I have spent the past ten years working with Blackboard as a system administrator at multiple higher education institutions in the US. In 2009, Blackboard presented me the Blackboard Catalyst Award for my work within the Blackboard Community.
Currently, I'm the Blackboard Learn Administrator at the University of Missouri. I work with great people and here is the place I post my musings, issues, and finding as I work through the sometimes frustrating, humorous, but always interesting world of Blackboard.
“Pardon the rant, but every time I open a ticket with Blackboard Support it seems they always need another piece of information to investigate the issue discussed in the ticket. I spend days in a back and forth conversation with a support person asking for different files. This wastes precious time, and delays a response to finding a solution. In the end, I get emails from the effected user asking for an update. I become frustrated as well as the user. I need to find a new way to resolve end this lag time.”
That was the rant I had with a colleague a few months back. It seemed that it was time to find a new way to resolve this issue. So I thought that if I could write a script that collects commonly requested information by Blackboard Support, then have it zipped into a file which I could then attach to the case and save some time. I knew that this script would need to collect a lot of information, so I would need to learn what information it needed to collect. I talked with Blackboard Support and they suggested that I collect several different files. I organized the files requested by support into five categories that should address the different issues we commonly face.
This file set includes the following files:
These files should answer most of the questions about how the Blackboard Learn instance is configured.
This file set contains the following files:
bb-access-log from the logs/tomcat folder
stdout-stderr-log from the logs/tomcat folder
catalina-log.txt from the logs/tomcat folder
along with the configuration files we just mentioned
To diagnose a performance issue it is also import and to collect the output from several diagnostic tools, these are collected and included in the file set by the script:
output from the vmstat command
four thread dumps
top commands ran every thirty seconds.
Patch and Updates
This file set contains the following files:
All the files from the update-tools log folder
A list of all patches that have been applied to the server
Course Copies, Archives, and Restores
This file set contains:
The content-exchange-log.txt from the content-exchange folder
This file set has these files:
all safeassign logs
These files and output data were described by Blackboard Support as very important to getting issues addressed and quickly start work on most Blackboard Support tickets. Once I had this information, I then created a script that would collect this data for me, or anyone that needed to open a ticket with Blackboard Support about our instance. In my script, there are several things that needed to happen.
When the script runs on a node, it requests an email address. This email address must match a specific domain before it will be allowed to move on. If it doesn’t match, the script errors out, this prevents sensitive data from being sent to an incorrect address.
Once the email address is accepted, the script creates a folder within the logs directory of our blackboard application server. This is where the files will be copied to create a zip file later.
Within this folder each category gets its own subdirectory where the files will go.
The script then starts to copy the files for the configuration and performance directories.
The script now runs the performance report, top command, vmstat command along with the four thread dumps and zips them into a file before moving the zipped file to the performance folder and continuing to copy performance files.
Then the script copies the information for the patches and updates directory
Then it copies the files for course copies, restores, and archives along with safassign files into their directories.
It adds a readme.txt file that allows the support person to know what information is within the subdirectories.
The system will zip the directory up and email it as an attachment to the email address given earlier.
I can download the attached file and then add it to the case.
This script has saved me a lot of time and energy, especially when I have to collect these logs on all of our production nodes. When Blackboard Support requests this information, I always tell them it’s attached in the first comment. Which normally surprises, and I hope pleases, them. Please feel free to use or adapt this in your Blackboard Learn environment. Below are the readme.txt and bb_log_collection.txt script files for Linux. Sorry for Windows users, but you can look at the information here and hopefully create a script for the Windows OS, and even if a person doesn’t want to create a script, the common files should at least give you a good head start.
This review is by Guy Wilson, Educational Technology Specialist at the University of Missouri. Many thanks for his work on reviewing this application. – Terry
Like many apps, the newest version of Blackboard Mobile Learn (BBML) is a mix. In this case with one well done new feature (integration), bug fixes, and some disappointing omissions. The most noticeable (and infamous) difference, though, is not a software feature, but the change in its financing model.
Previous to version 3.1, Blackboard had partially financed the app through an agreement with Sprint. While this kept the app free to end users, it placed limitations on Blackboard Mobile Learn’s connectivity options. Earlier Android versions could only connect through the 3G data plan if they were Sprint subscribers, while iOS devices could only connect through WiFi. (The agreement predated the Sprint-Apple iPhone deal.) This had always been an Achilles heel, limiting Android use to a fraction of iOS use on our campus.
The new BBML 3.1 no longer has ties to any carrier. Users can access it over WiFi or any cell network, so long as they are on Android or iOS. The trade-off is that they now have to make an in-app purchase before using the app ($1.99 for one year or $5.99 for “unlimited” access). Complaints have been numerous, some of them bitter, and not without foundation. Blackboard might have gained a better reputation by pursuing a freemium model, allowing users to unlock advanced features with in-app payments, while using the basic functionality.
The best feature of 3.1, and one that probably makes the price worthwhile for faculty on the go, is Dropbox integration. Blackboard has executed this almost flawlessly. Assuming that Dropbox is already set up on the device, users only have to click the settings icon, choose Link Dropbox, and grant the app permission to access the user’s Dropbox account. Once setup, using Dropbox is straightforward, in those tools that can make attachments, one need only click the Attachments button. Three icons, one for the camera, one for Photos, and one for Dropbox appear on iOS. On Android, the choices are Dropbox, Local File System, and Other (which allows opening files from various apps and online sources). Click Dropbox, and a file browser opens, choose one or more files, and then click Add.
Instructors can use this feature to create items and add attachments, which has been a major problem for iPad and iPhone faculty for some time. Students and faculty can also use this feature to add attachments to discussion, blog, and journal postings. (Why this was not extended to wikis, assignments, and SafeAssignments is a perplexing mystery.) Anywhere attachments appear, users can save them to their Dropbox accounts.
As good as this feature is, comparison between the iOS version and the Android version reveals a major conceptual problem in the app. Basically, this is a feature that would have made sense in iOS in 2010, but not in late 2012. Most iOS apps that can open and close files can now exchange files with other apps. Consider this scenario. A student creates a long attachment in a productivity app that needs to be uploaded to a blog post. To get it into Blackboard without resorting to a desktop or laptop, she has to first send it Dropbox, then use the attachment procedure described above in BBML. If BBML could exchange files with other apps, she could use an iOS “Open In” command to send it to BBML, which could store it in a cache until it is wanted. This approach has been implemented in other apps (e.g., iThoughts HD) and would be a welcome improvement. Until something along these lines is implemented in the iOS version, Android users have a real advantage.
Another surprising omission in some ways, reflecting the app’s student orientation and missing advanced functionality for instructors, is the lack of access to Blackboard’s file system and content collections. Instructors who need access to the files have to use a browser. If they want to upload or download content on an iOS device, they are limited to using WebDAV, which requires a separate app, like GoodReader or one of Apple’s iWorks apps. (This is also the only way to upload a document larger than 10MB to Blackboard on iOS.)
While Dropbox integration is a welcome addition to the BBML app, it does little to improve the functionality needed by students and instructors alike. The past two years since the app’s introduction have seen some stylized changes and the addition of a mobile test creation tool, leaving many of the major tools with Blackboard Learn unintegrated. A great example for students would be the lack of an option to submit an assignment. While integration between tools like Dropbox might put developers closer to making this option a reality. Students already utilize iPads and Android devices to create and edit assignments. Instructors lack the ability to access the Grade Center using the BBML, an issue that our institution would like to see resolved soon. Too many features are missing from the app, and too many employ the standard Blackboard interface without modification.
Blackboard needs to focus on making its web interface mobile friendly, by applying responsive design elements to its flagship product. At this time, instructors and students who want or need to use Blackboard on a mobile device must use a mixture of apps and a web browser to get access to the product’s major features, while some tools remain inaccessible. There are curious inconsistencies in the web interface. For instance, an instructor using Mobile Safari can edit SafeAssignments, but not regular Assignments.
Worse, the number of apps needed to use Blackboard is increasing. Over the summer, Blackboard released a new app to allow students to access Blackboard Collaborate sessions. Why couldn’t this have been integrated into the main Blackboard Mobile Learn app? At this point, to access class materials in Blackboard or integrated into Blackboard, a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia would theoretically need:
Blackboard Mobile Learn
A web browser
The Blackboard Collaborate app – not yet available on Android
The Tegrity app
The Dropbox app
While Blackboard develops improvements and changes to their Mobile Learn application, there is little communication to institutions about where BBML will be and what it will look like in the coming two, three, or five years. Most of the communication about the app from the company in the past has solely focused on marketing and trying to sell institutional licenses to customers. Blackboard needs to develop and publicize a plan which gives customers a roadmap on how it will integrate the web application into the app over the coming years. That lack of forethought might be hurting adopting and institutional purchases of BBML.
In the end, those student and instructor users who want to keep up-to-date on the activity in their courses and can afford the cost of the app will find it worthwhile. Those who hope that Mobile Learn will be a replacement to using Blackboard on a web browser will be disappointed. The product has found some use, but it’s lack of integration with its own tools and file structures make many in higher education wonder where the company plans to take the mobile app.
Well back to school went pretty well for myself and those of us working with Blackboard at Mizzou. However one word did rear its ugly head over the start of the Fall semester. ActiveMQ. That program could frustrate the Dahil Llama. If you are not familiar with ActiveMQ, and if you are a Blackboard admin count yourself very lucky, here’s a quick breakdown. Every application server in a Blackboard Learn instance uses ActiveMQ. If you are running multiple servers like we do at Mizzou, one of those servers is the broker. Call him the CIO or chief of the application nodes. ActiveMQ allows each server to talk to one another and the broker helps to keep the peace and make sure every server knows how to talk to the others. It’s a great tool, but earlier this year when we would run our log rotation process the servers would not restart. This created some early mornings and sleepless nights. (See An “Active” Week for the Blackboard App Admin… blog post.) We thought we had the problem licked, but it came back and in full force. Again every morning at least one server would not come back properly and sometimes it would be several servers. Our production instance would never be fully down, but service would be degraded for users. Not something you want to wake up to find every morning.
So what was the issue? We were rotating our logs on every application server one at a time with a 15 minute window. This rotation of logs required us to stop and then start Blackboard back up again. We found that when the log rotation started on the broker server, all the other servers would try to update a table in the database. Each server would try and lock the table on the database. There were more locks on that table then Mizzou football players on a fumble. We would then have to call in our Oracle DBA Team to clear the locks and allow the servers to restart.
After our first incident, we collected a lot of data for Blackboard Support. We went through all of it and created a ticket. We quickly had our issue moved up to Tier 2 and 3. After multiple back and forths with the support team. Blackboard recommended us to go back to the original peer discovery mode (see the blog post mentioned earlier). We had changed from this mode after a recommendation from Blackboard Support a few months earlier. We planned to implement the change during a maintenance window. However, our users started to experience major issue with Blackboard one evening. I requested an immediate change to apply the change and it was approved. We did see some improvement, but the issue happened again. Blackboard Support recommended the addition of a new index to the table that all the application servers were trying to update. That was applied as well.
I’m not sure if that issue is fixed or if there will be at least a triology of these posts about ActiveMQ.
The ET@MO team also brought me some interesting issues as well. The music department was trying to print out some grade reports for students. When they tried to use the grade reporting tool, the page breaks were ignored by the printer. After some digging with Blackboard Support they found a patch for this issue. We tested it in QA and applied it this weekend.
We also experienced some database troubles over the first week of classes. Our Oracle Database team found that the issue was a specific query which we reported to Blackboard. We also got a patch to fix that issue and applied it this weekend. We also applied the security patch from Blackboard this weekend as well.
We also applied patches or made configuration changes for the following issues:
When trying to see a student’s discussion board in the Performance Dashboard, a user sometimes gets and error.
When trying to use the Batch Import/Export tool, a warning displays in the command line but the process completes successfully.
When editing a question in an assessment/survey and leaving it for over 20 minutes, clicking on the submit button will give the user an error.
Well I’m sure I will find much more to deal with in the coming days.
P.S. – Much thanks to Cory, Jory, and Pamela in Blackboard Support for the help on some of the cases I mentioned.
Blackboard World cranked back up for a final day of networking with the thousands of people at the conference. I spent the morning with the Central States Blackboard Users Group meeting. This group of Blackboard institutions in Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska works to share information and work to improve online education in the states it serves. I’ve been asked to join the leadership team to help with event planning and other items for the group.
I just left the Arkansas Blackboard Users Group (ARBUG) which I helped to start a few years back. If you aren’t a member of a user group you really should take the time to find one near you and become an active member. If you can’t find one nearby contact community(at)blackboard.com to get help finding one near you.
The final keynote featured Sal Kahn, founder of Kahn Academy, who spoke about Rethinking Education. No matter if you question how Kahn and his team present information, his story from a hedge fund analyst to creating videos that Bill Gates uses will inspire educators. Much of his speech to attendees can be found in the CBS 60 Minutes interview broadcast earlier this year.
Here is another video from NBC News about Kahn Academy…
Bloggers, like myself, were able to sit and type about the conference during these sessions. Behind me was the sketch artist who was creating sketchnotes about the keynotes and a few of the presentations. I was lucky enough to talk to him and he actually sketched the presentation I helped give on Day 2. Here’s a look at his sketches from the Sal Kahn presentation.
I recommend that you take a look at all the sketches that he did. I will post his information up here when I find his card. Note: The sketch artist is Gerren Lamson and you can find him on twitter @gerrenlamson
After the keynote, I made a quick run through the exhibit hall to visit two companies that I have worked with, Sharestream and SmarterServices. Both companies are great to work with and have awesome folks who really want to engage and improve the educational experience. Sharestream offers the ability to stream media into your Blackboard Learn course and can give instructors the ability to accept video assignment submissions. It’s a great tool for those instructors who want to use video to engage students in a course.
SmarterServices offer some great tools to keep and improve quality in your online courses. I was a customer a few years ago before I moved to the University of Missouri. Since then, I’ve been building Blackboard server instances for them. These instances help demonstrate one of the great products they have called SmarterMeasure. The process asks potential students a series of questions and gives them activities to complete. The information collected will be compared to research data on the successfullness of students who had similar scores. It then gives them the ability to understand where they might have issues with online education and can help them know if online education is right for them. If you are looking at ways to improve the quality of the students and faculty in your online programs, take a look at SmarterServices.
After a quick bite for lunch, I started to work on a few emails and get caught up on things before the Client Appreciation Party. I then headed to a meeting with Stephanie Tan, Director of Security at Blackboard. I spent two hours talking with her about the state of security in Blackboard and what the future holds. Stephanie is very easy to talk to and we were feeding off the interest and excitement that we have about security. It was great to learn what is coming and I told her I am very interested in helping Blackboard’s security team create great tools for system admins like me.
And then there was fun…
After talking with Stephanie, I had to go back to my hotel and get some rest. Man, it was going to be a long day if I didn’t get a nap. I grabbed an hour of shut eye then headed to Mardi Gras World where we threw our hats and boas on to celebrate the end to another great Blackboard World! I got to dance, eat, and was surprised to get a awesome birthday gift from none other than Michael Chasen himself. The party continued into the night with an after party at Generations Hall. It was awesome and I stayed for quite a while visiting with friends and dancing. Below is a slideshow of images from the party.
Charlie Rigdon presenting at Blackboard World 2012
After the keynote, I went to a presentation on moving from Wimba Classroom to Collaborate. It was given by my co-worker, Charlie Rigdon. He gave a great overview of all the steps he used as he tested and implemented Collaborate at the University of Missouri. He decided to work on putting Collaborate into production after seeing it during Blackboard World 2011 in Las Vegas. “After seeing the product, I went all in.” said Rigdon as an image of casino chips appeared on the powerpoint side. Many of those attending the session were on Wimba and were trying to figure out how to make the move to the new Blackboard Collaborate in the near future. Many complained that their biggest concern would be the faculty and user impact sans a conference phone number. Charlie explained that MU had gone to a third party to implement a phone conference solution to interface with Collaborate, but it is “rather clunky.” Here’s a look at Charlie’s presentation…
After Charlie’s presentation I headed down to the exhibit hall to meet with Devin and the team from Kaltura. Before talking with Devin, I found this awesome new product called the Swivl. It used your iPhone, iPod, or Android to capture you presenting to your class. First you must download the app to your phone. Then simply put your camera in the dock and pick up the small remote with it. The remote has a microphone and a button to start recording. The device then moves your phone around the room as you walk with the remote. Once it’s done the app will upload the video to your Kaltura instance. I was amazed and thought this would be awesome to use. Think about it. As long as you had a smartphone and these devices in the classroom there’s no need for a webcam and computer to record and best of all the camera will follow you! Here’s a short video about it…
I finally stopped being green with tech envy, I sat down with Devin Beck. Devin works for Kaltura, an SaS product that the university has purchased to host videos. It integrates with Blackboard and so I wanted to know how the system intergrated with my application. Within about 45 minutes my questions about the building block connects, what data was stored in the application, and more were put to rest and I knew how much work getting this system ready for the Fall semester would take.
I then went and listened to Paige L. Brooks-Jeffiers from the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) and Ira Strauss from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University talk about how they use the content system. I will be honest, I thought the presentation was about xpLor the new product I spoke about in my last post, but I was happy to learn more about what these two institutions do. First to brag about Paige. While I finally met her after the presentation, I have admired the hard work she and her team have done over the past few years. Kentucky worked with Blackboard to create one course management system for all the two year colleges in the state. A great way to leverage the money that the state was spending with Blackboard. With that, they were able to get the content system and she spoke about how they use that system with correspondence courses.
The student will get a link to a content folder and a feature within the content system allows Paige’s team to disable access after a specific amount of time, normally a few days after the student must complete the course. It’s a great way to control access to content when you aren’t using a course shell to do so.
Ira, whom I have met before, offered up the unique ways that his institution uses the content part of Blackboard. One of the biggest issues for his institution is size. They have campuses around the world along with students around the world. He gave one unique example that really made me think how to use the content system outside the “box” thought process. Embry-Riddle has multiple sites and their main campus approves and creates the admission and pamphlet information for students. The files are too big to email and shipping the created items too expensive. So the marketing department uploads the files to the Blackboard content system, sends a link to the publisher that is only valid for a week and the pamphlets are made from the file. Amazing to think how a content system can really empower an institution.
The rest of the afternoon I spent it preparing for my presentation with Nita Copeland, Sue Burris, and Mark Burris all from the University of Arkansas of Little Rock. While preparing, Julie Rorabaugh from Crowley College stopped by. If you don’t know Julie, you are missing out. She lands on the lofty list of Dr. C’s that Blackboard has (people look cooler in white doctor coats!). She offers insightful discussion about instructional technology. Find her on twitter at http://twitter.com/rorabaughj
We decided to create a program that would improve online course development in the state of Arkansas by finding exemplary courses and show those to attend the ARBUG conference. Mark was given director’s position for this program and his wife, Sue, was one of the reviewers. Each one of us offered insight on what we did with the program opened our eyes.
Nita was our first winner, she offered her feedback during the presentation on the process and how it improved her and saw what she was doing right. Sometimes instructors don’t get the positive feedback. Our process really focuses on being positive about the work and offering constructive and professional comments to help improve the course. After winning the Diamond Award, Nita’s course received Quality Matters certification and was and ECP award winning course at Blackboard World 2012. Personally, this is a point of pride for me. It was just an idea that I thought would be good. Now I see how it has impacted the state. I find it to be one of the best things I’ve ever done professionally.
Note (July 17th): I just found out that the sketch artist who has been creating the awesome drawings did one from our presentation. See it below:
I ended the night meeting up with the “Boston 8″ These people are all Certified Blackboard Trainers who were certified when Blackboard World was held in Boston. I guess because of Chris Martinez, I’m an honorary member. Each year, we get together for dinner and some lively conversation. These situations offer one of the best reason to attend this conference. Each year you are hearing and developing more information and relationships that will help in the future. Chris is helping spearhead a Blackboard Certified Trainers Users Group. If you are interested please post your interest in the comments or email guru(at)blackboardguru.com