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McMaster U To Move to Desire2Learn after Blackboard Outages

An Ontario university is switching to Desire2Learn after an academic year filled with problems in trying to keep its newly updated Blackboard learning management system operational. McMaster University in Hamilton made the decision after experiencing two lengthy outages following a move from WebCT to three Blackboard products: Vista (formerly a WebCT product), Academic Suite, and the Learning Environment Connector, according to Susan Vajoczki, director for McMaster's Centre for Leadership in Learning.

According to Vajoczki, the university did an extensive needs assessment commencing four years ago and developed a two-year migration plan for replacing its implementation of WebCT. (The latter was acquired by Blackboard in 2006 and eventually retired as its own product line, though it continues to be supported.) The new combination of products was beta-tested and piloted during summer 2009, with the full campus implementation set for September 2009.

But 90 minutes into the first day of classes, the LMS system failed on the campus and continued failing for two consecutive weeks before it was brought back up again. Calling the outage a "campus crisis," Vajoczki said, "It was extremely disruptive to our faculty, to our staff, and first and foremost to our students. It was also disruptive to collaborative programs we have with some community college partners, such as our nursing program, which is the largest in the province."

As an alternative to the LMS, faculty created Web sites, used other LMS products already on campus intended for small groups of people, distributed materials by paper rather than electronically, and tapped into Elluminate Live. "It was a challenging time for student learning on our campus," said Vajoczki. "Technology was driving decisions about teaching and learning rather than facilitating better teaching and learning. We had new students on campus, and since we're always recruiting, trying to get the best and brightest students, it certainly doesn't help the campus image."

Once the Blackboard installation was back up and running, McMaster continued operations with the LMS. But then the system went down again in January 2010, just as it was once again getting heavy use by faculty and students for the start of the new term. "We made the decision at that point that we needed to look seriously at what we were doing on the campus," she said. "We went back to our original needs assessment, considered our options, and made the decision to go with Desire2Learn."

By this time, students had become outraged with the new system, nicknamed E-Learn at Mac (ELM). Several students created Facebook pages with hundreds of members voicing their frustrations. "Nightmare on ELM street," wrote one poster. "ITS BEEN THREE DAYS AND IT STILL WONT LET ME IN!!" wrote another.

Vajoczki said the university is under a legal agreement that prevents it from disclosing the source of the technical problems.

One product at the heart of the initial McMaster Blackboard installation--the Learning Environment Connector--is no longer offered by the company because its functionality is no longer necessary under Learn release 9.1. This version is promoted by the company as being developed and designed with WebCT clients in mind, offering, according to a spokeswoman, "greater stability in platform and features/functionality that help them move their institution forward." Blackboard continues to work with institutions to develop connectors between its software and other LMSes, such as Moodle and Sakai.

In a statement Brett Frazier, senior vice president for North America Higher Ed at Blackboard, said, "Given how important online learning platforms have become, we work closely with our clients to prevent any interruption to system access, however brief. In this case, we worked very closely with McMaster on the issues that caused the outages and remedied them by providing the on-site engineering resources needed to diagnose and address the issues that arose. Their system is stable now, and we stand ready to serve them in the future as needed."

Through it all, Vajoczki added, "Blackboard has been very responsive in trying to get [the software] to work on our campus." That included bringing technical support people on campus to work alongside university IT staff to help resolve the problems. "Unfortunately, although our hardware infrastructure and our databases were functioning well, the product never met performance expectations for our campus," she said.

Vajoczki, a faculty member who had been appointed acting director of the Centre four months before the first LMS crash, said that "keeping the university community informed during the outages was critical." Vajoczki and her team led negotiations with both vendors as the university ended one contact and created and signed a new one. The temporary role as director has since become permanent.

The university stopped supporting WebCT in September 2009 and stopped making materials available on the legacy LMS in mid-April 2010. Pilot courses will be hosted on the Desire2Learn platform during the summer. Full implementation is planned for the fall 2010 term. Both Continuing Education and a 25,000 undergraduate and graduate student complement will use the Desire2Learn Learning Environment.

McMaster went with Desire2Learn after revisiting its finalists from the larger evaluation done previous to the adoption of Blackboard's solution. Vajoczki said she sees two primary differences between the platforms: "Blackboard supports a whole number of products. Desire2Learn supports a single product. Blackboard customers tend to host on their own hardware. Desire2Learn customers tend to [run it] in a hosted environment, which is what we're doing."

And the latest messaging out of Vajoczki's office is this: "We will deliver a stable, robust system for September [2010]. Our campus requires and deserves a robust, functioning system. We will add additional functionality, like e-portfolios and learning object repositories as we proceed in the coming years, but for September 2010 we will deliver a basic functioning system." The "basics" include the ability to develop a sense of community within a class--specifically discussion boards and posting announcements; to provide for posting of course materials and assignments; and to do assessment through multiple choice testing.

"One of the learning outcomes from this experience is a recognition of how fundamentally important LMSes have become to institutions and how heavily both students and faculty rely on the systems," she concluded.

Editor's note: This article has been updated since its original publication to clarify some points and correct an error. McMaster is currently running an older WebCT Vista platform, not, as previously stated, the Blackboard Academic Suite. [Last updated May 3, 2010 at 6:20 p.m.]--David Nagel


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