Bb OWL Retirement Countdown

On January 30, 2012 directed mail was sent to all faculty and staff using Bb OWL during the Winter 2012 term. The title of the message was Retirement Planning for Bb OWL (aka BLS).

In case you missed that message, what follows is the generic version.


Date:     30 January 2012

To:          George Ramsay (gramsay@dal.ca)

From:    Phil O’Hara, Integrated Learning Online, (phil.ohara@dal.ca)

Re:         Bb OWL (aka BLS) Retirement Planning

With the start-of-term surge behind us all, I write to update you about the retirement schedule for Bb OWL (aka BLS). Also in this message, my goal is to advise about several resources we’ve setup to help as you transition to our new Learning Management System (LMS) called BbLearn.

Allow me to begin by emphasizing that I, and my colleagues on the ILO Team, strive to make your migration to BbLearn a positive and comfortable experience. What follows are some important dates through next few months:

  1. Bb OWL is scheduled for retirement at the end of the winter 2012 term (May, 2012).
  2. During our current term, both BbLearn and Bb OWL are in use. Kudos to those faculty members running their classes in BbLearn this term. To date, those who made the leap, report that although different, BbLearn is easy to use, reliable, and better organized that our current system. Personally I find BbLearn terrific and hope you’ll share my enthusiasm.
  3. For the summer 2012 term onward, BbLearn is ready for use with all courses and online communities. With that said we have a handful of online communities, a few programs through the College of Continuing Education which started last fall, and a couple of huge courses which will remain for a couple of months past the retirement date.
  4. Bb OWL is scheduled for removal from service (the date the plug is pulled) on August 31, 2012. Beginning soon after the retirement in May, we’ll be making course-by-course backups and storing them for safe keeping in our departmental vault. We will use these backups to restore courses inBbLearn on request.

To assist you with the transition:

  1. I invite you to setup a personal Sandbox on BbLearn. You can use your Sandbox to become familiar with our new system. To do so, simply send email to ilo@dal.ca asking for a personal Sandbox.
  2. I encourage you to set aside a half-day during the February 20th Reading Week to become familiar with BbLearn.
    1. You might consider registering for an ILO workshop during the week by clicking on the Train F2F button at http://ilo.dal.ca .
    2. For those who like to learn about technology on their own, you can click on the Train Online button at http://ilo.dal.ca .
  3. You can always contact the ILO Team to arrange for a one-on-one consultation with any one of our instructional specialists.
  4. We are currently training 3 student employees on co-op work terms to be available for one-on-one assistance. By the Reading Week they will be ready to assist with migrating and/or setting up courses in BbLearn. If this service is of interest, please send a note along to ilo@dal.ca .

In addition to participation in the events starting on the Reading Week, I encourage you to visit http://blogs.dal.ca/elearning and scan the articles at that location. You should also find our FAQ at http://ilores.ca/bblearn-move/ beneficial.

On a final note, I and my fellow members of the ILO Team appreciate how daunting a transition to a new system can be. We are here to help with your migration and we’re confident that once you make the transition, you will discover numerous improvements in BbLearn which make the effort worthwhile.

Regards

Phil O’Hara

Academic Continuity

With the possibility of a Transit strike, preemptive action is called for to reduce potential disruption to academic continuity. Dalhousie owns instructional resources to allow students and instructors to continue their academic progress with minimal disruption even if class attendance is not possible. This article provides advice for instructors seeking ways to mitigate impact in the event of a significant disruption due to a Transit Strike.

The underlying principle is to be prepared. Have methods for students to catch up if they miss classes. Consider how you will carry on if you are unable to find transportation to campus.

Planning Ahead

  • Develop and document a communications strategy. Advise your students where to find course information. Include this information with your course syllabus.
  • Plan how you will maintain contact with your Teaching Assistants, Markers, other Instructional Staff, and the Administrative Team in your department. Create a mailing list of people who need to be kept informed about the course in case of illness (yours or theirs).
  • Set up an online course space in our Blackboard (Bb) system and post (at a minimum) your syllabus, calendar, and information about assignments. Update as required.
  • Document your plan regarding make-ups and absences in clear and concise language.

Continuing Class if You or Students Cannot Get to Campus

For Lectured-based Classes

  • Post documents and assignments online in Bb.
  • Record the class lecture for students to view later.
  • Download and install a recorder from capture.dal.ca. Narrate and record a slide show from home in Powerpoint for students to play back.
  • Adopt Bb Collaborate to hold real-time classes.
  • Use the Bb Announcement tool or Wimba Podcaster to post announcements and set up RSS feeds.

Seminar Class / Discussion

  • Use Bb‘s Discussion Board or Wimba’s Voice Board for class sessions.
  • Use Blackboard Collaborate to hold online real-time meetings.
  • Use Wimba Voice Direct for an audio conference with small classes.

Lab Classes

  • Locate acceptable virtual labs online for students to complete. Blackboard Collaborate is an excellent choice and available for use by any instructor inside a Bb section.
  • Arrange alternative activities in place of the lab.
  • Hold Online Office Hours in Blackboard Collaborate.
  • Use Wimba Voice Direct for an audio/text chat with students or
  • Use the Chat / Whiteboard tool in Bb.

Handling Passed-In Assignments

  • Post assignment instructions and related materials using the Bb Assignment tool.
  • Have students submit written assignments online through Bb.
  • Grade assignments and post grades online inside Bb.
  • Use the Bb Assignment tool to provide student feedback.
  • Use Wimba Voice Email to comment orally on student work.
  • Use the Bb Assessment tool to offer online quizzes, exams and questionnaires.

Meetings and Group Work

  • Offer students online tools for group work such as the Bb Group tools, the CampusPack Wiki, or a Blackboard Collaborate with presenter access for students.
  • Use Wimba Voice Direct to communicate one-on-one so you can have a voice conversation with students.
  • Allow students to use Wimba Voice Direct to have team conversations.
  • Hold online meeting with Blackboard Collaborate to share visuals and have a voice conversation.
  • Use the Bb Announcement and Calendar tools to advise students of your availability.

Bb OWL Retirement

As we head into our final term with Bb OWL, its time to start thinking about moving to Bb Learn. There are numerous resources available for self-study along with people to help with the transition. Let me summarize a few of your options:

  1. FAQs – Moving from OWL to Bb Learn.
  2. Work at Your Own Pace Online Materials.
  3. Send a note to ilo@dal.ca asking to have your course(s) on Bb OWL migrated to Bb Learn. The content (i.e. PDFs, URLs, quizzes) migrates in-tact but requires reorganizing. You might prefer to use this time to rebuild from scratch as Bb Learn as this is an opportunity to modernize your course to a truely Web 2.0 environment.
  4. Scheduled Workshops (starting late in January).
  5. Departmental Workshops – Contact Aaron Panych to arrange via emial at Aaron.Panych@dal.ca or phone at (902) 494-1224.
  6. One-on-Consultations with members of the ILO Team – Send a note to ilo@dal.ca or call (902) 494-3456.

On a final note, Bb OWL is scheduled for retirement at the end of the winter 2012 term (end of April). There are a handful of in-progress programs continuing to the end of June.

The pull-the-plug date for Bb OWL is August 31st, 2012.

Please take action sooner than later and call on ILO for help as required.

Bb OWL Fallout

When you login to Bb OWL, odds are it looks just like it did prior to the December break. In fact, the entire system was recreated from the ground up to correct a database problem that surfaced in mid-November. The decision to take this drastic action came after exhausting all normal attempts to fix the database, extensive consultation with the vendor, and clear evidence that problem was worsening. Although it may have appeared OK to you, from all the background error messages, it was clear we were on the path to a full failure of the database. If this was to occur during the term, we would need days to reconstruct our system from backups and everything people did between the end of the last backup and the moment of failure would be lost forever.

In a nutshell, here’s what was done over the seasonal December break:

  1. A new, and empty, instance of Bb OWL was created. The original Bb OWL is still running but only accessible so members of the ILO Team can bring backup courses and restore active courses on the new system.
  2. The new Bb OWL was configured to connect to other services like Wimba Classroom, etc.
  3. All 37,155 active Dalhousie usernames (or NetIDs) were re-created. There are students, staff, faculty and alumni.
  4. All 15,400 non-Dalhousie usernames were re-created. These are for folks who do not have a Dalhousie NetID but are involved in professional or community programs.
  5. On a course-by-course basis, 1,900 sections were backed-up on the old Bb OWL, transferred to the new Bb OWL, and restored. Only full-year (X/Y) sections and winter 2012 sections along with active community spaces were brought forward initially. It turns out several fall 2011 courses needed to be migrated so students could complete assignments and/or for faculty to complete marking.
  6. As with any major system upgrade, there are always minor configuration adjustments requiring attention. For example, none of the recent Browsers (IE, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, etc.) have been certified by the vendor. With each new release, we’ve adjusted a configuration file in order to eliminate the error message.

Fall Out aka Continuing Problems

  1. SafeAssign is not working with the new instance even though is fully operational in Bb Learn. We continue to work with the Vendor to resolve this problem. Although not a fix, if you must have this tool right away, we can help with moving your section to our new Bb Learn environment. As an alternative, you might want to keep your course going in Bb OWL and only use Bb Learn for SafeAssign.
  2. Although all usernames were created before any content was moved for old to new Bb OWL, we have found that a handful of usernames get recreated with a zero at the end when content is restored. In this situation, the owner now has 2 usernames on new Bb OWL. This requires manual intervention by a member of the ILO Team which takes time. We hope to have these corrected shortly.
  3. We have a handful of very large courses which require hours (up to 18) to restore.
  4. There are more completed courses (i.e. fall 2011 sections) people require on new Bb OWL than we estimated. We continue to work through the requests to have these restored as quickly as possible.

As much as I regret this disruption in service, as mentioned earlier, it was imperative that we take immediate action. The risk of a catastrophic database failure appeared imminent. That would be a disaster.

Might I close by apologizing for the inconvenience. I hope you continue to trust that we are here to support your instructional efforts.

Welcome to 2012 … if there’s any consolation it stands to get better than it started.

Bb OWL Outage

A problem with Bb OWL requires immediate attention in advance of the winter 2012 term. Bb OWL will be unavailable during a 6-day outage starting at 1:00 PM on Friday, December 23 2011. Bb OWL will return to service on Wednesday, December 28 2011. Should you wish more information about the problem, see the Bb OWL Meltdown posting.

During this outage, Bb OWL will be re-created with only the courses running in the January term. No completed courses will be brought forward to this new instance of our LMS. However, the current Bb OWL will be given a new web address so access is available to members of the ILO Team. If you must have access to a completed course in 2012, send your section details to ilo@dal.ca asking to have it restored and it will be added as quickly as possible.

If you are using our new BbLearn system in the winter 2012 term, it will be available for course preparations continuously throughout the holiday period.  If you are planning to use our new BbLearn system but haven’t submitted your course request, we encourage you to do so as soon as possible.

Bb OWL Meltdown

On Saturday, December 3rd, Bb OWL required a complete system restart to resolve performance problems. This extreme action was unavoidable and a direct result of unprecended usage. We are exploring options to reduce the likelihood of a repeat of this problem. Most IT problems are easily solved with money. With the scheduled retirement of Bb OWL at the end of the winter 2012 term, additional spending is not a sensible option. I prepared these notes to explain our current predicament to underscore the urgency of moving courses to our new BbLearn environment as quickly as possible.

Our Bb OWL environment is comprised of multiple servers: 5 application servers and 1 database server. When you login, an applicance known as a load balancer looks at the 5 application servers, picks the one with the fewest number of users, and starts your session on that server. All actions you do such as reading a discussion posting, opening a file with assignment instructions, checking the grade book, etc. are small programs. Each application server is identical so from your standpoint as a user it doesn’t matter which one is running your session.

The vendor, Blackboard, suggests that each of the 5 application servers can comfortably handle about 500 concurrent users. When the user-count exceeds that number, it is predictable that performance degrades. On our 5 application servers we can comfortably accommodate 2,500 users at the same time. Prior to this fall, normal numbers at the peak of the day during busy academic terms topped out at around 3,700 users which is obviously higher than the vendor’s recommendation but was generally OK with little apparent performance degradation.

On Saturday, December 3rd, the number of concurrent users exceeded 4,700 for a short period which is the highest number we’ve recorded since starting operations with our current product in 2006. Our system simply ran out of resources to handle the number of users and the only cure was a complete restart. After the restart and restoration of service, after 60 minutes the number of concurrent users climbed to around 3,500 and remained at that level throughout the afternoon without additional incident.

In an ideal world, to solve this problem all we need to do is install additional application servers to have the horsepower to cope with the occasional burst of high traffic. If we accept the vendors recommendation of 500 users per application server, then to handle the Saturday numbers we need to double our current count. Each server is around $4,000 so this solution has a price tag of $20,000 in hardware before factoring in the cost of setup, backups, etc.

You may have missed above that after the restart the concurrent user count did not reach the 4,700 number at the point of failure. Many of the sessions as the moment of failure were connections which had been idle for up to 120 minutes. These are sessions where users shut down their computers without logging out, or simply walked away from logged on computers. It is important to log out of your session when finished. Today I instructed our system administrator to reduce the time-out interval to 30 minutes. This only applies when sesssions are idle. As long as you continue to take some action in Bb OWL, your session will continue until you logout. Please remember to log out of your session when you are finished.

We are considering turning off services like the Whos Online as it requires continuous resources. Although a nice feature, it’s not essential and gobbles up system resources which are better used in reading discussion postings, submitting assignments, taking quizzes, etc.

So when all is said and done we can solve the problem of occassion traffic bursts by spending money on our current system. However, that is not a sesnsible action to take given our new environment, BbLearn, is ready for use starting in January 2012. It has plenty of horsepower to cope with bursts such as we experienced last Saturday. Spending on our current system is comparable to putting a bigger engine in a Model T with a luxury car sitting empty in the driveway.

Our best option is to get courses in our new environment as soon as possible. Reminder: please log out of your session when finished.