them from Sungard.)
  2. Those who believe the last note would keep reading and find on Page 9 instructions to deposit the files in $WEBCTDOMAIN/serverlibs/. Assuming I am wrong about item #1, the startup.properties expects them in $WEBCTDOMAIN/serverlibs/luminis/ and would not find them where the document says to put them.

What does a CIO do?

I guess it depends on who you ask.

Well, the CIO’s thought they were most effective as classic IT-support providers. That’s basically putting PC’s on desktops. But their managers thought that CIO’s were most effective in explaining and determining the college’s technology course into the future. Managers really want their CIO’s to be “informaticists.” Wayne A. Brown, Johnson County Community College Are College CIOs Thinking What Their Bosses Are Thinking?

Self-reporting is a notoriously bad means of measuring behavior. So I take these sorts of things with a grain of salt.

I have read many times the view CIOs need to educate higher education administrators about technology to help shape the vision of where higher education is headed. When Joe Newton at Valdosta State took over as CIO, he found Ronald Zaccari, expected more than just “putting PCs on desks”. Ron also expected seamless services, a data warehouse, IT to work with every facet of the university, and even to help the cabinet shape its direction by providing how technology can help. The previous president didn’t even check his own email. So to have one who better understood technology meant having to step up to a higher standard.

Another aspect I found interesting was about degrees. Wayne suggested a positive direction was CIOs having degrees in technology management. A commenter preferred CIOs having a Ph.D. in an academic discipline and secondarily “technology qualifications” so they would understand teaching and learning. I find this hilarious because all too often I hear complaints Ph.D. programs teach people how to do research and present… not teach.

Also, the comments make a distinction between presidents and provosts versus deans and department heads. The latter are the “academic administrators”.

All that said, I just want a CIO to figure out what management wants done, prevent them from having too high expectations, and provide the resources for me to do it.

Blackboard’s Direct Help

I just noticed an item in Behind the Blackboard for “Direct Help”. This seems to be a way Blackboard is attempting to help students and parents find assistance by directing them to institutions. I probably missed the propaganda about this initiative. Though I do understand the problem and why it ought to be solved. People end up at Blackboard’s site asking for assistance with administrative items (passwords, changes to settings, etc.). Things the school ought to resolve… Not Blackboard.

Notre Dame, California State University – Chico, or California State University – Sacramento were schools I know but not easily found by me in the search. The ones I did were Georgia Southern University, Valdosta State University, University System of Georigia, and University of Western Ontario. None of those had it set up yet.

Sounds like I am in good company.

To set it up, one either gives them a link to use as a redirect or create a web page to provide information. Does anyone know of examples where someone has set it up?

Programmers

Gave a former coworker, Stu, from my Valdosta State days a heads up about a complaint my brother heard from a close friend of his. Stu is working with Sakai these days at Georgia Institute of Technology. He made an interesting comment:

It would be great to have all the energy your team puts into Blackboard be put into Sakai instead.

One of the unknowns which always seems to come up in talking about Sakai or Moodle is hiring a development staff. How many programmers we need depends on how much customization we will need to implement. Certainly finding the programmers is another problem. A large fear is we’d need 10 programmers and years to implement all the features people insist are critical. People need to be told. “No, you will have to live without that feature,” which would be very cool… However, it would be like your ISP telling you, “Sorry, we turned off port 80. You will have to live without it.” Finding the balance between features we can abandon, features which would need to be created pre-go-live, and features we can post-go-live? Difficult enough when you have 15,000 users. It seems more than 10x harder with over 150,000 users.

Surely people have cracked this nut?

Suck It Up And Pay the Price

Doesn’t it always look like this?

  1. User runs script against service.
  2. Script operates so quickly and sucks so much traffic its obvious its a script.
  3. Service’s automates systems detects the abuse.
  4. User gets automated notice about violation of Terms of Use and prevention from accessing the site.
  5. User pitches a fit because he is “famous”.

Services lock out abusive users because people conducting this kind of activity cause slowness. I’ve personally caught people doing this. How I got them to stop usually depended on my ability to contact them. People I knew or others directly knew, a phone call was enough to resolve it.

People outside of my social circle usually got an email and found their account locked. Doing so prevented their scripts from working. At Valdosta State, I would leave instructions at the Helpdesk for the offender to have to contact me in order to regain access to the account. Tyrrannical, I know.

UPDATE: So, it turns out Scoble was using an alpha of Plaxo Pulse. The ideas was to download ~5,000 images of Scoble’s contacts’ email addresses, text names, and text birthdays. Then the software would match them against people in Plaxo. He could then sync Plaxo with his Outlook address book for a good contact list.

He accuses Facebook of singling him out as others have not been caught. (Were the others trying to download and push 5,000 in a few seconds?) He also accuses Facebook of being hypocritical… They import contact information from other sources, but they do not allow anyone to export the same information.

I still think a user hitting 5,000 images for email addresses look like a spammer. Of course, I think Scoble is a spammer … Maybe its confirmation bias? 😀

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.