A Buffet of Educational Technology Thoughts

If you’ve read anything in this blog, you know that I’m subject to “oh look, shiny!”, constantly distracted and going in one hundred directions. This post will get as close to the way my brain works.

First up, we’re scrapping Blackboard Collaborate as our web conferencing tool and installing WebEx. As a conferencing tool it’s light years ahead in terms of usability and functionality. I’m sure some of our more advanced users will find the quirks, but hopefully we can manage to stay one or two steps ahead of them. We had been Collaborate clients for years, migrating over from a self hosted Elluminate install.  Over time, the product, and it’s terrible Java interface, caused our users issues. We did integrate it directly with our D2L installation, which solved a lot of the interface issues, but then we’ve been hit with conversion errors that can’t be fixed by the user but prompt a ticket to Blackboard support. While Blackboard support have been excellent in this particular case, they haven’t been great over the years. Combine that with the fact that Blackboard has been promising a lot, and not producing a whit of evidence that they’ll be able to pull it off. If they weren’t so big, I’d be calling all their promises vaporware, but I fully expect they’ll be able to deliver eventually. It’s the eventually part that’s the problem.

Second, I’m working through how we can roll out blogs effectively to faculty who want their students to blog, but want a campus install to do it from. I know WordPress Multisite is the way to go, but it’s going to be a slow going process as we need to work with other groups on campus to make this one happen. I personally think that having an academic blog is an important piece of the process of going to University and becoming an academic – how else do people disseminate their findings to the public without the filter of a news organization? How else do academics form their own personal learning network? I’m a huge believer in blogging as a form; and I see it as a reflective practice more often than not. It’s also a space that I can use to see how ideas sound, and it helps me articulate ideas better (by slowing my brain down to typing speed, which is much slower than my mouth goes).

Third, is the upgrade to Turnitin, will practically force us to convert our existing connection between D2L and Turnitin to the new LTI connection between the two parties. As always, this is a last minute addition to our semester startup, so it’s an added complexity that we didn’t really want to think about but will have to consider over the next few days. While Turnitin is forcing everyone to upgrade, there is an opt-out process, but from what I know (and I’ll know more later this week when we chat with our academic integrity office) we don’t know what that really means? How does opting-out effect us? Can we revert if everything craps out and nothing works post-upgrade?

Fourth, I’ve been asked to sit on a portfolio advocacy committee, that will push portfolio use to “the next level” campus wide. I have a few ideas, but I’ve never been fond of sitting on committees, more fond of the work that needs to get done out of the committees. I guess it’s progress when you have someone who knows what it takes and whether it can be done currently, rather than facing down the fact you can’t do what you had proposed due to technical feasibility. My boss is sneaky good at eliminating my ability to point the finger at other people’s decisions, so I guess this one will partially be on me.

What If… We Made the LMS Truly Modular?

I think we all understand that the LMS as a tool is a pretty cruddy one. It does a lot of things, some well, many not in ways that you, as an instructor would prefer. At last year’s Fusion conference, we heard D2L speak about their LTI integrations, and how Brightspace was the integrated learning platform. I’ve heard that many people envision what D2L are selling as a hub and spoke system – where Brightspace (or the Learning Environment, or even more crudely, the LMS) acts as a hub – and the tools connected are the spokes. I wonder what things would look like if we extrapolate that idea out to the nth degree?

For instance, you could replace the gradebook with a tool that worked for you – Google Spreadsheets, Excel online, or a box plot device. Chalk and Wire has replaced Canvas’ gradebook in one instance, and I’m sure that the inefficient tools of any LMS are things that one would want to replace. Does that mean the all of them? For some snarky folks, yeah, that would mean all of them. Those folks should just teach in the open web.

The LMS also provides a fairly elegant way to get student data into your course area. That’s probably something instructors or faculty wouldn’t want to do. Hell, I’m glad we have someone on my team that wants to do it because it’s an ugly job.

And for many, the content management of these systems are pretty good. In D2L’s case, the way the content tool works is pretty decent (now if hide an item means really hide any evidence of the item, we’re talking). Imagine if you could take elements of one system you like (say Angel) and add-in features to allow for customization for the individual course needs?

Or how about replacing the groups tool with some other mechanism?  Quizzing is something that people already are pushing to publishers like Pearson or McGraw Hill, but what about up and comers like Top Hat or Poll Everywhere (which, lets face it, is essentially a quiz engine wrapped in a polling tool)? Discussions become a Disqus link at the bottom of a item in the content area… there’s lots of clever fun to be had with this idea.

Now to some extent, you can do this already (depending on how locked down your system is by your systems administrators). Change the navigation bars to point to tools you use connected through LTI – however you have some issues with doing this yourself. The biggest one is that at some point, you’ll run into some technological problem that you can’t solve easily. I suspect, that’s what the Internet is for.

At some point one (or many) of you will point out quite rightly, that this sounds an awful lot like what the web is (or more accurately, was). And my answer is yeah, that’s about right. Used to have websites that we plugged bits of HTML into to make what we needed. Until it was commodified.

You can probably draw a comparison to the modern LMS to Facebook – mostly everyone uses it but would probably use a better system if everyone else went to it first. Universities would consider another model as long as everyone will come along. However, in the current higher education system, where we have seasonal and precarious work dominating instructional positions – there’s no time or want to develop a better way. The LMS works as a co-conspirator in the commodification of education. It’s not directly responsible, but it plays a  part in making education at university an easily packaged and consumed affair. The LMS isn’t alone, Coursera, Udacity, those type of MOOCs are equally complicit, or maybe even moreso.

And that’s a more likely reason we’ll see a modular LMS. More vendors get opportunities to get into different institutions that aren’t their current clients.

i>Clicker Integration with D2L/Brightspace

I’m sure i>Clicker won’t be particularly happy with this post, that’s ok, because I’m not happy with them. The one thing as an LMS administrator that you should feel very, very sanctimonious about is sharing data. We have an internal policy that we’ll never share student numbers. I also think that we shouldn’t share usernames, however some folks feel that’s ok. I guess it depends on your username convention. First dot last as a convention is great, except in these cases when you’re trying to maintain privacy. Now, if you’re making a single sign on connection through LTI, you can have the originating LMS username obfuscated, which essentially boils down to a paired database table that has two usernames in it – the one handed off to the third party via LTI, and the one in the LMS. Typically, I’m a little bristly about this as well, because you become reliant on the system not changing how this is handled, and if there’s an HTTP call mixed in there, it still could be sniffed out while in transit… but that’s not what this post is about.

Since last year, I’ve been bugged by i>Clicker to do an integration to make sign-up with their service seamless for students. There has been some requests for integration between i>Clicker and the gradebook in D2L from some of the more heavy users. The first request, I’ve always put off because, frankly, I don’t do anything a private enterprise wants me to do, they aren’t my boss, nor are they a member of my community. They serve one purpose, and that’s collecting money. The second, however, does benefit a select user group on campus. We were thinking about this since last year’s summer of integration, and April had a couple minutes free (more on that in forthcoming blog posts), so we scheduled some time to finally make it happen.

We schedule a call, to walk us through the integration and see if there’s anything that we have questions about. I don’t need anyone to walk me through an integration, but I often like to raise privacy, data collection policies, and other awkward questions to the poor sucker who’s on the end of the other line. Typically they are ill informed. I didn’t even get to the awkward stage, as a request was made that was frankly shocking. I was asked to turn on passing the Org Defined ID – or our student number – to facilitate the connection. Not just at the tool level, but at the configuration for the Tool Information. See below:

config_tool_consumer (1) Now if I understand this panel correctly, it not only changes the configuration settings for the tool in question, but for all the tools. ALL the tools. So not only i>Clicker, but anything else you have connected through using the External Learning Tools administration panel. I asked our technical account manager about changing it, and he basically said, “yeah, that’s not good.”

So in the middle of this exchange where I explain how we don’t pass the student number under any circumstances, the i>Clicker representative seemed to be a little miffed about my protests. He wasn’t particularly nasty about it, but certainly didn’t seem to understand why this was an issue at all. Looking at i>Clicker’s website, students are asked for their ID. It’s different asking a student to give them their ID (consent) and setting up access to everyone’s ID (no consent).

What makes me wonder is, how many other institutions even give this a thought? Surely we can’t be the first person to balk at the idea of handing over student data like this? Or maybe we are being too paranoid? I mean, I guess there’s people who have faith in the third-party vendors, but I’d prefer having a license, stating exactly what they are doing with data, how they’re using it, how long it’s retained and an agreement signed between the two parties. That way if the external party violates the agreement, the institution can hold them liable for the data breech – something a little stiffer than “oops”.

Blackboard Collaborate Integration with Desire2Learn, Uhh D2L, LE uhh Brightspace 10.3

I think I did that right?

Back in June we took a few weeks and integrated Blackboard Collaborate (our web conferencing tool) with our instance of the Learning Environment (Brightspace just doesn’t feel right). We are currently running 10.2 SP9 of the LE.

Reflections? Well, for such a simple integration (and really the D2L interface is waaaaay better than the Blackboard Collaborate interface) it took a hell of a long time. We had to purchase and get D2L to install the IPSCT pack – so if you’re entering into an agreement with D2L and may way to do this later, definitely spend the cash up front. From start to unveil it was over six weeks – now that’s not solid work on just this. After D2L installed the IPSCT pack, we had to contact Blackboard support to get our credentials. Seeing as we’ve had total turnover in who supports Blackboard Collaborate, our new Collaborate support person was not on the list of approved contacts – which is funny because she’s the one who does all the tickets. So we contact our account manager. No response. It turns out that well, they are no longer our account manager, that’s why we haven’t heard from them in over 9 months. Great. So support can’t do anything, neither can our phantom account manager. Finally we get to the bottom of who our new Blackboard account manager is, they straighten out the mess and our person is now an approved contact. After that it still takes a week to get our credentials for test and prod.

Configuration on test went smoothly enough – if you’ve ever worked with External Learning Tools in the LE, it’s the same as any other configuation in that tool – have the address to make the connection, secret key and password, check a few more boxes, and then off you go. Now everyone who gets enrolled in the LE gets a Default Role at the org level, and then gets assigned a more applicable role at the course offering level, which means for us, you have to go through not only the Instructor/Student and TA roles, but the Default Role as well. While this is a pain to do, it’s often easy to forget to do it – and that’s what we promptly did. A day or two was spent tearing what’s left of my hair out, until the lightning struck and it sparked the engine enough to get it firing again.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and we get some time to implement it on prod, we yet again forget what we did to make it work. A week later we said something to the effect of  “Fudge, Default Role…” ran off to the LE and fixed our error. Sometimes it’s not the technology that fails you…