Hunter College sociology professor Manfred Kuechler chairs a subcommittee that deals with Blackboard issues. "This semester was an absolute nightmare," he said. PHOTO: DAVE SANDERS
For Jean Weisman, an academic advisor at CCNY’s Center for Worker Education, the crash of the CUNY portal during the first week of the semester meant scrambling to save students from being de-registered because they were unable to pay for their classes.
Brooklyn College junior Hana Quinn-Feit said the early semester failings of the Blackboard 8 instructional software made it hard for her to get into the flow of her classes or decide if there were any courses she ought to drop.
For Julia Rodas, an assistant professor of English at Bronx Community College, the final straw occurred when Blackboard went completely out of service from March 10 to 13. The crash disrupted her preparation for midterms and her tightly packed schedule.
“We get all these messages written in an authoritarian tone telling us to use the technology and then you go with the program and you get kicked in the rear,” Rodas said.
This semester a number of separate computer problems at CUNY converge, causing repeated service disruptions for thousands of frustrated faculty, staff and students. The persistent problems with Blackboard gravely wounded CUNY’s ambitious, eight-year drive to promote use of online instructional technology.
“What we had this semester was an absolute nightmare, and we cannot afford to have that again,” said Manfred Kuechler, a professor of sociology at Hunter College, and the college’s acting associate provost for instructional technology.
Trouble started before the semester began. In January, the central air conditioning was out for longer than expected during repairs to the water tower at the building at 555 West 57th Street, where CIS leases a floor to house its mainframe computers. The portable air conditioning units that CIS had stationed in the data center were not enough to prevent temperatures from soaring, according to Greg Dunkel, a senior Unix system administrator who works at West 57th Street. The heat caused many computers to abruptly shut down, after which the CUNY portal site was disrupted during the first week of the semester.
With the CUNY portal down, Weisman said 20% of the 700 students at the Worker Education Center were unable to register for classes because they were required to write checks instead of paying with their credit cards.
“So many of our students can’t afford to write a check. They use the credit card as a loan,” said Weisman, who chairs the Professional Staff Congress's Higher Education Officer chapter.
As the portal problems were being solved, the problems with Blackboard came on full force. CUNY began the semester with high expectations for Blackboard as all but two campuses (LaGuardia and Medgar Evers) upgraded from Blackboard 6.3 to Blackboard 8. Under the new system, it would now be possible for students to easily enroll in classes at more than one campus and Blackboard support services would be fully concentrated at one location.
Increased centralization left CUNY vulnerable to a series of calamities that its office of Computing and Information Services (CIS) had not fully anticipated.
Blackboard 8 had never been used at a university close to the size of CUNY, where it has 130,000 users including 8,000 faculty members. When the semester started, Blackboard buckled under the load, which peaked at 35,000 users every three hours during peak activity. Sporadic Blackboard service during the first weeks of the semester meant many students could not submit their assignments, take quizzes or stay in contact with their instructors.
According to CUNY Chief Information Officer Brian Cohen, Blackboard was plagued by two problems during the early part of the semester. First, it had a poor load configuration that had not been fully stress-tested as the company had promised. Second. An added feature designed by a separate company malfunctioned and dragged down the system. These problems were eventually resolved by CIS and Blackboard’s support team. Cohen was blunt about the Blackboard company’s initial sloppiness. “CIS believes that load/performance testing performed by the vendor in our existing environment prior to implementation was inadequate,” he said.
Blackboard’s early semester troubles turned out to only be a prelude to the systemic collapse that Blackboard experienced from March 10 to 13, due to a bug in the interaction between the Sun Microsystems operating software and Blackboard files. CIS had not backup in place, leaving CUNY students and instructors cut off from their online hub while technical staff at West 57th Street and high-level engineers from Sun raced to solve the problem.
The March meltdown was “like being locked out of the building,” said George Otte, associate dean for academic affairs at the School of Professional Studies, which houses CUNY's Online Baccalaureate Program. Otte, who is also CUNY's Director of Academic Technology, added that it remains to be seen how the Blackboard problem will affect CUNY's retention of the 700 students in the program, which conducts all its coursework through Blackboard.
Rodas said the March 10 to 13 service disruption thwarted her ability to post her grading format in advance of midterms. Later, when service was restored, she faced a backlog of work that kept her up until early morning for several nights in a row.
“When the system goes down, it has a huge impact on the students, but it also affects our ability to teach effectively as well as our quality of life,” Rodas said.
CUNY is now developing a disaster recovery system for Blackboard.
A Tense Meeting
Nerves were frayed when the Blackboard Subcommittee of CUNY's Committee on Academic Technology met on March 10. Participants told Clarion that during heated discussions, Cohen said subcommittee members should have heeded his warnings about the risks involved in migrating to Blackboard 8.
In an e-mail to colleagues the next day, Blackboard Subcommittee member Kenneth Lord called Cohen's statements “revisionist history.” Lord, a computer science lecturer and assistant to the provost for educational technology at Queens College, later told Clarion, “It was my impression that the CUNY schools were all expected to go to Blackboard this spring. That was our thinking all along. And Brian Cohen's statement about, 'Oh, he shouldn't have let us all do it'--it surprised me.”
Kuechler, who chairs the Blackboard Subcommittee, said it and the Committee on Academic Technology had discussed, their reservations last fall about Blackboard 8 and whether it had been adequately tested by the company, which dominates the market for college courseware. In conjunction with CIS, he said they decided to push on.
“Sometimes you take a risk and something bad happens,” he said. “We weren't totally blindsided. We were all aware we were taking a risk,” Kuechler said, noting that Blackboard 6.3 had deficiencies as well.
Cohen did not respond to questions from Clarion about his recommendations on the migration to Blackboard 8.
At a recent labor-management meeting with the chancellery, PSC officers discussed the broad range of issues raised by the Blackboard failures. “First, we all agreed on the superlative job of the frontline staff at 57th Street in their response to the crisis,” said Steve London, PSC first vice president. “PSC members in computer operations worked into the wee hours of the morning to deal with the multiple crises. Also, we made it clear to management that faculty should not be held accountable in student or peer teaching evaluations for Blackboard's collapse.
While CUNY has deepened its relationship with Blackboard in recent years, some faculty members have actively developed alternatives to Blackboard's closed proprietary software regime.
“I didn't like Blackboard because it was like a box,” says Lilia Melani, an English professor at Brooklyn College. “All of the individuality of professors would be wiped out by the structure of Blackboard.” Having taught herself HTML Melani built her own website. “It looks like me. It represents my aesthetic and how I want to connect ideas and information,” she said.
Jean Weisman, academic advisor at CCNY's Center for Worker Education. PHOTO: DAVE SANDERS
Fabio Carasi, a professor of modern languages at Brooklyn College who is also a strong proponent of open-source software, said, “We are not dependent on the concept of the mainframe with stations that are hooked up to it. It;s a really obsolete concept.” He added, “You don't have to depend on one entity to give you everything.”
Others, however, defend Blackboard's usefulness. Kimon Keramidas, who taught as an adjunct in the Online Baccalaureate Program from 2006 to 2008, said he enjoys working with Blackboard when it functions properly and that it has enough add-on features to be able to customize the site to his liking.
“There's something to be said for the simplicity of the log-ins and interface,” he added.
Moving away from the integrated CUNY-wide model provided by Blackboard would place more responsibility on each campus to maintain its own online staff and equipment. And while this would reduce the possibility of the kind of systematic failure that occurred earlier this semester, it would also lead to unequal service for campuses that have fewer resources.
“Most of the senior colleges are held back,” Kuechler said. “But if we are one University, then this is what comes with it – the leveling of the haves and the have-nots.... How much do you believe in a unified CUNY?”
Noting that open-source courseware has “significantly matured” in recent years, Otte said CUNY is looking to launch an open-source pilot project in conjunction with campuses and faculty who would want to give it a try. Kuechler also supports exploring open-source alternatives, while acknowledging it will not be easy to find another system that can eventually operate on the kind of campus-wide scale that CUNY is seeking.
“The cost to switch to another learning system would be enormous,” Kuechler said. But he added, “We need to start looking into other systems so they don't think they can take us for granted.”
“That's the box CIS put CUNY in,” said Stephen Brier, the CUNY Graduate Center's senior academic technology officer, “and it's a very difficult box to get out of.”
Whatever solutions emerge, LaGuardia English professor Lenore Beaky said it is essential that CUNY get it right.
“We now depend on these technologies,” she said. “The University encouraged us to use them. So they have to work properly.”
Blackboard is seeking to buy rival Angel Learning for $95 million in cash and stock – and the move is being scrutinized by the Department of Justice. In a May 22 filing with the SEC, Blackboard revealed that the DOJ had requested information about the acquisition and its impact on competition. Angel Learning, which currently serves 400 colleges and elementary and secondary schools, has become an increasingly popular alternative to Blackboard in recent years.
This article is adapted from one that originally appeared in the May issue of Clarion, the newspaper of the Professional Staff Congress, a progressive union that represents CUNY’s 22,000 faculty and professional staff.