Tuesday, June 21, 2005

CMS as a Mission Critical System

Last week Scott Leslie made a very nice post about my blog at his site. In it, he described the way my post How many CMS are enough? inspired him to write his own post on the topic. In addition, Michael Penney wrote some comments about my post and he answered an email query I posed to him about ssl and Moodle in a Moodle forum (just click the Guest button to log in). http://moodle.org/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=25981 So here I want to describe the environment at Illinois, trying to get at both issues that should be of common interest and issues that are specific to Illinois regarding CMS support in the hope that the entire discussion is useful to others.

First, some background. We are a large and diverse campus. The central IT organization where I work is the biggest but not the only player in the CMS pond. The campus currently supports WebCT Vista. We were the second Big Ten school to go that route (after Purdue) and have a perpetual license to the software. We do this in a Solaris/Oracle environment and when we did our RFP, those were deemed critical factors for a successful proposal. The campus continues to support Mallard (the large Spanish courses are in the process of migrating from there to Vista) and WebBoard but those are likely sunset services. We used to support both Blackboard and WebCT CE. And the campus had a home grown grade book tool, a legacy of the Plato system, that was extremely popular. It was retired last year. Also, last year the University (a three campus system) deployed the SCT Banner SIS. At present, we get our roster data not directly from Banner but rather from a daily extract that resides in our electronic data warehouse.

As I mentioned there are other CMS on campus. There are multiple instances of Moodle. Physics has its own homegrown tool for doing its type of quizzing. (It used to be called Tycho but I believe that name was contested so I'm not sure what to call it now.) The Life Sciences make use of LON CAPA, a tool from Michigan State that now has a substantial following. (The original CAPA system was developed by physicists there.) The Math department, which has a significant instance of Calculus with Mathematica, has its own tool for turning in Mathematica notebooks and having online discussion with the TA/grader. The Library School has their own system for the LEEP program and they have taken the lead for the campus in the Sakai partner program. There are two significant instances of WebCT CE, one in Chemistry the other in Ag. The MBA program runs a FirstClass server and the Law School gives students accounts on their Exchange server and uses the public folders there. There are almost certainly others that I haven't mentioned. It is hard to keep track of it all.

The culture here is that the campus supports "utility like" services and more specific and frequently more expensive services are supported in the departments and the colleges. In other words, the Deans have a lot of authority. This conditions our approach. It is also worth nothing that we don't have a computer fee. Our funding comes off the top, from the Provost. In the tight budget climate that matching between revenues and CMS costs has been an issue. That also conditions our approach.

Many courses here are taught in lecture/discussion mode with lecture say two hours a week and recitation section one or two additional hours per week. Lectures can be as big as 750 students per and several hundred students in a class is not uncommon. Owing to budget cuts, there are now fewer TAs (but we are swelling with first and second year students). The campus CMS is used disproportionately by these type of classes. We have many more enrollments in the first year experience courses than we do in senior level classes. Further, these big classes likely use the CMS more intensively than do the upper level classes, which may use it simply for file sharing or to display grades. The quizzing function therefore is very important. Also for this reason, I'm not sure it makes sense to compare CMS instances simply by looking at number of students at the institution.

The large classes tend to create "artificial peaks" in usage via the deadlines for quizzes or writing assignments. Sunday night around midnight is a system-wide peak as lots of instructors want homework to be done before the next school week has started. Apart from quizzing other use that we have experienced that puts stress on the server includes
a) Chat (I'm basing this on old recollections of WebBoard, not anything current).
b) Loading of pages that are dynamically generated such as the grade book or the entry pages to the discussions.
c) Doing administrative functions like section backup or uploading rosters. (The first two weeks of the semester where students can add and drop courses at will is hell on wheels for us.)
d) Live testing.

We are extremely security conscious at our institution. You can read the information security policy and click through to the first login screen of our home grown authentication system, Bluestem, a Web ISO. This bypasses the normal WebCT Vista authentication pages. If you try this you should be able to get as far as the screen that asks for the NetID. You will note that it doesn't ask for the password there. There is a separate screen for password that appears subsequently. The campus has been audited by the state regarding its IT business practices. Based on that we have a requirement that any critical system must be operated under encryption and with "strong passwords." The CMS has been designated as a critical system.

As you know there was a lot of creativity and development in IT in general at my campus in the '90s. Apart from Mosaic, Eudora was developed here, as was PH. However, there was a feeling that the IT organization wasn't sufficiently service oriented and there was a change in philosophical approach that more or less coincided with the recognition that we needed a CIO. We became a "buy shop" where before we had been a “build shop.” While the campus did some early development in the CMS area (and there were numerous faculty generated projects, Mallard was one example) when our little Center for Educational Technologies started in 1999 it had a mandate to go to market for software. Three years later that unit merged with the larger computer support organization. The culture that I mentioned has been built around this history.

Because of tight budgets, the security issues and that we struggled at the beginning with Vista but now have a robust and stable service, we are extremely risk averse in our approach. While the grass is always greener, we are reasonably satisfied with Vista now and our thoughts are primarily on making the service even better for the campus, rather than moving to something else. We are interested in a federated approach where the various department applications communicate with Vista in some way so as to offer the best of both worlds. At the moment it is one or the other, not both. Our immediate development efforts will focus on improving the roster function in Vista by importing more data from the EDW. Only after we have addressed those campus level integrations will we turn to trying to make the vision of a federated approach into a reality.

There would have to be a notable failure of some sort to make us switch to an open source solution for the core CMS function. That said, if I have the freedom to envision into the indefinite future and not worry about connecting it to the present and then ask in that context what it would take for us to support open source, the first thing that comes to mind for me is for there to be some third party, a commercial entity most likely, something that could provided intensive support on an as needed basis, about implementation issues with the software. I know that on discussion about our portal, which now seems to be heading to a University level project, the plan for some time has been to use U-portal but to outsource a good deal of the planning and project management, as well as the training of staff to support the environment. I see a parallel between that and the CMS approach.

Let me make one last point. Scott Leslie made a point of saying it is unclear that CMS are mission critical especially since they very well may be embracing the wrong pedagogy and not improving instruction at all. I know many feel that way but I don’t happen to be one of them. (See my post on faculty adapting the technology to their needs, not vice versa.) But even if Scott is right on the pedagogy, he is imposing too strong a requirement on what it means for a service to be mission critical. In my view the requirement should be that many people depend on the service and there are not good substitutes that might satisfy the same need.

Let me use PowerPoint as an example. While the technology itself can be used in good or bad ways, I’ve no doubt that much of the actual use is pernicious to good instruction. But if you asked any faculty member who teaches with PowerPoint whether we can take the lcd projectors out of the smart classrooms because their lecturing with PowerPoint is not very effective, they’d either get extremely irate or they would look at you funny and ask in response, what are you talking about? The smart classrooms are mission critical now because of dependency on them. Ditto for the CMS.

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