Commencement Day

AT GravitarToday is the last day of our spring 2011 semester, and also commencement day.  Just as the day marks the commencement of our students’ ongoing career and educational journeys, so it marks ours in continuing to support technology enhanced education at Palomar College.

This semester has seen many changes in our systems, both technically, referring to back-end configuration and hardware platforms, and in terms of user interfaces.  The changes have all been for the better and have been implemented successfully.  We made a major change in the Blackboard system beginning this semester.  We adopted both an entirely new version, with a radical change in user interface, and are running it on an entirely new (and different) hardware platform.  The user interface is the much more visual, web 2.0-ish version 9.1.  Controls are now associated directly with the items being controlled, and drag-and-drop is the rule.  In it’s way it is just as successful as the ribbon interface is in Microsoft Office.  There are still a few who opine for the old interface, it’s true, but its like they say, the best interface is always the first one you learn.  We believe that in this case, however, that change has been good.

The hardware changes to the Blackboard system, while being invisible to end users, have been very significant to us.  We are now running on virtualized front-end servers, a SANS storage system, and a clustered SQL back-end.  I know this means little to most people, but it’s a big deal to us.  Before the semester began we had no way of load testing the system so could not be sure we would not have serious problems.  On days one and two of the semester we DID have serious problems, but that is only because we had underestimated the amount of RAM each virtual server would need.  (We didn’t actually underestimate it, we asked for enough but didn’t get it in time, but let that alone).  We quickly discovered that we needed to double the RAM and ever since have not had problems.  We are now poised to double the processors in the front end servers too, after some testing.  We hope this will meet the needs of the students and faculty when fall semester begins.  As with all ongoing efforts, time will tell.  We think it will.  We know for sure, though, that after the initial heavy rush our virtualized environment can adapt and be tuned to meet all the District’s needs.

We have to give kudos to our friends in the IS department for setting up the hardware environment that Blackboard is now running on.  It has long been a dream of mine—not yet even fully realized—to fully centralize the hardware environment for all educational technology systems run on and our friends in the IS department agree.  They have done a fantastic job and have proved very responsive to our needs.  Thanks to Don Sullins, Jose Vargas, David Brown and Mike Dimmick for their work on the new system.  We have enjoyed 100% system up time throughout the semester.

It is not only Blackboard that is running on a new platform.  So are our web services (District and academic web sites) and our streaming media services.  Both these systems have also been virtualized and are running better than they every have, with redundancy and backup built in.  At last our systems are ‘growing up.’

I would like to commend faculty members for bringing their videos in to be re-encoded on our new SmoothStream/Silverlight platform.  It has been an enormous task, but it is now accomplished.  Part of the process has been to add web captioning on the streamed video, and thank you to Sherry Goldsmith for funding and processing all those mp3 files and making our dream of fully captioning our streamed educational collection a reality.  It is not at 100%, but close.  Streaming media is now faster, clearer, and more secure, with built-in redundant servers, backup, and greater security.

The same is true of our web services.  The IS department has set up a new virtualized multi-server IIS front-end structure for us with a SANS back-end and we are in the process of migrating over all existing web content to the new structure.  Our plans have changed, somewhat on this project because of our successful, recent WordPress implementation.  After years of trying to train users to edit web sites with various Microsoft and Adobe products, we have had to recognize that this is just too foreign to most of them to be practical.  Not so WordPress, however.  We love WordPress and think it will be the dominant method for maintaining web sites at Palomar College and, we hope, bring blogging in a significant way to our community.  If you want a WordPress site or blog, please contact our office (ext. 2862) and we’ll tell you how.

Our systems are now redundant, backed up, secure, and efficient.  Technically we have made great strides this semester.

That was the look back, so what’s coming next semester that will be new?

We will emphasize WordPress, as indicated above.  We will upgrade Blackboard to the latest service packs and adding a couple of building blocks:  McGraw-Hill Connect, NBC Learn (for a six month trial).  (There will be an upgrade June 2-3 before the beginning of the summer semester, and August 16-17 before the fall semester).  We will also be upgrading our help ticketing system, adding live chat, remote desktop assistance, and better ticket management features.  That upgrade will also be occurring June 2-3.  Since our funds are limited, we are going to let our StudyMate and Respondus licenses lapse (if you don’t know what those are, you are in the overwhelming majority) and put the money into licenses for Camtasia and, we hope, NBC Learn, if there is sufficient faculty demand.  We will be moving our Blackboard core training online, as it should be.  David offered several highly successful workshops on Blackb0ard in preparation to our 9.1 upgrade and also during the last semester, and now, beginning this coming fall, those workshops will be fully online.  We will also be repeating much of our PD training on evergreen topics, PowerPoint, Web authoring, Google Earth, and the other topics we typically train on.  We are also making good use of our new WordPress implementation, consolidating several of our Academic Technology blogs into this one and streamlining our communications through the blog, Twitter, Facebook and a YouTube Channel.  See our web site for the details.

We hope we have been effective at meeting the needs of the academic community this semester, and hope you will join with us in these new ventures commencing now.


4 thoughts on “Commencement Day

  1. Thank you, Academic Tech folks at Palomar for being so supportive and responsive to faculty needs during the transition to the new Blackboard 9 upgrade. Everyone in AT is really patient and kind to those of us who are a little tech challenged. A special “thank you” to Chris Norcross for being so generous with his time and knowledge! You guys are the best!

  2. Thanks for your kind words Susan. Generous as always. I see you are signed up for Tech Camp. Looking forward to it. Should be really fun. — Terry

  3. I didn”t understand a lot of the technical stuff you said here, Terry, but I am very impressed with all that you have done! You and everyone else in AT are totally fabulous. I never hear a bad word about any of you, which is quite an accomplishment for you all. I think you all deserve a big raise, but good luck getting that! I am looking forward to another great Tech Camp this summer. I always learn so much!

    1. Hi Kalyna.
      As usual, you are far too generous. Sorry about all the tech gibberish. It becomes ingrained. The job is only worth doing to support what you do with the students.

      I”m looking forward to Tech Camp too and am really glad you signed up. Should be fun.

      Just got this iPad a couple days ago and am trying to learn to type fast on it. Think we will do a little iPad demo at camp.

      See you soon I hope. –Terry

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