All posts by David Gray

That conference feeling…

I’ve attended mostly EdTech conferences, which tend to focus on mechanics rather than pedagogy. But the best moment from those trips would have to be an impromptu discussion started with somebody while we both rested in chairs halfway up a long staircase.

She was enthused about how well virtual reality was working with her students, so we started off there, but quickly we’d gathered a group of other attendees until there was around a dozen of us half-blocking the conference center stairway. Topics ranged all over the place, and if memory serves we ended up missing a keynote (but it was a corporate keynote, so not too important) because the discussion felt so rich.

Looking back at that across a span of years, I really don’t recall WHAT was said. But I certainly recall how I felt, and that I left that group feeling energized and… not alone. And that sort of gathering is only going to take place at a physical conference, with total strangers.

The technical stuff I learned that year, the “coming soon” that the company announced, certainly augmented the next couple of semesters of my professional development workshops. But that all faded away quickly, while the glow from that single discussion remained.

In July of 2016 I attended InstructureCon in Keystone, Colorado, and during the opening keynote the speaker suggested that attendees blow off the sessions, and instead go out and enjoy the resort area – ride bikes, hike trails, explore the lake in paddle boats. And, as startling as it was hearing that from the conference organizer, I see that he was absolutely right. The best benefit of conferences is really being herded into close proximity with others, in an environment where we will produce our own value.

If only I’d known then…

I’ve been working in the Academic Technology field for the last twenty years, aiding faculty through significant changes in technologies to deliver content and philosophies on what even should be delivered. And I’ve just finished shepherding my institution from nineteen-and-a-half years of using Blackboard’s course management system (from way back when it was called “CourseInfo” – version 2, to be exact) to now using Instructure’s Canvas system. This most recent leg of my career contains an important point that I wish I could send back to the me of two decades ago:

Train them in the abstract concepts, not the product.

Perhaps I could never have achieved this, since the product used in many (sometimes subtle) ways does influence what content is delivered and in what ways. But after helping hundreds (possibly over a thousand) faculty to construct courses using one particular system, and then seeing the process hundreds just went through in trying to transfer over to using a new system, I feel I’ve done them a disservice.

Of course that’s the advice I’d give past me on behalf of my faculty. The suggestion to myself on behalf of older me is a bit more blunt:

If you aren’t be paid for it, don’t provide it.

Over the years I worked shifts easier measured in days than hours, just to get the systems back up and running. One year, on my anniversary, my wife napped out in the car while I fixed a problem with the course management system servers from before dusk until after one in the morning… and yet somehow I’m still married to the woman. I sometimes share this lesson with others, though I struggle to follow it even to this day: There is no such thing as an academic emergency.

If I’d known then what I know now, I suspect my faculty would be better prepared for the years to come, and I know my health and work/life balance would be better.

BbWorld 2014 Debrief

Okay, wow, the BbWorld conference was, as always, intense and packed with knowledge. And in case one doesn’t get their fill of knowledge within the many sessions, there was even a knowledge bar set up, where the Blackboard MVPs would answer specific questions. I got to see whole hordes of people taking advantage of that offering, and mostly walking away satisfied.

Three keynotes, in all, and they all really did resonate around a single theme. Joi Ito went all out during the opening keynote, discussing how creation of hardware casually isn’t that amazing, considering that kids are going to be assembling genes on their own in under a generation. (I’m not sure I’d WANT my kids assembling their own bacterium. Perhaps this is the real reason so many places have written up “Zombie Apocalypse” plans?) As the corporate keynote on day 2, Jay Bhatt discussed the Blackboard company focus, which boiled down to “Reimagine and Redesign.” Corporate recognized that EdTech isn’t going to continue the way it has been, and are trying their best to support the evolution of education in the years to come. Geoffrey Canada (of the Harlem Children’s Zone fame) raised the roof at the closing keynote.  Canada’s dry wit and statistical information regarding education issues made for thoughtful hilarity, and his recital of the poem “Don’t Blame Me”… well, it was intense.

The sessions I attended were nearly all packed to the rafters; in three sessions I ended up wall-propping or sitting on the carpet. I had the opportunity to hear educators speak on pedagogy, engineers speak on software development issues, even Blackboard management more in-depth on their intentions for the future of the Blackboard Learn product. Honestly I’m still internalizing most of what I heard and saw, but I can hit the high points:

  • An iOS app for instructors to grade student work, which is coming soon.
  • A completely changed interface for Blackboard Learn, that is likely to improve life for faculty and students, which is coming, but probably not VERY soon.
  • The licensing structure of both the Blackboard products and their hosting offerings are undergoing dramatic change. Although this sounds esoteric, the net result ought to be our gaining the Content and Community system abilities.
  • I am going to be jumping like a jack-rabbit to prepare for all the new tools and changes coming down the pike.

So I find myself thrilled and exhausted by what the future of Blackboard is shaping up as. Clearly there will be more later, but for now, I’m going to take a nap.

Bound for Blackboard World!

In just a few days, I’ll be making the trek out to the BbWorld conference, meeting this year in Las Vegas. Every year thatI’ve attended BbWorld there is always something good I bring back home, but this year I’m… well, I’m more excited than usual. You see, now that Palomar has our Blackboard Learn system running under Blackboard’s Managed Hosting service, I get to focus on two completely new aspects of our system.

This will be my first time to seriously interact with the MH team, and it will be helpful to put names with faces. Blackboard’s willingness to put their employees “out there” to interact with clients has always struck me as a good way to do business.

Also due to the switch to MH, I won’t feel pressure to attend sessions relating to the server-level administration of our system. So I’ll be able to whole-heartedly focus on pedagogic sessions, rather than feeling like I serve two masters. In the past I’ve brought back some useful pedagogic tidbits; likely my basket will overflow with non-mechanical content this time out.

Of course the most significant benefit of BbWorld is the opportunity to interact with other educators and support staff from other schools; the value of talking things over in the hallways or around the coffee stand simply can’t be overestimated. Too often I feel I’m existing in a silo, but rubbing against so many other motivated people reminds me that “we’re all in this together.” It… helps, to be reminded of that.

In past years I’ve tweeted from BbWorld. A lot. I expect to do so again, so if you’re interested in an up-to-the-moment you can watch the Twitter feed, either my own, or better yet the conference hashtag #BbWorld14.

Finally, I must admit to some avarice; several of the vendors at BbWorld are doing give-aways of iPad minis, and I sure wouldn’t mind coming home with one of those. But, you know, mostly I want the other stuff.

End of an era of Blackboard at Palomar

I’ve had a long history with Blackboard’s course management software at Palomar College. My second act when given the responsibility for Palomar’s Blackboard system was to upgrade from Courseinfo version 2 to 3, back in the twentieth century. (My first act was to organize things so that some students did not have five separate accounts on the system when enrolled in only three courses, in case you were wondering.) Each iteration of systems has increased in complexity, and until the most recent system with its virtual servers I’ve literally put my fingerprints on every server. (Seriously, when working with the physical servers, my skin oils, sweat, even on a couple occasions blood, ended up on the casing. Plus a database server tried to take my fingernail one day. Good times.) But all that ends tonight.

Palomar is not leaving Blackboard for an alternate system, of course. In fact many faculty have recently completed moving into our new Managed Hosting environment, and I expect the higher levels of service from a specialized hosting environment and 24×7 support staff are going to make the future bright. But I’m no longer the one who will rip into the guts of a server, or dig through server settings looking for just the right switch to make the problems go away… well, at least not for a Blackboard system, at least.

Augmenting classes with online content has come a very long way from that first CMS running on a Dell workstation in our storage closet. There was a time when I could memorize the five-digit class numbers of every online class, and when I knew – if not the faces, then at least by name – all the faculty using our Blackboard system. Now more than half of Palomar classes have online components, and (at least when I’m announcing an upgrade window) I keep hearing how Blackboard is “mission critical” for faculty.

I guess I’m just feeling nostalgia for a time that couldn’t have been as simple as I recall. A time of feeling happy that my single monitor was 15 inches on the diagonal, and looking forward to getting that 56 K modem so my Internet speeds would get better. But sitting here watching the last vestiges of my locally-hosted Blackboard system delete, it seems all rose-colored.

I’m almost to the end of my last checklist for decommissioning the old system, and I see I actually did make the very last line:

  • Morn passing of an era.


Road to Bb Managed Hosting – Finale

I’m going to go ahead and call it – we are now on Managed Hosting.

I can tell because when faculty contact me they have started referring to “the old Blackboard system” as our still-functioning self-hosted environment, while the MH-hosted environment is simply “the Blackboard system.” Although my old system will still be up until June 15, 2014, the primary focus of faculty is now on the Summer and Fall course sites, all living on the new system. The only reasons for anybody to go to the old system are to grab out course Export files, or check on Spring 2014 grades… and even the grade issue is nearly over, as final grades ought to all be submitted at this point.

I will say that I keep running across unexpected difficulties with the MH system. For example, file uploads (whether using the Import Package tool or simply attaching a file to an Item) take what seems like a horrid amount of time complete the upload process. Apparently while on the local-hosted system we were all spoiled for upload speeds. Also, I never did get our local-hosted system up to SP14, which I am now very glad of. I’ve already got an upgrade to the “April release” version scheduled in mid-August, and I will be delighted to leave SP14 in the dust.

Palomar followed an atypical path to get to Manged Hosting; no migration of old courses and users, no attempts to continue supporting legacy data integration methods, no attempt to retain the old DNS listing; but each of these has ultimately worked out as a positive in the long run. In a couple weeks I get to finally shut off our local-hosted system, and within a year I expect that most faculty won’t even recall there was an old system.

Road to Managed Hosting – Part Three

Turns out that most of the building block configuration worries were actually non-issues. Because we aren’t truly “migrating” our content from the local system to the MH one, we can get away with configuring all the B2s as wholly new environments, and the publishers and other vendors may need to make some changes after our live courses have launched. This is truly good, and makes me feel that much better about the decision to start with new semester content only on the new system.

It also amuses me how often the Bb techs have tried to blame something on “the content you migrated”; we get to respond along the lines of “oh, you mean the total lack of content we migrated, yeah that could be a real source of trouble.” It sure would be nice if more techs would ask for details BEFORE trying to lay blame on events that may never have actually occurred.

The Summer 2014 courses are already ready on our MH system, and instructors are going in and prepping course content. There’ve been a few bizarre issues that have cropped up (like when one evening we lost the ability to add or edit Items, or see content areas containing content) but working with the MH tech team is a fairly easy experience. Of course the real test will be when students start accessing the courses, and even that we’ve lucked into a sort of “soft launch” with; there are a few intersession courses starting May 20, then the six and eight week courses starting June 23. Of course the true load on the system won’t hit until August, when Fall kicks off, but by then we’ll have several months of live use.

The internal confusion factor is high for me right now, though. When someone asks for Blackboard assistance, I’ll sometimes have to pause for up to a minute before knowing which of our systems to go to. (We’ve got local production, MH production, local sandbox, and MH test systems; it just gets excessive, ya’ know?)

Perhaps it’s true that “the road goes ever on, and on” but this particular branch of the road, to Managed Hosting, is almost at an end. Hooray!

Road to Bb Managed Hosting – Part 2

I’ve had access to my new Managed Hosting Blackboard environment for almost two weeks now; it’s a bit amazing how many niggling details needed to be dealt with, before the system is ready to unleash.

Among these issues:

  • Decide on the internal appearance of the system, consistent with the college brand. (Let me tell you, silver and red aren’t as easy to work with as some might expect.)
  • Install the extensive components (building blocks) on the old system.
  • Configure these building blocks; this is extra tricky as many blocks actually connect to external data stores, such as publisher tools.
  • Set up the listing of… everything. Modules, tool listings, default course menu entries, user privileges… if I get these right BEFORE launch, things will go far better than retroactive changes.
  • Establish data integration frameworks; to my surprise this ended up being nearly the most straightforward piece of the puzzle.

Not everything is done already (for example, I’m still waiting to hear back about some of the building block issues relating to switching systems), but by and large the environment is ready for launch. Of course THAT process will require some finesse all of its own.

More on the launch process later. So far, so good.

Road to Bb Managed Hosting – Part 1

Last month, February 11, 2014, the Palomar Governing Board approved our moving the Palomar Blackboard environment from a self-hosted model (which we had been doing since 1998) to the Blackboard Managed Hosting service. The contract was actually signed on February 28, 2014, and I’m now awaiting the delivery of our new off-site-hosted system. The contract specified 7-10 days to deliver after initial contact, so I ought to “get the keys” to the new system some time this week.

Naturally there will be a whole host of changes made to the “back end” technical aspects of how our Bb environment is controlled, but from the user’s point of view things should be relatively unchanged. The same tools will be available, although in the new environment I actually expect most tools, such as the ones that integrate with publisher systems, should work more quickly and reliably. Of course there will be detailed documents on exactly how to move old content into the new courses on the new system; educating on how to move in will be a major support effort, both in the next few months as well as again in August.

Although official documentation will be available once all the details are hammered out, I wanted to briefly document the many steps in this momentous process. At this stage I’m optimistic, and for anyone who knows me and the depths of my pessimism that’s actually a significant point.

Kid’s Board Game Win

For our youngest boy’s 4th birthday, the six-year-old picked out a board game for his brother. He thought long and hard over which game would be most enjoyable, spending several minutes in each aisle of the store comparing toys and games. Then he saw a game that really piqued his interest:
“Well,” he said, “Simon does like monkeys, and he really likes other animals too.” I flipped the box over, smiled, and described the contents to him:So… it’s a board game placed in a zoo, where at certain points of the game the players put on animal masks and play hide-and-seek. That decided it, and Daniel could barely wait for the birthday party to show and explain the game to his little brother.

The game really does play well, with mechanics simple enough for 6- and 4-year-olds to play together alone when they want. If you have any animal-loving kids, I would heartily recommend this game.