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.

Course Management Systems are Dead!

Heh. Blackboard Vista is headed for a brick wall? Who knew?

7. Course Management Systems are Dead! Long Live Course Management Systems! Proprietary course management systems are heading for a brick wall. The combination of economic pressures combined with saturated markets and the maturing stage of the life cycle of these once innovative platforms means that 2009 may well be the year of change or a year of serious planning for change. Relatively inexpensive and feature-comparable open source alternatives combined with some now learned experience in the process of transition from closed to open systems for the inventory of repeating courses makes real change in this once bedrock of education technology a growing possibility. As product managers and management view these trend lines, I think we might see incumbent players make a valiant effort to re-invent themselves before the market drops out from underneath them. Look for the number of major campuses moving (or making serious threats to move) from closed systems to open ones to climb in the year ahead. The Year Ahead in Higher Ed Technology

It is true the big player in proprietary CMS / LMS / VLE software has lagged in innovation for quite a while. Remember though Blackboard bought WebCT and kept around the other product while hemorrhaging former WebCT employees. That alone kept them extremely busy not to lose every customer they bought. The next version, Blackboard 9 should be available soon. That is the litmus test for their future success.

Bb9 is a newer version of Academic Suite, aka Classic. There is no direct upgrade path from CE / Vista to Bb9. There is a Co-Production upgrade path where one can run both versions side-by-side with a portal interface to access either version without having to login again. Content still has to be extracted from the old and placed in the new. (Since we are running Vista 3 and Vista 8 side-by-side now, this doedsn’t give me warm fuzzies.) This was the upgrade path some WebCT and Blackboard clients took getting from Vista 3 to 4 only to find Vista 4 was junkware. Similarly, those leaving CE4 for CE6 were frustrated by the move. So, I would predict:

  1. Those on Classic 8 now will go to Blackboard 9 ASAP.
  2. Smaller colleges on CE 8 who through turnover no longer have the people burned by the CE4->CE6 migration will probably move to Blackboard 9 this summer prior to Fall.
  3. Smaller colleges on CE 8 who still remember will migrate after AP1 (maybe a year after Bb9 release).
  4. Larger colleges on CE or Vista 8 will move some time between AP1 and AP2.
  5. Consortia groups like GeorgiaVIEW, Utah State System, or Connecticut State University System will wait and see.

That last group doesn’t take change easily. They have the nimbleness of a Supertanker cargo ship.

I am still waiting for the tweets about Moodle and Sakai, the open source alternatives, to change from in general “X sucks, but at least its not Blackboard.” to “X is the best there is.” If “at least its not Blackboard” is the only thing going for the software, then people will stay where they are to see where things go. There needs to be compelling reasons to change.

Unfortunately the cries of the students and the faculty in the minority are not enough. Most people are happy enough. They can accomplish the important things. They get frustrated that IT took the system down, data center power issues, network issues, or a performance issue. None of which go away by picking FOSS.

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.

VLE vs PLE

PLEs reflect the needs of a student information gatherer. VLEs (aka LMSs) reflect the classroom and institution online. (PLEs vs VLEs) Blackboard Vista is a VLE. Its competitors are all VLEs. Vista is the worst VLE of them all as its designed to host multiple institutions in one site. The GeorgiaVIEW project takes the VLE approach to the extreme by getting a number of institutions to collaboratively host together (though the technology doesn’t scale out to 170,000 active users).

The questions I have though is: Are VLEs worse than PLEs? Would students learn more through PLEs?

Back when I had direct instructor contact, instructors wished to combine multiple classroom meeting times into one WebCT CE or Vista online section. The universal reason being so all the students studying the same topics could discuss these topics. This was before social networks… unless you want to count the now defunct sixdegrees.com? The idea being that student interaction is where they would learn.

Bill Huitt describes the classroom model as old world, without foundation, and eventually will collapse to the dismay of educational administrators everywhere. The student-teacher relationship is the key to the learning.