Last week, I attended an IT strategy council meeting, which included among the topics of discussion an update on the forthcoming university website redesign, and another on the place of open source software at the university. I was at this meeting primarily for the latter discussion, after having been recently asking a simple question, and not hearing an entirely satisfactory answer:
What is the role of open source software and open standards at this institution?
I was prompted to ask this question as a result of a confluence of three quite concrete frustrations that boiled over last term.
First, I (belatedly) heard of Miami’s move to a fully proprietary calendaring and email stack (MS Exchange). Despite all the obvious marketing hype surrounding buzzwords like “unified communications” and such, I knew this move really meant one thing: the institution was hitching its communications fate to a solution that would only work as promised for those users who—whether by choice or some compulsion—used Microsoft products. So without going into all the details, let’s just say I voted with my virtual feet: I effectively boycotted the new system, and now forward all my mail to GMail, which has a (much) better web client, and better IMAP support. Likewise, with its support of CalDav, Google’s calendar application has much better standard’s compliance than Microsoft’s. In short, then, Google’s standards-based solution works better for me than Microsoft’s closed one.
Second, my students and I became increasingly and painfully aware of just how bad our Learning Management System (LMS)—Blackboard—is. One immediate issue was online quizzes, which I had been using as a weekly way of assessment for students. But because of how poorly Blackboard is designed, transferring quizzes and tests across course semesters is both a) really awkward, and b) buggy. For this reason, I had to delay rolling out these quizzes in my large-enrollment class for roughly a month. And this was despite the fact that Blackboard had known of this bug for months.
So this semester, I’ve ditched the quizzes, and I’ve continued off-loading as much of my web content as possible outside of Blackboard. My syllabus is a separate XHTML file, that in turn links to other XHTML files for weekly assignments. My slides are all available online as well (though currently authenticated), again as XHTML files. In short, virtually everything is online, but the only thing I use Blackboard for is the gradebook, and course announcements.
Another issue presented itself in another lower-level class. This course is called Global Change, is team-taught, and focuses on learning about the breadth of geography through analysis of contemporary issues: climate change, urbanization, water, etc. My colleague and I had been frustrated with the consistency and quality of participation we were getting from students that were coming from increasingly diverse disciplinary backgrounds. So, we decided, let’s shift towards a group learning approach where the students drive much more of the content, and can collaborate on learning. The students, for example, gathered the majority of the topical readings for each module. But how to do facilitate this in Blackboard? Our awkward answer was to use the very awkward Blackboard blogging module. While we all saw great promise in the approach, we also felt held back by the limitations of the LMS.
So Blackboard sucks and I’m asking myself, why are we continuing to invest in this software?
The third issue that contributed to my pushing on this issue is my taking over as the director of graduate studies for my department. One of my jobs is to recruit good students. The most important way students find out about our program is through our departmental website. But our departmental web presence sucks because it’s too difficult for people to update content. What content should we be keeping up to date? Well, everything we do: the classes we teach, the works we publish and present, the research projects we’re working on, the students we work with. Ideally, we could easily keep this content updated, and it could in turn filter to the wider university. For example, if we publish information about a talk in our department, other people elsewhere in the university that might be interested in it should be able to be automatically notified.
There’s really no simple way to make this happen at my university. But thankfully the IT people here are reasonable, and so agreed to set up Drupal for us. I had them install some additional plugins such as for bibliographic management. I ultimately want something like this site, which isn’t really that hard to do with Drupal (notwithstanding that I’m really not a fan of PHP).
On the other hand, we have no real infrastructure on campus to make this easy. For example. there are no (good) university themes for Drupal. Instead, every new installation has to either hire some contractor to create one, or do the work themselves (as I am). This is really not good. It’s just too hard to create a decent web presence for an individual department or program. Yes, the IT people are very helpful, but they’re also overextended. Someone needs to give them the resources they need to make it easier on all of us, and so to promote the university’s mission better, and save money while doing it.
But, this issue goes back to the website redesign. Long story short: it seems a fait acompli the university will adopt a proprietary CMS. While I can imagine such a platform may well work for university level marketing and such, I have a really hard time envisioning how it would enable what we need at the department level. I also find is really hard to imagine how such a CMS will integrate in anything but very awkward ways with the learning that happens in classrooms and laboratories around campus.
So this is where things stand now, and I’m not terribly optimistic. My university has already made an expensive and multi-year investment in a proprietary email and calendaring system, and is about to make a similar investment in a proprietary CMS. These kinds of decisions will limit our flexibility going forward.
But the conversations will be ongoing, and there’s enough interest among forward-thinking people here to imagine that there may be room for exploration. I’ve got some ideas on this that I may explore in a future post.