After a shaky start last semester, the performance of Desire2Learn (D2L) was much improved during prep week and the first week of classes this spring. Some instructors reported frustration with slow file uploads and nondescript error messages, but the system was not down or otherwise unusable for lengthy periods as it was during those critical first weeks last semester. Having moved to D2L from Blackboard exclusively last spring, the problems in the fall were a real nightmare.  Neither elephants nor faculty members ever forget. As the expiration of our system-wide, five-year D2L contract draws near and we begin discussing options, I think we can expect a high level of interest and participation from the faculty. 

I am confident that we can have a constructive, civil, and intelligent discussion when the time comes. I see how hard the MnSCU staff has worked over the past four years to make D2L function for an increasing and increasingly demanding number of users. These are not people who sit at their desks with their feet up eating donuts while smoke pours from the servers. No one wants D2L to succeed more than the MnSCU staff who administer the system and central hosting of a common set of instructional Web services is still a promising concept. It’s a basic human bias to assume that events are caused by the dispositions or personality characteristics of individual actors rather than the situations that these actors face. In fact, this tendency is so fundamental that it’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error. We all need to be very aware that the problems we have had with D2L are not the fault of any individual or any personified organization (e.g., Evil MnSCU), but the result of a set of situational factors that we need to take the time to understand if we are to have a productive conversation. The situation we face will only become more complex and demanding in the years to come.

We also all need to understand what constitutes a, “course management system problem.” It’s not uncommon for incensed instructors to call us complaining that, “D2L is down,” when it’s actually another issue (e.g., their home wireless router is on the fritz). I have also found that the instructors who complain the most about D2L seem to be the ones who use it the least. Although I have heard fewer complaints from the heavy users, I find them much more compelling and informative. This is not meant to be insulting and the vast majority of our instructors are very aware of the potential points of failure that separate them from their Web services, but we all need to be sensitive to our tendency to pile on out of frustration before fully understanding the problem.

Looking at things from the instructors’ perspective and having used D2L in my own courses, I can safely say that the current version is not going to win any usability awards anytime soon. Neither will Blackboard, eCollege, or just about any other course management system of which I am familiar. Just comparing the very best widgets that D2L has to offer with the tool that I am using right now for free brings the real challenges faced by these comprehensive course management systems into harsh relief. Not only are we running out of patience and money when it comes to these monolithic applications, we probably won’t need them much longer. The various functions served by these all-in-one solutions (e.g., content management and authoring, synchronous and asynchronous communication, assessment and feedback) can already be met much more effectively with other tools, piecemeal. This has actually been the case for a few years now and the Web 2.0 shift is just accelerating the process. In my opinion, the most useful features of Blackboard have always been the third-party “building blocks” created by other companies. Blackboard has simply provided the glue that we seemed to need to hold these tools together and provide the “unified user experience” that we thought our students wanted. As it turns out, that glue was probably over-rated all along, we can probably provide it ourselves now, and today’s students probably don’t need this unified experience as much as we think they do. I am sure they see it as quaint, while they are quickly becoming proficient with using multiple tools for different purposes and then mashing them all up in a variety of different ways that make sense to them. They don’t have to make sense to us.

The next five years are going to be very exciting. Rather than migrating to yet another “Instructional Management System of the Future,” I hope we can finally put these systems behind us. They have served their purpose. Now it’s time for us to move on.

Ken

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