Category Archives: Travel Reflections

Graduating from Blackboard

Graduation Cake Guy by Flickr user CarbonNYC, used under CC license.

Graduation Cake Guy by Flickr user CarbonNYC, used under CC license.

In August of 1999 I joined a small startup that was intent on changing education using the power of the Internet. My colleagues and I did it. It has been incredibly fun, challenging, full of highs and lows and ultimately satisfying. I got to write and design products used by millions of people. I traveled the world, met thousands of people, saw some amazing things and heard incredible stories. I want to sincerely thank every one of you who made that possible.

What’s Next

Some of you might be wondering what’s next for me. I have no comment at this time. If my life is a reality TV series I’m going to end this season on a cliff hanger.

A Blackboard Standards Update

To follow up on Ray Henderson’s blog post earlier today

I’ve been at the IMS Quarterly Meeting in Lone Star College in the Woodlands, Texas this week. My Blackboard colleagues and I have been showing off our progress on IMS Standards. We are finishing testing of two technologies in our Blackboard Learn product: IMS Common Cartridge and Basic LTI. We’ve taken our integration of Common Cartridge and Basic LTI into the Bb Learn core and included support for BLTI links inside a Common Cartridge Package. I’m also pleased that we will include both Import and Export of Common Cartridge within the core platform. This will do a lot for learning object repositories and sharing.

The Blackboard approach to Basic LTI actually extends Building Blocks technology in a powerful new way. We’ve made it possible to define a BLTI link within the bb-manifest.xml file which means that Basic LTI links can be used within a number of workflows in the application. As far as I know we are the only vendor to allow these more complex link placement options. We also make it possible for administrators to define trusted tool providers and enable course builders to create links to these providers as easily as one would put in a URL. Finally since we’ve integrated Common Cartridge and Basic LTI a CC package that included BasicLTI links can be used to define placement of tools within the flow of course materials. For example one could build a module which ended with a link to a simulation after providing some local training activities.

Blackboard is also making progress on Shibboleth. We’ve joined the InCommon Federation and hope to setup Blackboard as an identity provider. We are working with a handful of customers to work through a few key use cases involving SAML user provisioning and synchronization and sharing courses between institutions.

I’m not going to go into too much detail on our new SCORM partnership, but I think we’ll see that our player improves dramatically as we move to the RUSTICI player.

Finally I know that system admins and managers want to see better integration between the Blackboard Learn and other campus systems. The administrative systems need to work better. I’ve been on the LIS working group now for several years within IMS and so I’m happy to report a couple of items. First the working group has finally finished key elements of the core profile. We’ve worked to refine and simplify the API so that it will meet the needs of integrating administrative and vle systems in both real time and batch scenarios. This newly simplified profile was the last hurdle preventing us from completing our implementation. We’ve been working closely with SunGard in the last few months and I’m optimistic we will have something to show at the next IMS meeting in January. Now we’re still a bit of a way from shipping LIS. The workgroup still has some issues to work out in the Outcomes (grade exchange) profile and with authentication. The timeline for the LIS workgroup is that the workgroup will be doing testing of all profiles but outcomes by the end of January, and then plan to publish and finalize the grade exchange and hopefully be done with the specification by Learning Impact. I’m cautiously optimistic that we will meet these timelines. There is a lot of work left though within the workgroup. In addition to authentication and grade exchange there is a set of fairly complex certification tests which we(the workgroup and IMS) will need to complete, test and review. Still it seems like as an industry 2011 will be the year that IMS LIS is finally ready.

Educause 2010 Reflections

I had a lot of very interesting conversations and attended some great sessions and went to many booths at Educause 2010. What I learned will shape my personal technology advocacy and thinking. Let me highlight a few for your reaction.

1) An IT Labor Shortage?
Is there a labor shortage in IT globally and/or specifically in Academic Computing. Some CIOs, IT directors and even a few software executives seemed to indicate that they were having trouble staffing positions. How will this shortage impact on open source projects, commercial software adoption and companies providing hosting services or SaaS based models. There were lots of opinions by traditional advocates of various models. I’ve heard that it could be very negative for any one of these models depending on what folks decide works best in the end. For example if Academic IT decides they can no longer maintain staff to support open source applications they might go to a commercial provider like Blackboard, or perhaps a hosting company like rSmart. On the other hand maybe the staff shortage stems from the perceived value of owning the whole technology and the role of commercial and services providers. My personal view is that it becomes harder and harder to justify staff intensive solutions. Highly proficient technical staff are in demand across a number of industries. Global demand for IT talent is such that solutions need to focus on driving down their staff footprint on campus.

2) Shibboleth?
Based on the InCommon meetings and Identify Management track it seems to me that Shibboleth is finally gaining real traction. I heard about a lot of success stories. I was even excited to see that a number of Blackboard customers have found success using the lightweight support we’ve made available. As homework from the conference I’m working to get Blackboard back into InCommon and working with our Technology Product Manager to provide a more detailed roadmap on how we should extend Shibboleth. I’ve been doing quite a bit with Open ID over the last year; but I heard pretty clear that schools want Shibboleth for its perceived higher quality security.

3) Open Database Is Making An Impact in Analytics?
I heard quite a bit about small projects to mine the VLE for data. John Fritz at UMBC had a pre-conference workshop on Monday that I heard great things about regarding how they are doing data mining in their Blackboard system to improve outcomes and performance. SunGard announced a Signals building block for Blackboard which provides a nice dashboard with predictive information about student performance. I was interviewed by the guys at Action Analytics and I’ll link to the video when its up on their site.

4) Campus Computing Report?
I was generally pleased to see that the #1 and #2 and #3 trends (eBooks and Mobile and Lecture capture) have been strongly supported by Blackboard’s technology strategy. In the summer of 2009 we released our first eReader integration (a simple building block that supported the Amazon Kindle). Today we have partnerships with the major providers of eBooks including BN and Follett. In the mobile front Blackboard has now gone through two generations of integration with our Learn platform and are seeing remarkable adoption. Meanwhile Mobile Central continues to expand its footprint to more campuses. On the lecture capture front we have a very strong partnership with Echo 360 (provider of wired classrooms), ShareStream and Kaltura (video streaming and management companies) and with the formation of Bb Collaborate there are possibilities for the recording of online collaborations as well. It is good to see that our strategy is validated by the trends seen as important in the industry.
What do you think?

Edufountain: Building and Sustaining Community

I’ve been meditating on the subject of online community, cultures and software development since my trip in March to the annual JA-SIG conference in San Diego, CA. This was the 10th annual JA-SIG conference and it was a time of community reflection. The speakers included Justin Erenkrantz of the Apache Foundation,Jonathan Markow talking about Kuali’s OLE project and Rod Johnson founder of the Spring Framework.

I think that these perspectives on building and sustaining communities are really interesting and worth sharing.

Rod Johnson

Justin Erinkantz — The Apache Foundation No Jerks Allowed

Jonathan Markow — Building A Sustainable Software Community for Academic Libraries Through Kuali OLE

Travelog: Observations of changes in global education.

In my travels in the last year I’ve encountered two big themes which will challenge educational leaders and instructors for the next 2 decades. These changes are a large change in the demographics of learners and the continuous innovation that comes from living under Moore’s Law. For this first essay I’m going to focus on two demographic changes, the rise of a global middle class and the impact of aging populations in developed economies. These factors will change who we are teaching and where we are delivering instruction and how we are teaching them.

For those who don’t know me I travel the world for Blackboard talking to educators, students, academic staff and administrators about their challenges working with Blackboard technology. In the last year I visited 4 continents and covered 200K miles for Bb. While I do a lot of speaking on my tours, I would like to hope that I’ve done a bit of learning along the way. In sharing these observations I hope to get your feedback, confirmation, objections or challenges.

Traveling the world I’ve witnessed first hand the rise of a new global middle class. You will find students from all kinds of backgrounds on any campus in the world, but many of them come from surprisingly similar middle class backgrounds. The family home may have had more or less sq footage, and the food on the table might have varied, but they had at least one television (with satellite or cable), a computer, and phone service for most of their lives. In fact many show up on campus with cell phones and laptops in hand, texting, tweeting and Facebooking each other. I spoke to a university president from Egypt who mentioned that they had built an enormous computer lab recently anticipating continued demand for workstations from students who would not have PCs. Yet this fall most of the students came to class with laptops and the computer lab sits empty, while the student surf the web from the student union using the WiFi. We should not confine this phenomenon of the “have” students to a narrow profile of learners in developed nations. The challenge presented by these learners is that they are brand and value conscious; and willing to travel anywhere. Since these students or their parents typically pay most of their tuition they will go to where they get the best value, including getting on an airplane to study overseas. This means that local institutions must provide high grade facilities on par with other leading institutions. As institutions rise to global standards, we will see this trend increase in the US where students go abroad to get their degree. Universities around the world are getting accreditation through SACS and other well known academic bodies. These universities and host governments are also making major investments in facilities and staff to keep top students in their home country and attract world class researchers to generate related economic activity.
A second demographic shift is the challenge of aging populations. The insatiable demand for skilled labor, while the declining demand for semi-skilled / unskilled labor has left countries facing limits to growth as birthrates fall. Governments and companies have realized that the era of easily importing skilled labor from India, China and elsewhere through programs is not sustainable. As these countries develop their own internal markets and shift from being export oriented, we will see that to remain competitive developed countries will have to train the unskilled/semi-skilled labor force to enter into skilled positions. Furthermore disruptions from technology and trade change can instantly transform a high wage skilled laborer into a redundant unskilled laborer.

These twin demographic changes will be key change drivers in the next 10 years.

A few supporting documents

Hans Rosling’s address at the US State Department “Let My Dataset Change Change Your Mindset” (below). You may also want to this Goldman Sacks report on the expansion of the global middle class.