Friday, May 30, 2008

The Current Drama of Blackboard vs. Desire2Learn

Michael Feldstein has done an incredible job of not only elaborating on the battle going on between Blackboard and D2L, but also in providing very informative insights from interviews and his research. In his latest dramatic post, Feldstein:
  • Shares the response from Bb's general counsel, Matt Small, to Feldstein's earlier report that Blackboard had been contacting D2L clients.
  • Includes comments from a legal advisor to one of D2L's clients explaining his version of the call he received from Matt Small.
  • Accurately characterizes the current state of anxiousness that D2L's U.S. clients feel.
  • Adds a potentially fascinating angle on how statewide university systems might have constitutional grounds for fighting Blackboard directly.

From a current D2L client's perspective, this is turning out to be one heckuva roller coaster ride.

(This photo, as perfect as it is for this post, belongs to someone else. Let me know if it is yours and I'll act accordingly.)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

gRSShopper released by Stephen Downes

As many of you know, Stephen Downes creates and shares information about learning and technologies at a prolific rate. His newsletter has been one of the most useful sources of current news that I've received for years. He has built and used his own custom system for aggregating and publishing material, and now he's released it to the public as gRSShopper.

I'm not sure that I'll be installing it anytime soon, though anyone interested in writing or gathering content and sharing it in multiple modes (site, RSS, newsletter) might want to give this tool serious consideration.

Here's what Stephen wrote when announcing the code's availability:
OK, here it is: the release, under GPL, of my RSS aggregation and personal content management software, gRSShopper. This release is numbered 0.1 and readers should take into account this there is still a lot that could be added to the software. That said, it's the tool I use to run all my web sites (it supports multiple sites with the same installation). I have created a demonstration site where you can go in and play with the site administration tool. I will be adding some examples of the system's functionality over the weekend. The source code is available on SourceForge and also on the gRSShopper site. I don't expect massive numbers of downloads or WordPress-like popularity. Rather, I view it as one prong in my overall research effort, a demonstration, in code, of the concepts I talk about in writing. But I will help people who are trying to install it (within reason) and I will continue to develop and improve the software - and will welcome contributions.

Thanks Stephen for this contribution!

Friday, May 23, 2008

20 New Features in Desire2Learn 8.3

This weekend, Learn@UW (our Desire2Learn system), is down for an upgrade from D2L LE 8.1 to 8.3. Of course, such a big outage means there is absolutely nothing to do around here (kidding of course).

In preparation, I put together some of the key changes that our instructors will face when the system comes up. This isn't a perfect list. I'm sure I missed some other changes along the way. Some of the new features are a result of our tweaking permissions rather than a new feature that the vendor added. Some changes are due to the fact we are getting both 8.2 and 8.3 in this upgrade.

Here's a PDF of the full presentation with screen shots or screen captures.

What's New in Learn@UW? 20 Changes in (Approximately) 20 Minutes

1. Improved browser support. D2L now supports Firefox 2.0 on both Windows & Mac, Safari 2.0 and 1.3, and IE 6/7. (Someone in my presentation asked about Firefox 3 support (he said, "but it's Release Candidate 1"). Seriously.

2. Inactive course indicator.
D2L now displays a little gray icon with an exclamation mark for courses that are not active for student access. This will help cut down calls to the help desk, but I'd still prefer to see a loud red X or something more visible.

3. New icon set. Experienced D2L users might get a bit disorientated with the new look, but overall, it's an improvement.

4. New navigational elements. D2L now has a much more consistent navigational interface. Across almost all tools, buttons and menus are located in consistent places. I haven't measured this, but the navigational improvements seem to cut down on the number of clicks needed to do something.

5. Instructors can toggle the role of users in their course. This was something we implemented by adjusting permissions slightly.

6. Instructors can remove TA's and instructors for their course. Again, this was a UW-Madison permissions tweak to cut down on support cases.

7. New Groups tool on course navigation bar. To leverage the enhanced groups functionality, you need to put the Groups tool in the nav bar. I think the prominence of this tool will get people thinking more about how to consider groups in their course.

8. Groups - very easy setup. By simply selecting a few checkboxes, instructors can create workspaces for their groups that include group discussions, group dropboxes, and group file lockers.

9. Improved HTML Editor. This was a big deal for D2L. I believe they implemented the TinyMCE HTML editor. The editing area is expandable, the buttons are clear, and it should work well across supported platforms and browsers.

10. HTML editor is everywhere. We decided to enable the HTML editor for all tools. The result is that the editor appears in places we didn't expect. Many surprises here, but no red flags yet.

11. Grades - easier interface. Again, navigational improvements make the plethora of options/settings a bit easier to wade through.

12. Grades - setup wizard. This is cool. When an instructor first clicks their Grades tool, a screen appears that lists the current gradebook settings. It's called a wizard, but (unless I'm mistaken), it doesn't walk an instructor through each setting or option.

13. Grades - spreadsheet view. This is even cooler. Instructors have been wanting the gradebook to "act more like Excel". I think this new ability to click on gradebook cells and enter scores will appease many frustrated instructors.

14. Dropbox - ability to multi-edit. Instructors can now edit multiple dropbox folder names and settings on a single screen.

15. Improved accessibility. We haven't done our own testing (and probably won't), but D2L's documentation purports to many improvements aligning with W3C standards. Some stated enhancements include: proper image alt/null text, proper headers/titles for tables/frames, hidden skip links for navigation bars and widgets, and the overall improved interface standardization.

16. Content - expand and collapse modules.

17. Content - multi-edit. See #14.

18. Content - learner statistics. This feature provides content item-level stats such as number of users visited and average time spent on item. The value here is not in analyzing the minutia of data, but rather, giving the instructor a feel for who is using the material (and who is not).

19. Discussions - linked to gradebook. Like quizzes, discussion postings can now be graded and automatically connected to gradebook columns.

20. Discussions - ratings. Interesting. Instructors can optionally enable ratings so that students can rate each other's posts on a 5-star scale. Average ratings are calculated. I'm sure that instructors opinions on this feature will vary greatly.

Like I said, I know there are more changes than what I've noted here. Over time, I'm sure this list would change considerably once we get more experience in 8.3.x.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Blackboard's Facebook App (My Frustrations with D2L Grow)

The Chronicle reported on Blackboard's new Facebook application that sends a notification to students when a course has been updated with new material. It also somehow munges together a Blackboard course roster with Facebook friends or profiles (correct me if I'm wrong here) to better connect with classmates. Institutions can disable this if they want, but I don't understand any security or privacy concern when all Facebook is receiving is a notification message.

This development makes me frustrated with the Desire2Learn Learning Environment for a few reasons:

1. D2L does offer users an Updates widget for their My Home page and course home pages which is very useful...theoretically. Our institution has been advised to disable our Updates widgets due to the load it puts on our system (frequent queries to various tables), potentially degrading overall performance. Right now, UW students cannot even benefit from this handy notification system that already exists within the course management system, let alone in a prominent third-party app that's not going away any time soon.

2. D2L's lack of play in the open architecture field is becoming more apparent. Sure, D2L is releasing some type of SDK soon, but it is literally years behind Blackboard in this area. Blackboard's Building Blocks program has opened many doors for custom development by not only their partner vendors, but also educational institutions.

3. D2L's lack of social learning tools is a growing wart on the system. I hear an increasing number of faculty wanting things like blogs and wikis for collaboration purposes, but D2L is sorely lacking in this area as well. The current blog tool in D2L is for personal blogs (not course-based blogs) and has an interface that will turn people away if they've ever used some of the common blogs available today.

To be clear, I'm not advocating for the course management system to be an increasingly larger beast. Its enormous and complex architecture is costly and fragile. We all would benefit from an opening up of the CMS so that we can hook in our other tools and services, not to mention push out its data when necessary and appropriate.

Well, I'm sorry for the semi-rant here. I guess hearing of this Blackboard advancement touched a nerve of mine! As always, I'm curious to hear of your thoughts and new ideas.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

What Good are Informal Assessments?

The College of Engineering here at UW-Madison has launched an online newsletter, "Teaching and Learning Insights" as part of their 2010 Initiative.

They have been publishing a series of brief articles ("What Good are Informal Assessments?") spotlighting a variety of informal assessment methods. Some topics include clickers, wikis and blogs, and daily quizzes. Obviously, instructional technologies play a key role in these assessments.

The articles are short, well-written, and highlight the teaching efforts of local faculty. I highly recommend it not only for my colleagues here at UW, but elsewhere.

Now, if they could only provide a feed of their content!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Microsoft's attempt at e-Learning development

I typically do not follow Microsoft news closely, however this caught my eye yesterday. Microsoft has released their "Learning Content Development System".

According to Microsoft:
The Learning Content Development System (LCDS) is a tool that enables you to create high quality, interactive, online courses. Virtually anyone can publish e-learning courses by completing the easy-to-use LCDS forms that seamlessly generate highly customized content, interactivities, quizzes, games, and assessments—as well as Silverlight-based animations, demos, and other multimedia. Register to download the free LCDS release, then start creating your own e-learning courses today!

I found that Jan Van Belle downloaded and installed the LCDS last night. He offers a few reactions here.

From what I can surmise, it seems like this is an offline tool. Instructors (or e-Learning developers) need to publish the material somewhere. I also cannot tell if a gradebook tool is included.

Given that this product is for Windows-only, a downloadable application, and instructors must go through a publish step, I don't think this version of the product will take hold in higher ed or even make more waves than a brief mention like this.

Let me know if you've tried out this new tool and what you think about it.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Instructional Innovations with Drupal

I'm very excited to see the services recently launched by Learning Support Services (UW-Madison College of Letters & Science).

LSS has leveraged Drupal to build a few template-based instructional systems: LessonShare and Collaborative Sites. LessonShare is a collaborative lesson-building system for instructors and teaching assistants. Collaborative Sites offers a streamlined course website that provides a wiki-based platform for student-generated content.

I love the innovation behind LessonShare -- create a system that addresses an unmet instructional need (lesson plan building and sharing) -- and I equally love the efficiencies of the Collaborative Sites project. I'm sure it addresses LSS's growing demand for wiki-based course sites.

In an upcoming WisconsinWeek article about Collaborative Sites, Doug Worsham and Sue Weier of LSS answer the question, "How does Collaborative Sites differ from the campus course management system (Learn@UW/D2L)?" Their response:
"We're really not creating an all-encompassing solution meant to support both course administration and student interaction. We're focused on online interaction and collaboration....We're not trying to make the Swiss Army knife, we're making the corkscrew."


Follow-up notes
I see that Doug has posted an online guide to setting up collaborative sites in Drupal at