Thursday, August 28, 2008


I tried to think of a creative title for this post, but for some reason just thinking about Blackboard sucks the creativity and life out of me.

In a class I'm taking that just started this week, we are discussing the relationship between technology and writing, in terms of various points of view - legal, cultural, etc. I mentioned that it might be worth posting our weekly reading responses on our blogs like we did in my Open Ed class last year, especially since blogs and other Web 2.0 tools are included in the topics we'll cover in the class. There was absolutely no interest. Someone mentioned that we could use Blackboard, and everyone got so excited. I think everyone but me voted for that option. I abstained. It wasn't worth taking on a room full of English majors on the first night of class. All I'm thinking about at this point of the class is the student who complained to me about how she shouldn't need to take the CIL tests, since she is an English major, so obviously knows all about computers already - and immediately proceeds to fail the MS Word test. We'll see how this class goes.

Greg Francom posted a little while back about how as an LMS, Blackboard is inferior to Moodle. The analysis is mainly based on availability of features and the number of clicks and page loads it takes to perform various tasks. Moodle required an average of just over half as many clicks and page loads as Blackboard required to do the same tasks.

So what about Blackboard's other products? Well, USU just went live with the Blackboard Transaction System (card readers), part of their Commerce Suite. The old campus card system had a lot of manual processes, was prone to being down (every Tuesday for our office it was offline), but it generally did what it needed to do in terms of checking access permissions at computer labs and athletic or artistic events and paying for purchases around campus. It needed to be replaced when the guy who was in charge of the system retired, since no one else knew how to keep it running.

The system that was chosen by someone at USU to replace it is Blackboard. I assume there was some kind of bid process, but I don't remember hearing anything about it until it went live. It would have made sense to ask those of us that use card readers what we needed, but that's an institutional issue, not necessarily a problem with Blackboard. They were most of the way through the process of setting up the new card system before anyone even remembered that computer labs use the card readers. Oh, yeah, um, we'll get you readers, too, I guess, if you really need them. Months later as Fall semester is just around the corner, I ask when the new card reader system will be available, and oh, well, everyone else already has their readers...we forgot about your computer lab. I got forgot twice. Nice.

So the new card readers don't have a timecard system, but to tell the truth, the timecard system on the old readers was somewhat suspect, so we never used it. We still just use paper timecards. Score is tied at 0.

There were two things we did with the old card readers - check that people who come into the lab are students and charge people for printouts. With the old readers, you would swipe the card and get either a short or long beep, meaning let them in or not, and the display showed the student's name.

With the new system, you have to check to make sure you are in the event entry screen, not the charging or balance screen. If you're somewhere else, you hit Clear a couple times, then event entry, and then swipe the card. Score 1-0 for the old reader.

The new readers don't show the student's name. Score 2-0 for the old reader.

To charge a student printouts in the old reader, you press the printout button, type in the number of prints, enter, and swipe the card; it would automatically choose the print account first and when it ran out, the Aggie Express account would be charged. To charge printouts in the new reader, you push clear, then charge, then tender type, then print or Aggie Express account, type in the amount of money (not number of printouts) to charge, hit enter twice, swipe the card, press enter, press OK, and press clear. Score 3-0 for the old reader.

The old reader would let you charge more printouts than the student had on their print account if you put in more printouts than they actually had left. 3-1.

The new reader isn't down every Tuesday. 3-2.

The person in charge of the new card readers on campus doesn't know how to configure the system right so we actually have the right permissions to charge people. She tells us it is user error and that she can come train us on how to use the card reader, then realizes she had something set up wrong after all. 4-2.

I'm supposed to be able to login to a website to see logs of both what money we charged to people and who used the lab, whereas I could rarely get data about activity in the old card system without calling someone that was hard to find to ask for the information I needed. 4-3.

Since we type in the amount to charge, instead of the number of printouts, we can charge what we want for printouts (rather than the standard $.06 campus rate), plus we can charge the test fees that we collect for some other tests we proctor for which we've always had to take cash or check. 4-4.

So as of right now, it's a tie. If they could streamline the process so there aren't so many button presses to perform our tasks, the Blackboard system would win hands down. We have the old system that was simple but limited, compared to the new system that is overly complex with at least a couple more features.

The LMS and Transaction divisions of Blackboard are separate, but I wonder if they may share some of the same UI designers and QA testers between them.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Fall is in the Air

The first day of school is finally here. I'm hoping that all the things at work we were going to finish over the summer will be ready by the end of this week.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Microsoft has reportedly hired Jerry Seinfeld for an ad campaign to counter Apple's well known Mac vs. PC ads and address some of the issues people have with Vista. Have Bill and Steve ever watched Seinfeld? You recall that Jerry's apartment on the show had a Mac sitting on the table in the back corner, although I don't remember him ever using it. Hopefully they will be good ads, although the campaign is put together by the same firm that gave us the freaky Burger King king, so we'll just have to wait to see.

I'm running Vista on my work machine and have issues with it, of course, but overall I don't think it's a huge deal. When I think back to the early days of XP, it's all the same complaints about driver and program compatibility problems, unnecessary GUI changes, need for better hardware to even run it, etc. Fast forward 7 or 8 years, and we see Save XP petitions to pressure Microsoft to allow users to continue purchasing XP licenses. I imagine Vista will be generally accepted at some point like XP was.

The question, however, is how much longer will the operating system even be relevant? I mean, there will always be such thing as an OS of course, but as we move more and more to accessing our applications and data via multiple combinations of devices and networks, the PC just seems less important as a standalone machine.

Perhaps Seinfeld can delay Microsoft's demise temporarily.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


It's been almost two years since Comcast hooked up our Internet and TV. The installer was new and didn't install the proper filters on the line to match the plan we signed up for.

Photo by Vik Nanda.

Last week a Comcast truck was parked on the street, and later in the day we noticed half our channels were gone - the half we weren't paying for.

Today we had a visitor during dinner. A Comcast salesman showed up at the door to see if we wanted to upgrade our TV package to prepare for being inside more during the upcoming winter.

That was convenient timing for him to show up just a few days after fixing the channel filter to lock down our access. It's just as well, since TV is such a waste of time anyway.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Professionals vs. Amateurs

I don't have a problem with professional athletes competing in the Olympics. I do, however, prefer watching collegiate sports over major league sports, because of the raw energy and greater likelihood of seeing mistakes or spectacular plays. Both ends of those spectrum are removed in the major leagues.

On a similar note, the professional broadcasters are apparently trying to keep the amateurs out of the olympic coverage business. With the collaborative tools available to us now, the global community can share video and other information faster than the professionals can block it or take it down, as Ephraim Schwarts points out, based on an article from the New York Times.

I'm already looking forward to the next Olympics to see how much further technology has progressed. The amateur broadcasters are providing more real-time access than the professionals, although the quality is not as high. In two or four more years, there will be both higher quality video and audio from the amateurs, as well as better distribution methods to broadcast to the masses. Just as mainstream newspapers are starting to feel the pinch from online news sources taking away their subscriber base, the television networks are soon to follow.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Camp is Open

Our Troop had planned on going to Camp Loll, right up by Yellowstone the last week of June into July, but while I was out of town the week before at a family reunion, I got a call to let me know that Loll was still under several feet of snow. We had to either switch to a different week or go to Camp New Fork instead. After my Assistant Scoutmaster called around to all the boys, we figured that no matter when we go, someone can't make it, so we might as well go the week we had originally planned.

I had wanted to go to Loll or New Fork, since I hadn't been to those camps before and had heard they were nice. Both camps are in Wyoming, a few hours apart. But I was scared of New Fork.

The problem was that New Fork runs an open program. That is, instead of signing up for classes that you attend at a certain time, you don't really sign up for most things. There were still a few classes that they taught at certain days and times, but most merit badges and activities are just whenever you want to do them. As a Scoutmaster that wanted to relax at camp while the boys head off to their classes, this scared me. As a constructivist and a firm believer that the boys need to run their own program and learn to be leaders through a combination of their own successes and failures, this should have been the ultimate camp. But I was scared nonetheless, which was why we picked Loll. I picked Loll.

Well, I have to say that it worked out rather well. I would even go so far as to say New Fork was one of my favorite camps. I imagine there would be some groups of Scouts for whom New Fork would not have ideal. We had it good, since we had all first year campers who worked on all the same merit badges, so my ASM and I went around with them to all their classes. If they'd all been at different classes they might have had a harder time staying on task without our gentle reminders. It also helped that the dad of one of the boys and the former Scoutmaster who was up the first couple days with us told the boys he'd take anyone to dinner if they earned 7 merit badges. So they were motivated by a reward and were lacking the influence of older boys who might have taught them some of bad habits that are sometimes learned at camp, like skipping classes.

We pretty much did all of the canoeing merit badge by ourselves the first day, with just a few things that I didn't know so we had to follow up with the waterfront staff later. We also worked on a couple other merit badges in camp ourselves. For the ones they worked on with the camp staff, they just pretty much showed up and worked on things and signed off each requirement for the merit badges as they completed them with what I'd call a junior counselor. When all the requirements were completed for a given award, they'd go to the adult over that area, who would then sign off the whole thing after doing a quick review of what they had already passed off.

Normal merit badge classes at other camps go the whole week or sometimes half the week, and if you attend every day (even if you're not paying attention), you earn it. The problem with that is if you already have done much of it or are quick at completing things, you still have to wait the whole week. With the open system, if you finish something in one day, you can start something else without missing out on what they did the first day in the other class.

Part of the benefit was kind of a psychological thing. At regular camps, usually kids will sign up for 3 or 4 classes and attend those classes in the morning each day. Then they will have free time for a few hours in the afternoon. There are merit badges that can be earned in free time, and some kids take advantage of those to earn several more on top of the classes they signed up for. However, most kids want to play during free time. It's free time. Come on, we should play, go swimming, take the boats out, carve spears, burn stuff, etc. The difference with the open system is that there is no separate class time and free time, just program time. So not having a designated free time (even though it was really all like a regular camp's free time), there was less feeling of entitlement to a break, since it was all program time.

There were a few things I didn't like, such as the junior staff not being empowered to do anything out of the ordinary - almost every question or request I had was answered with a referral to the area director. Also, there were several merit badges that they didn't have all the materials needed to complete it at camp, so the kids had to take a partial home to finish up. I should also mention the freezing cold water, but there's not much they can do about that one.

As we talked about where the boys want to go next year, they all wanted to come back, since none of them wants to have to sit through a boring class. So they worked harder than they would have sitting through boring classes and enjoyed doing it. I like trying new things, so I may pick Loll again next year, but it really is the boys' program, so if they can put together a cohesive argument, it may be New Fork again.

Our troop, the troop from Salt Lake we shared our campsite with, and our troop friend.