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03/13/2014 - Terry Patterson

Monitoring Blackboard Learn Users on a Shoestring

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.


Piwik: Visits Over Time

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.


Piwik: OS Families   Piwik: Browser Families


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.


Piwik: Page Data


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.


Technically yours,


Blackboard Guru


Terry Patterson Terry Patterson (29 Posts)

Terry has over 10+ years of experience as a Blackboard Learn administrator. In 2013, he authored the first book on Blackboard Learn Administration published by Packt Publishing. He has also been given a Catalyst Award from Blackboard and named a Blackboard MVP for his work within the Blackboard community.

Blackboard Support / Chalk It Up To Experience / Guru Advice / System Admin / Troubleshooting / Work Smarter Not Harder


  • Ken Fraser says:

    Terry, I’ve enjoyed reading your article…it resonates my own concerns and thinking. I have a slightly different role from yourself, this being to deliver Business Intelligence across the Enterprise, the enterprise being Glasgow Caledonian University. We run BB Learn as a hosted service, so we have limited access to our data. Can you confirm whether the UoM supports the entire BB Learn solution internally or if you use a hosted service too? If so, are you using OpenDB to access your data. In terms of your dashboards…is your source data from BB Learn or other solutions too?

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