Wimbas and Elluminates and Blackboards, Oh My!

July 7, 2010

Today Blackboard announced a new division, Blackboard Collaborate, which is the destination of two new acquisitions with familiar names:  Wimba and Elluminate.

From the official Blackboard Collaborate website:  “Today, we’ve announced that Elluminate, Wimba, and Blackboard will join forces to bring together the leading technology products for synchronous learning and collaboration – and the minds that created them – in what we hope will be a major step forward to pursue new innovation.”  On that site are links to the email sent out to Blackboard clients, as well as oodles of additional information on the fact of the existence of Blackboard Collaborate.  The site mentions “Hear more at BbWorld”, which should be nice as I’ll be spending next week attending the BbWorld conference.  (Feel free to comment this post with any Blackboard Collaborate-related questions you’d like to have answered!)

Although things are still shaking out on Twitter, it looks like the hashtag to watch for on this topic is #BbCollab.

At any rate, there will be many questions to ask about this conglomeration.  One specific concern that seems ignored by all the current information is the role of the Wimba Voice Tools (which is not a synchronous communication tool, and doesn’t fit the “live chat” motif of the LiveClassroom and Elluminate Live! tools) in this bold new future.  I’ll be sure and post more about it here, as I discover the answers at BbWorld!


Cry ‘Havoc’

May 27, 2010

Cry ‘Havoc” and let slip the courses of Summer!

A new semester is upon us, at least those of us who are working over the Summer term.  At this moment there are 830 courses in Palomar’s Summer 2010 term, and many of those will have Blackboard components.  Here are some things to think about, when getting a Blackboard course ready for this new term:

The shells for Summer 2010 courses have been around for about two months now, in accordance with our typical course lifecycle rule of creating the course shell 90 days prior to the start of the semester.  Some faculty have already transferred their materials into those new course shells, but many have not yet.

If you have material in a previous course that you want to also have in the new course, you have two options:  the Copy Course tool, or to do a Course Export and then a Course Import.  There are pros and cons to each technique.

The Copy Course tool has to be initiated from the course with the content, typically this is the older course.  You would tell the Copy Course tool which of your courses is the destination, and check the boxes for what you want to copy over.  However, if you try to copy the Settings for your course (which includes the style of course menu and banner in the Announcements area) you may receive an error.

If you opt for an Export and Import, you would first go into the older course and use the Course Export tool to create an export file, then save the file onto your computer.  You would next go into the new, empty course, and use the Import Package tool to pull the contents of your export file into the new course.  However, if your course contains more than 250 Mb of data, you will be unable to import the file contents.

Regardless of which method, or neither, that you use for porting over materials, there are a couple other things to be sure to do in your new course site.  Particularly, post an Announcement to start off the semester right.  (And, please, make it a new announcement rather than doing a Modify of an old one.  Announcements have the original date posted on them, and it really looks bad to see a June 2010 class start with a January 2006 post.)  Also, of course, none of your students will be able to get into the course site until you have manually made it available to them.

In the Control Panel, under Settings, is the Course Availability control.  It’s a simple Yes/No radio button control, but until and unless an instructor switches things from the default “No” position, students are unable to see any of the contents of the course site.  Some faculty make their course sites available to students well in advance of the start of semester, and use Blackboard as a tool to prepare students to show up at the first class session actually ready to work; others will wait until right at, or even after, the start of the semester before making the course available.  Whichever way you choose, just remember to make the course available before telling your students to go there – our tech support phone rings quite a lot when that step is forgotten.

So, there you have it.  Summer is here, and if you’re not enjoying a nice vacation it is time to be sure your Blackboard course is ready!

Walking the Campus

May 26, 2010

Today I took a walk around the San Marcos campus; this is fairly unusual for me, as I don’t get out of the office much.  Few people were around, as it’s just after the end of an academic year.  I suspect the staff on campus outnumbered the students, although I was asked for directions from one student during my wandering.

I walked past many classrooms, the Student Union, and – of course – the construction going on nearly smack in the middle of campus.  The shells of two buildings were crawling with construction workers, all busily accomplishing things that no one will notice later unless they don’t do their jobs right.

The whole campus put me in mind of how Blackboard has been implemented at Palomar:  Much of the campus is the same now as it was when I first came to Palomar years ago, and the old familiar brickwork that I’m used to is even being added to the new construction to keep a similar look and feel.  However, unlike when I first started here, there are now numerous building with elevator shafts; there was a time when only the LL building had elevators.  On an invisible level, there is wireless Internet access across a good bit of campus now, as well as wired network access in pretty much every room.  When I came on-board here the computer lab in the Library had four computers with modems for dial-up Internet service.  As much as things have stayed the same on campus, they’ve really changed, too.

Blackboard was first introduced on campus over a decade ago, and comparing what it looked like back then with what it is now, there are a lot of similarities still.  The Control Panel is nearly unchanged in appearance, even if the functions have shifted a bit; some courses use the buttons styles and Content Area names that were standard (required, actually) back a dozen years ago; there are even a few syllabi that list the old address for our Blackboard system that hasn’t worked since mid-2005.  But like the changes to campus buildings, some new construction on the Blackboard front will change the way courses can be conducted online.  With the advent of the new version of Blackboard which will be in effect starting Spring 2011, things like the Control Panel screen and the button-based course menu are going away.  The Digital Dropbox tool (which I’ve railed against for several years now) will be gone.  And it’s entirely possible that students and faculty will be using the Blackboard system without real computers.

Although Palomar isn’t going to change the version of Blackboard we use until the Spring 2011 term, we are enabling the Blackboard Mobile Learn tool in mid-June, so that users may begin reading and posting to Blackboard courses using iPads, iPhones, BlackBerrys, and Android devices.  (This makes me a bit sad, as I’m a Windows Mobile user and am left out in the cold with this app, at least for the moment.)

I guess, if there’s any moral to this rambling post, it’s this:  Change is coming to Palomar’s Blackboard system; if I do my job properly in constructing the new system, things will go smoothly; but even with all these changes, many things will stay the same, work the same, and the service you should expect out of us should only get better.

Reliability Wins!

April 29, 2010

A month ago I asked for feedback from faculty at Palomar as to their preference for less scheduled system outages or less liklihood of system failures… and got back only two responses.  So, with 100% of responders in favor of more frequent scheduled system outages, our planned outage schedule has changed.

Instead of Reboot Wednesday coming on the first Wednesday of every month, Reboot Wednesday is now every Wednesday!  At or around 6 AM each Wednesday morning, the Palomar Blackboard system will be restarted.  This process may around an hour, although we will obviously take all steps we can to minimize the downtime.

Reliability vs. Uptime

March 31, 2010

I’ve been doing some prep-work for our new Blackboard Learn environment that will be launched here at Palomar for Spring 2011 (knock wood).  Part of that is system documentation, and there’s a massive amount of procedural data that is included along with information like serial numbers and IP addresses.  Working through the operations workbook for our existing Blackboard 8 system I looked at some of our times at which we consider it acceptible to have the system down for maintenance:

There are daily and weekly windows when the system can be routinely backed up, where sluggish response times are acceptable. A short (up to an hour) window of system down-time is acceptable on the “Reboot Wednesday” times between 6 and 7 a.m. on the first Wednesday of each month. However, the only time when extended system down-time is acceptable would be during the annual windows.

Daily: 2 a.m. to 7 a.m.

Weekly: Saturday, 7 a.m. to 12 p.m.

Monthly: First Wednesday, 6 a.m. to  7 a.m.

Annually: The first full week in January, also any time window between the end of the Summer term and beginning of Fall.

Generally speaking we don’t use the Daily time windows, or Weekly ones, but we do try to restart all the servers on Reboot Wednesdays.  (This deals with several possible technical problems that may bring the system down unexpectedly.  If it didn’t help things, believe me, we wouldn’t do it.)  The support line and ticketing system seldom see any activity during these times, which leads me to believe that few people are impacted by those downtimes.

Whenever we do upgrades and significant maintenance to the Blackboard environment between semesters, we do receive quite a number of calls… but there really isn’t any way around that, sadly.

Obviously there are other times when the system may seize up, and it’s inaccessible to users.  We try to get things running again as quickly as possible, of course, but that sort of thing isn’t what we schedule for.  It is possible that if we do schedule more frequent maintenance windows, akin to what we do on Reboot Wednesdays, that we might see fewer or no other system seizures, though.

The reason I’m sharing all this is that I’m interested how the plans we have for Palomar measure up.  So, for Palomar faculty, please comment on this post and let me know how you feel about the idea of having more frequent, planned, system outages.  For non-Palomar faculty, please comment about how this sort of maintenance schedule measures up against what you’re accustomed to at your institutions.  I’d really appreciate hearing what everyone thinks on this topic!

Big Brother is Watching

March 5, 2010

Sometimes I look through the statistics for this blog, to see what people are looking at (not much) and any data on how folks got here.  It can be amusing to see the search results that lead people here, but one I saw today I just have to comment on.  The search term was “can professors see if students have logged in”…


Dear students, if you are required to log in to a system, someone somewhere on the system is logging it, guaranteed.  In fact, the instructor has two related places where they can see the last day and time you accessed the Blackboard course:  the Performance Dashboard and the Grade Center.  So if your professor tells you that she’ll be docking points if you don’t check the course each week, she actually can tell, easily.

This blog may be “Blackboard for Faculty”, but I’m not above giving students the heads up: Big Brother is watching you.  Do your work.

Looking to the Future… Courses

March 5, 2010

Today I received a query from two faculty, who wanted to know how best to transfer materials from one course to another, with an eye towards setting things up for Fall 2010.  (Naturally I told them to do a Course Export from one, and an Import Package in the other course.)  However, it reminded me that some faculty might be wondering when the next semester Blackboard courses will be ready.

The Summer 2010 courses will be created on the morning of Friday, March 19th.  (This, of course, is right around the corner…  be ready!)  The Fall 2010 courses will be created on the morning of Friday, May 21st – right at the end of the Spring 2010 final’s week, and Commencement Day.  This is in keeping with part of our traditional course lifecycle pattern, to create courses 90 days before the semester they’re a part of.