Friday, August 17, 2007

URGENT Message re Fall 2007

URGENT Message to Blackboard Faculty for Fall 2007:

Background: Those faculty who use online testing know that there have been problems with this Blackboard feature for several years. Specifically, students have been “knocked out” of a quiz or test, meaning that they are unable to complete the exam unless the faculty resets their test. For the student this means they start over - sometimes multiple times. For faculty, this means resetting quizzes and possible compromise of the integrity of the testing process.

Over the years, we have identified things that students can do to minimize this risk (browsers, settings, actions during a test, etc.) and have communicated these to students and faculty.
We have also identified things that faculty can do when creating their tests to minimize these risks (details available in our training materials, etc.)
Despite these efforts, there have still been times when students were not able to complete an online test on the first attempt and some of these were due to system congestion issues because of Blackboard's poorly designed software.
Substantial increases in hardware over the years has not been able to reduce these occurrences to zero.

Between Spring and Summer, we undertook a massive cleanup of our system including a fresh install of the software and re-creation all courses from an archive to try to ensure these problems would not continue to occur.
· While this process did have many positive effects, Blackboard did not warn us that the archive and restore process with this version was NOT reliable.
· Because of this, some courses failed to restore at all and others had missing content.
· We became aware of these problems in early June and began communicating with faculty to get them to check their classes.
· Over the summer many missing classes and many with missing content have already been restored.
· This process may need to continue as faculty who have been away all summer locate problems in their courses just before the term starts.
· If you have not yet checked your Blackboard sites, please consult previous emails about how and what to look for in your classes.
· This course restoration process and other administrative processes severely tax the system and degrade performance for users (again due to inefficient software code).

Another cause for concern is that during the summer finals week, online testing problems became apparent at usage levels which are a small fraction of the average fall or spring semester usage.
During those times, students could not complete their exams and many faculty were unable to access the grade book.
These problems occurred when as few as 75 faculty and students have been using the system. (In a primary semester Los Rios accommodates 500 to 700 concurrent users during the more active parts of each day.)

In preparation for a fall semester where 7% more courses are scheduled to be taught as fully online courses, we have been forced to take action to ensure that Blackboard can function smoothly throughout the term. The actions items decided upon for Fall 2007 are detailed below.

ACTION ITEMS:

1) Blackboard coordinators are identifying and removing any unnecessary courses from the system – especially those with large numbers of questions pools and tests.
a) You may be contacted if you have multiple copies of your course in case you may not need them all this semester.
2) The Blackboard system will not be available from 2 am – 6 am every day in order for ALL course maintenance activities to occur during that time when users are not on the system.
a) That may mean that there will be a delay in getting courses restored, copied, etc. since these actions will now be queued and run overnight. If there is a backlog greater than the time available each night, then there could be longer delays in completing these tasks.
b) PLEASE let the coordinators know immediately what you need for Fall semester so that all of this work can be done this week BEFORE the term starts.
3) Some Blackboard functions have been blocked from faculty use to preserve good performance for all users.
a) Faculty cannot remove a quiz pool from the Pool Manager or a Test from the Test Manager. You CAN "undeploy" or remove an instance of a test from a content area and from the gradebook.
i) If you need to have quiz pools or tests removed altogether, provide the exact information to your college Blackboard coordinator.
b) Faculty cannot create an archive or export of their course.
i) If you need this, your coordinator can assist.
c) Faculty cannot import a package of course content into their existing class.
i) Contact your coordinator for assistance.
ii) You CAN import question pools into the pool manager.
4) We are now requesting cooperation from the faculty who teach web-enhanced classes in reducing the use of online testing. (Online and hybrid classes can continue to use online testing.)
a) If you can reasonably use an alternative face-to-face method for testing (or submitted projects rather than exams) without undue hardship, we are requesting that you do so.
b) Online instructors have no other options and we need to ensure that the testing feature is not overtaxed and is working satisfactorily for those classes who must use it.

The Blackboard coordinators and the District Office IT staff have put in many long hours to try to resolve these problems and will continue to do so. We are also trying to escalate the process for selecting another Learning Management System (LMS) and we are looking at other options to try to make sure that Blackboard will be reliable and available to all for whatever remaining time we have on that system. You will have lots of opportunities this semester to have input on the selection of another system so we hope you will be involved in that process.

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