Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Rock and the Hard Place

One of the hardest parts of the job is "managing expecations." With computer technology, we expect things to either get better or stay the same --- the current browsers are better than the ones we used in the '90s in terms of how fast they render pages, how easily they support plugins, that sort of thing. We're seeing new functionality, new tools, all the time. And there really is a remarkable range of choice out there in terms of what applications to use and what type of things people want to put their time into.

When I first got started in the admin side of educational technology, this was in the days of SCALE, we took a "best of breed" approach. The heart of ALN (asynchronous learning networks, a Sloan term that I still feel comfortable with but which others might replace with the broader term eLearning) was conferencing and we supported FirstClass and then WebBoard. As a separate application, we supported Mallard, which did fairly sophisticated quizzing and tracking. Mallard had a grade book, but the Campus had a different grade book system, the latter linked to to the home grown course registration system, so that rosters in the class were kept current. There was yet another system for Web Publishing, called the VCI (Virtual Classroom Interface). We had a lot of disparate systems.

We stayed that route even when we moved to course management systems, supporting both Blackboard (then CourseInfo) and WebCT (then their Standard Edition software). We operated under the belief that there was diversity in use and to accomodate that diversity we had a range of applications. The approach conditioned the expectations of our instructors. Unfortunately it didn't scale well.

In the last year we've closed down the Campus Gradebook service and ended the Blackboard and WebCT CE service. The future lies with our commitment to Illinois Compass, which is based on the WebCT enterprise software called Vista. It is scalable, and its scale justifies us doing integrations with other services that in the past simply wouldn't have made sense. For example, we ultimately will get the iCard photos into Compass so when an instructor sees a student listed in the class grade book, with a single click the instructor can get the photo and profile information. So the plusses are that we can scale and we can integrate with other services. (Though, it must be admitted that those abilities are somewhat theoretical and the proof is in the implementation.)

The issue is whether we can remain flexible in this environment and accomodate people's expectations. Let's talk this through a little. Suppose an instructor wants to use Illinois Compass, but not rely on it altogether. The instructors wants to use some other applicaitons as well. Perhas the instructor wants to us a blog (to have a public face to the class discourse. Illinois compass is pure intranet.) If the other software needs to know who the students are, but doesn't involve grading the student work, then a plust for the Compass environment is its groups tool and its ability to export lists of students that fit some criteria (for which there is a column in the grade book). In that seense Compass accomodates nicely. If, however, the other software supports activities that are gradeable, then the integration needs to be tighter - the results should get reported back to Compass grade book. In theory this can be done through the grade book API. I'm very interested to see how this will play out when we first pilot such a use.

The other thing that Illinois Compass must do is hold up its end of the bargain in terms of the functionalities it provides - whehter the the discussion area, the calendar (which I like because it can link documents and things like quizzes), or other tools. The instructors must come to find those useful.

Last semester there was a lot of focus on the poor performance - Compass was slow in large part because our configuration was not right. Now performance is tolerable but because the product is so heavily dependent on client side Java applets, whenever a new functionality is used there is a lag so that the applet can download. There is a logic to this in terms of distributing the computing power. But folks are impatient with the slow downloads. I wonder whether those applets might be cached locally to avoid that. But perhaps more of the issue is that in many places the immaturity of the Vista software shows, what people were using before almost without exception represented more mature environments, and in some places in particular the Compass environment is less usable than the best of breed approach that it replaced - Campus Gradebook users look at the Compass Gradebook, Blackboard users look at the ease of use, and WebCT users consider their favorite function from the previous environment. At least that is what I hear from them. I don't hear many comments about the environment in total and that if you look at the complete set of its offerings, how they are collectively.

On top of this add the budget issues I discussed in the previous post. This is really a CITES as a whole issue - we look sluggish in part because we are doing too many things for the staff we have - but I look at it in the area where I have responsibility.

The dilemma is this. We could have gone for a system that is less fully functional and easier to manage. It would have improved use in how flexible we appear. But we would have disenfrachised instructors whose expectations have been formed by the history of campus ed tech services. There are more requirements than we can reasonably satisfy. Something has to give, but what?

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