Thursday, December 24, 2009

NORAD and Santa

CNN published an interesting article on some of the history of NORAD's Santa tracker. Read it here.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Shaping the Future

Wired recently published an interesting profile on Oracle and its CEO's possible role in influencing the computing world as we know it today. And something else the article implies to me is that perhaps Oracle's recent acquisition of Sun was actually pretty appropriate given that Sun's slogan is "The Network is the Computer."

Here's the link (don't worry, it's short for a profile): Time Your Attack: Oracle's Lost Revolution

Monday, December 7, 2009

Everyone Uses Blackboard

Today was the last day for fall semester classes at Johns Hopkins, and tomorrow is the official start of the three-day reading period. Technically my reading period is much longer since my exams don't start until a week from today, on December 14th, but it does seem I will need most of that time to be studying.

It has been awhile since I posted something of substance here, yet I still don't have much time to write anything new, so I figure it's time to start posting some op-eds I wrote for a class in high school. They may be a tad bit out of date, but should not be any less relevant. So here goes the first:

Everyone Uses Blackboard
Monday, March 31, 2008

But why? Should we really be using it?

Consider that Fairfax County Public Schools is facing a large budget deficit for fiscal year 2009. Among the things that were considered to fix the deficit were cutting the subsidizing of standardized test costs for students (2.66 million dollars) and charging students a fee for participating in activities and athletics (2.5 million). (Those proposals were later rejected by the school board after many parents and students protested.) Now consider that out of the 15.4 million dollars allocated to technology, 2.2 million (or 14%) of that is for “FCPS 24-7 Learning Initiative Enhancements.” (FCPS 24-7 Learning is Fairfax’s name for their implementation of Blackboard.) The only technology ticket items that cost more are licensing for Microsoft software (2.9 million) and computer lease costs (4.3 million). Costs in the 2008 budget were very similar, with Blackboard costing 2.1 million and computer leases at 3.7 million. Microsoft and replacing computers are a few pages of discussion by themselves, so I won’t talk about them here.

Okay, so cutting Blackboard wouldn’t completely make up for a student activities fee, but how is Blackboard worth 2 million dollars a year? Most of my teachers have an enabled Blackboard site, but only a handful post anything on it regularly, and next to none use it for anything other than posting syllabi or assignments. I’ve very rarely used the discussion forum tool. The situation isn’t much different on university campuses, according to college students. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t pay 2 million just for teachers to post a few documents online. The 2 million is really going towards often poorly implemented collaboration features that aren’t even being used most of the time. Blackboard, Inc. has largely been able to get away with this since it pretty much provides the only commercially-supported course management system (CMS) available, thanks to its patent portfolio which, up until a few days ago when the USPTO reevaluated and then invalidated all of its software patents, it was able to use to sue CMS startups like Desire2Learn.

On the topic of the discussion forum feature, I have to say that the Blackboard backend is apparently more insecure than I could have ever imagined. When students come together on a forum, it’s understood that they can post and reply. It’s also understood that they can delete their own posts. As it turns out, they can delete anyone else’s posts by writing a little code of their own. There is no backend security protecting one student from deleting another student’s posts; there is just the lack of a button on the webpage to do it. Sending the code that says “delete other post” still works, or so I’ve heard from other students.

Use the 2 million dollars for something else. Blackboard sucks. Oh, but wait, we’ve now become dependent on an online course management system....

Before FCPS even began evaluating Blackboard in schools, a group of Thomas Jefferson High School students developed the first TJ student Intranet, which launched in 2000. One of the features implemented, IOTA, was essentially a simple course management system which would have satisfied nearly all teachers online needs. It would later sit unused as FCPS adopted and mandated Blackboard as the CMS for all schools. When Intranet 2 was developed and launched 6-7 years later, no course management tool was included since it was simply assumed that teachers would only use Blackboard anyways. However, because of the way the new Intranet was designed, it would be fairly easy to add such a system to integrate with the existing Intranet codebase. While that hasn’t happened yet, a group of underclassmen are leading an effort to develop a product they’ve dubbed “Whiteboard,” which would be their offering for a replacement to Blackboard.

Did I mention that there hasn’t been any exchange of money here? All of these student-led efforts have been free contributions, and more or less open source. Apart from in-house efforts, there is also Moodle, a more larger, community-based open source CMS project. Commercial support is an issue, you say? I agree! And yet somehow Blackboard has still managed to be down more than is acceptable for something we pay 2 million dollars a year for.

Universities and school districts, it’s never too late to look at alternatives.