I have spent the past 10+ 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. In 2013, I authored the first technical book for Blackboard Learn Administrators published by Packt Publishing.
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.
Once again, its time to dust off those dice, bad Hawaiian shirts, and laptop bags. Pack up your carry on, cell phone charger, and head to Las Vegas where Blackboard hosts their annual users conference. While in Sin City, attendees expect to hear about different topics around how the company is working to meet the needs of institutions. However what items do users think Jay Bhatt and his team should address from the stage in the Sands Convention Center? I annually post my list of items or topics I want to hear. So without further introduction, here are the top 5 things I would like to hear from Blackboard during this year’s conference.
“Blackboard is getting a facelift!” – Blackboard (like WebCT 10+ years ago) is showing it’s age. In 2000, long time WebCT users considered Blackboard Learn sleek and new. The shiny tools and options were impressive when put up against its rival. Blackboard took the marketplace by storm and faculty clamored to use it. However, Blackboard now shows her age. Other competing LMS products have new layouts, designs, and improved functionality. These items include improved simple workflows that allow more complex functionality. The facelift should also embrace HTML5 standards within the application in the same way it removed the frameset from it’s application last year. In summation, to keep up with the times Blackboard must make a splash with innovative enhancements to the Learn product. Those enhancements will put it on the same footing with other products. Failing to do so is not an option.
“We continue to grade ourselves!” – Ray Henderson stepped down as the President of Academic Platforms at Blackboard in September. One of his many accomplishments was to annually grade the company on their performance of supporting their product, producing quality, and being innovative. With Ray gone, Jay should make sure someone continues Ray’s report card. This is one way to show users the company continues to grade itself on how well it serves customers. The company could go a step further and compare their work to other LMS products. This would show the company not only continues to make sure customers that they continue to improve, but also show they are meeting the needs in the market.
“Blackboard Learn functions fully on tablets and mobile devices without the need of an app!” – Sadly last year, there was really no response from Blackboard on how to integrate their Learn environment into the plethora of tablets and mobile devices that are used in K12 and Higher Education today. While the Blackboard Mobile app has produced limited success; at the current pace it will never meet the needs of users. The entire application needs to be accessible using tablets or mobile devices in a native way. Blackboard Learn must become mobile and tablet friendly. There’s no two ways about it. The mobile train has left the station. Blackboard Learn needs to catch up and do so quickly.
“We are improving how we monitor our cloud services!” aka (Putting it in the cloud doesn’t make it any better.) – While many people envision the cloud as a white puffy object in a sunny sky. I (having been raised in the midwest and tornado alley) see clouds as harbors of doom and gloom. They can bring thunder, lightning, hail, and tornadoes at a cost to life and property. While this might not be an apt comparison to the electronic cloud we all use, that electronic cloud still can have a hefty price when not monitored.
Blackboard needs to announce a monitoring matrix for its cloud products used with self-hosted clients. Currently the company lacks a single website or API that allows self-hosted clients the ability to have up to the minute information on the numerous cloud products used. The only way to monitor what’s going on is to watch for a message on twitter, a listserv, or an article on Behind The Blackboard. Many admins will tell you, this should never be an acceptable standard for an enterprise level company. Keeping admins and users up to date with alerts staged from a monitoring matrix would cut down on additional tickets and questions that come to support. It also shows institutions that the company is proactive in monitoring it’s numerous cloud services.
“Your cloud services change on your schedule.” – A few months ago, Blackboard upgraded the cloud portion of it’s plagiarism tool Safeassign. The upgrade surprised many users because it changed the user interface. The biggest problem was the change happened in the middle of semesters for many.
Blackboard should announce the implementation of new staging environments for major upgrades like the one I just mentioned. This would allow institutions to see the changes and prepare documentation and training. So, for example, when the Safeassign update would come out. Users could move to the new Safeassign instance by pointing to a new URL. Then the old Safeassign would be deprecated and institutions could move to the new instance at an appropriate time.
These by no means are the only things that should be addressed, but its a good start. Now will Blackboard ante up, or fold? We will see in a few weeks.
Note: I apologize for the delay in getting this post up. It has been a crazy time, but more on that in a later blog post.
Zero. None. Null. Zip. Nada. Zilch. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that many user complaints or questions about your Blackboard Learn instance? I think that an empty inbox would make me wonder if the devil himself had made it to Macy’s for a winter coat sale. It can be hard to play defense with a Blackboard Learn environment. I think most Blackboard Admins would like to be slightly ahead of that snowball (or worse) that’s rolling down the mountain behind us. I want to share with you some of the options available to allow you to attack issues before they hit your inbox.
Companies offer a variety of software packages to monitor issues within applications like Blackboard Learn. In this discussion, I’m going to focus on the end user and how he or she receives and relates to the data within Blackboard. Many users might think that this type of software will be a hard sell to administration and I can understand why. Many times, the end user seems to be the hardest part to troubleshoot due to the external variables and if your organization doesn’t monitor this area it can be hard to determine there is a problem.
My organization, The University of Missouri, didn’t have an understanding of our users. We really lacked data about our Blackboard Learn environment. One of the first items I wanted to address when I came to campus was to find a way to collect data to better understand the application and it’s users. We started by looking at Google Analytics. The free version gave us a lot of what we might want to use. However there were concerns about the data being stored on Google’s servers and that based on the amount of data within the Blackboard database; we would quickly have to pay to use Google Analytics.
I started to lose hope that we might find the right product to collect data about Blackboard. Then I was directed to Piwik (piwik.org). I simply describe it as an open source version of Google Analytics on steroids. It addressed our issues with data since the application stores information in a local MySQL database and can handle the amount of traffic we regularly get.
Piwik allows us to see when loads are highest and lowest. This has been a big help in planning maintenance windows. We thought the highest usage of Blackboard was during midterms, however we found out this was wrong. The highest usage, according to Piwik, was the fifth week of the semester. Specifically, monday through wednesday of that week. Below you can see usage over two weeks.
Information like this can be helpful, but many times we need to see more. An example would be what type of operating systems and browsers are used to access Blackboard. Below are two examples; the usage of Apple products greatly surprised us and our administration. With this information we began to test more of our tools on Macs and with Mac-based browsers.
We also can find the user’s location. This information has been great to show the impact of our environment not just within Missouri, the Midwest, and the United States, but also worldwide. On this world map below, the darker the blue, the more users from that country.
While the information we have learned is good, we can gain more by using Piwik. My favorite option displays the views for a variety of pages. Each is based on the URL, so we get a broad picture. We can see usage, average time on page, and my favorite, average generation time. The last one helps understand if there are performance issues with a specific tool when comparing it with others. See the table below – it’s an example of what Piwik can bring to light.
As you can see, Blackboard environment has a lot of information locked away. Piwik offers administrators the key to gain access to better understand not only your system, but your users as well. Knowing your users’needs can put you on the offense to address issues and problems out of the inbox and you relaxing with no snowball in sight.
One of the many topics that my book, Blackboard Learn Administration, talks about is upgrading and installing Blackboard Learn. However I didn’t really go into detail about the process in preparing to upgrade or install a new version of Blackboard Learn for your institution. Well this blog post will hopefully erase that neglect. Let’s review how I prepare for a Blackboard Learn upgrade.
Select a version
Blackboard Learn has been rather stable in their release structure. Recently they announced the move from four releases a year to two releases a year. This might be a good and bad option for institutions depending on the release date and maintenance schedule. I try to recommend the latest version released prior to our testing window. The testing and security scans can take weeks. This along with implementing the new version means it will be about four to five months old by the time it’s put on our production environment.
The biggest concern deals with the amount of time Blackboard will support the version with regular patches for security and other issues that are found. Recently, Blackboard has moved to supporting versions for 18 months after their release. I like this plan because it gives the institution a guaranteed year of support with a version. I’m fond of the yearly upgrade. Some might disagree with this plan, but it seems to be the best based on the following factors.
A yearly upgrade gives a lot of time for security and user testing.
While the selected version is supported and patched, it doesn’t utilize “bleeding edge technology”
Reduces training and feature fatigue for faculty, staff and students.
Additional resources from Blackboard and the community are available
An upgrade can require a lot more than just installing new applications. After many years of performing Blackboard Learn upgrades, I’ve learned that all the parties possibly impacted by an upgrade should take part in upgrade planning, whether that would be the support staff, database administrators, networking teams, server administrators, or security teams. These people may be called on by you, the Blackboard administrator, to help with planning the upgrade or making needed changes. I’ve found a Gantt chart useful to show the upgrade plan. I hand this out at a meeting with all these parties. It’s a big help to get everyone on the same page and have a schedule that we all know and can use when planning this or other projects. I’ve also taken to scheduling monthly meetings with all these stakeholders. While I do cancel some of them, it still gives a regular schedule to discuss changes or issues that are coming up that could influence the planned upgrade.
During the first meeting I just mentioned, one of the topics we talk about is upgrading not only Blackboard, but the supporting software. An upgrade is a great time for server and database administrators to apply security patches or move to a new operating system or application software supported by Blackboard. With our version already chosen, we can look at what software supports the application and quickly plan for this. We might also plan to implement additional hardware components such as load balancers or new IP configurations. These types of changes can be added to our Gantt chart and the update pushed to all affected parties.
When preparing for an upgrade, not does it include changes to the latest version of Blackboard. It will probably include new tools or 3rd party integrations, even editing tool names or improving the application’s customized layout for some. These other items could create more havoc for users if they add to an upgrade without planning.
This is why our team creates a set Blackboard configuration. This means that we all agree early in the upgrade testing process what tools should be installed, what items will be upgraded, enabled, etc. This helps the testing, security, and documentation teams know what the official changes will be. While the set configuration may change, this gives the teams a good place to start and allows for possible changes to be brought to the meetings I mentioned earlier.
The biggest challenge when preparing for an upgrade, in my opinion, is user testing. Does everything still function as we expect in the new version of Blackboard Learn? What the best way to tackle this? The Educational Technologies at the University of Missouri has a team of students who work with Blackboard and we have them help us in our user testing. Each year I create paper copies of several tasks that we expect to do in Blackboard. Each task list becomes associated to an operating system and browser supported by Blackboard. A few of these are available below to review. The student picks up the task list and, using the browser and operating system listed on the front, can complete the tasks listed. They sign off on each task either stating that it works or not. If it doesn’t work, the student writes out an explanation that will help our team figure out what’s going wrong.
In the end, an upgrade plan can help organize the move to a new Blackboard version. It also provides planning for additional services that can impact your upgrade. I recommend picking a version that will give you a few months of testing and do the following:
Look at what upgrade version will meet your needs based on topics such as how long is it supported by Blackboard, etc.
Bring all affected parties to the table, tell them, keep them on schedule.
Find what hardware and software changes can be made to improve support of the Blackboard application
Have all interested parties agree to a set Blackboard configuration for the upgrade for testing purposes.
Find available options to have users test tasks within different browser and operating system combinations supported with the new version.
Best wishes to your (hopefully) successful upgrade!
Greetings everyone! Sorry that I haven’t been able to post but I have recently been dealing with a Blackboard production environment that has spent much of its time in various rings of hell. This has happened on and off since the start of the semester (about 14 weeks ago as of the writing of this post). This has been a very difficult time, but there has been one ray of sunshine for us, our implementation of Kibana, ElasticSearch, and Logstash proved invaluable during troubleshooting.
In my opinion, these three applications are the holy trinity of logging for any application like Blackboard Learn. They allow an admin to unlock the information kept in logs at a cost that most IT budgets can handle (the three tools are open source). I learned about these tools from our central server group (CSG) who had heard about the tools during PuppetCon. (See the video below)
They had started testing them in their “skunkworks” area. During a meeting, I lamented the difficulty searching log files on six different application servers. These difficulties made me create the log collection script which I blogged about earlier this year. One of the team members suggested Logstash, ElasticSearch, and Kibana.
The next week I was at my server administrator training at Blackboard HQ in Washington, DC. During that week, one of the attendees from SUNY mentioned these tools as well. These two discussions had sold me. Back on campus, I quickly moved to test out how helpful and easy it would be to implement these applications within our Blackboard Learn environments.
The three tools Kibana, ElasticSearch, and Logstash all have different parts that they play in the log puzzle.
Logstash – This application brings the logs and event data from one or many systems to one location. The open source product runs on top of ElasticSearch.
ElasticSearch – This application is the engine of Logstash. It collects, indexes, parses, and searches the log data.
Kibana – The frontend of Logstash and ElasticSearch, this application is the Google search for all your logs. The user can be as basic or as advanced in how they want to search to find log information. The latest release of Kibana adds more visuals based on collected data.
We were already using shared network storage to hold all the log files from our production, quality assurance, and development instances. This meant that 95 percent of our files wouldn’t be difficult to collect. We could simply mount the shared storage to collect the data. We then had to use a shipper for the other 5 percent that don’t sit with the network storage, such as tomcat logs. The shipper runs on the application server and sends all data written to that file for indexing and storage. We spent a few weeks making sure that the shipper didn’t put any additional load on the application servers. Next we had to learn how to grok.
Grok is a pattern set used by the Logstash application to breakdown logging input and make it searchable. (See Grok Patterns) We created multiple fields for items such as email subject lines, IP addresses, etc. that appeared in the logs. The fields gave us the ability to leverage the data collected and the application’s indexing abilities.
Once all the data was being collected, groked (or parsed), and indexed. The Kibana application stepped into the spotlight. While Kibana has a simplistic interface, it is powerful and sometimes cryptic. I had to create a Kibana Cheat Sheet for myself and my team on how to use the web application to find logging data.
Once implemented, a few team members started to use the information to collect data about our environment. However our fall semester started out with our environment crashing on a regular basis, nearly as well scheduled as a subway train schedule. The only humor was that we would regularly be able to call the time for these failures. “Will the 11:03 Blackboard train wreck be on time today?” but I digress. During the following weeks we worked with Blackboard Support on various fixes. The use of Logstash, ElasticSearch, and Kibana really helped us find information and learn more about what was going on within our environment. We were able to find ActiveMQ and file locking issues quickly and discovered issues with session spray using our searches. (See some screen captures of Kibana below.)
The only negative thing I can say about Kibana is that it doesn’t have built in user management or the ability to alert users when specific data appears in the logs. GrayLog2 is an open source project that uses ElasticSearch and Logstash. However it does have the components that Kibana is missing. We might look at moving to it in the future. For right now, Kibana meets our needs.
In the end, these three tools have greatly improved how we can use data to address issues and fix changes within our Blackboard environment. I hope that it helps you when trying to decide how to empower your log file data.
Happy Back to School to everyone! I know that the start of the new school year creates many challenges and issues for Blackboard Learn Administration. For that reason I’m teaming up with my publisher, Packt Publishing, to give away a digital copy of my book Blackboard Learn Administration to three lucky winners!
If you haven’t read about the book, it covers many different topics. Including:
Create, install and update a Blackboard Learn instance
Create and manage courses with Blackboard Learn
Create and administer user accounts within Blackboard Learn
Brand Blackboard Learn with your organization’s other web presences
Integrate publisher building blocks and information systems within Blackboard Learn
I'm a Blackboard Learn Administrator that designs and creates excellent online education environments that meet student, faculty, and institution needs. I'm a Blackboard Catalyst Award Winner and the author of Blackboard Learn Administration from Packt Publishing. I enjoy photography, video games, & cooking.
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Blackboard Learn Administration By: Terry Patterson