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These are my notes from the EDUCAUSE 2008 session, “Development of a Project Management Office,” by Kelley Anderson, Project Manager, Carnegie Mellon University.

This was the last session I attended just before the big party at Universal and I was so glad I stuck it out. In their Project Management Office, CMU has managed to transform the culture of IT project management. I would encourage our MnSCU system office to take a good look at how the CMU PMO is structured. I think we could and should pull this off at the system level.

I did get some ideas for practices that could be implemented at WSU. My absolute favorite was the executive retreat. Each year, executives meet to review the initial “mini-charters” developed by project initiators. If approved, full project charters and plans are requested. This executive-level filter is important for several reasons:

  • It increases the likelihood that supported projects will align with the institution’s mission, vision, and goals.
  • It increases the level of executive awareness of IT activity, how these activities affect all institutional operations, and how individual IT initiatives are interconnected.
  • It increases and distributes executive accountability. The CIO can no longer be blamed for taking a wrong turn or for the hard lessons learned when resource allocations don’t pan out as expected. Everybody has some skin in the game.

The other thing I really appreciate about the CMU approach is its friendliness. As Kelley described it, steps are taken to reduce defensiveness and misunderstanding and there is a genuine positive regard for the situations faced by colleagues. The process is truly collaborative and life affirming. There didn’t appear to be an increase in bureaucracy and paperwork. There weren’t any strong personalities who dominated the process. If I was a part of such a process, I would look forward to participating. It would actually facilitate, not inhibit, my project. That would be wonderful…a community approach to resource investment and project management.



I was inspired to blog tonight by Rachel Happe’s latest post on The Social Organization, which I just learned about from one of Lawrence Liu’s tweets. I started following Lawrence on Twitter yesterday. I saw his tweet on my NetVibes homepage as I finished my bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. So, let’s review. I am writing something that I would probably have never written based on several seconds of very minimal social contact with two people I have never met, contact mediated by simple tools that allowed all this to happen in seconds while I was happily eating my ice cream. For me, that’s a successful application of social computing.

Rachel’s post related to the difference between social networking tools and computer-supported collaborative work tools or groupware. If you ask people why they use groupware like SharePoint, Domino, ThinkTank, and WebEx, the easy answer is, “to accomplish group work and increase productivity.” When you ask people why they use tools like Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace, the easy answer is, “to socialize.” As Rachel describes, these two broad goals share a set of common processes that can be facilitated by tools from both categories. Also, the boundary between these categories is getting blurrier by the day.

Of course, the motivation to socialize is very complex and I am going to focus on just one aspect of it here. Outside of improving productivity and finding the love of your life, why do we seek the company of other people? Leon Festinger (1954) had some ideas about this that he developed into his Social Comparison Theory. Although subsequent research has indicated that things are much more complex than Festinger theorized, the basic principles of social comparison have held up and have implications for online social networking.

Festinger argued that the only way we can evaluate our own abilities in the absence of objective standards is to compare ourselves with others. Am I a good eLearning Director? Do I have a good understanding of new and emerging technologies? I ask myself these questions every day. I try to answer them by finding others with whom to compare. Who do I choose? Festinger held that we sometimes choose people or groups that are clearly worse than us. This downward social comparison is quick and reassuring (e.g., “At least I know more than that guy”). However, if all we did was compare downward, we would never improve. Festinger suggested that human beings are motivated by a unidirectional drive upward. We want to improve our abilities, so we must evaluate ourselves against others who are better than us – not light years better, but just a little bit better. This way, we gain some sense that we are improving. Of course, those people with whom we compare are improving right along with us, so we may end up comparing ourselves with the same person for quite awhile, locked in a friendly and mutually beneficial game of leapfrog.

That’s one reason why applications like Twitter are so valuable and so different from other workplace collaboration tools. They appeal to different motives and satisfy different, but equally important, social needs. Second, the people with whom I compare myself are often not working for Winona State (no offense WSU colleagues). Of the top five most influential people on your Twitter list, how many work inside your company or institution? Of those on your list from within your organization, are you following them for social comparison purposes or for other reasons? I think we purposely pick people who don’t work inside our organizations in hopes of finding new partners, new ideas, and new standards of comparison that will challenge us to move upward. Facebook and Twitter, as open, free, accessible tools are more appealing for social networking than enterprise collaboration systems like SharePoint that are currently more difficult for external friends and colleagues to access.

Finally, both of these implications suggest that using Facebook for enterprise collaboration purposes is probably not such a great idea. I am guessing that this is not even an issue in the corporate world, but it is in higher education as faculty and administrators take their first steps into the great Facebook abyss. Fortunately for our students, this sort of thing usually happens long after they have left and moved on to something else. In fact, I sometimes think that faculty using tools like Facebook to support exam review sessions signals to the last remaining students that the tool is officially lame. I think there is a lesson here for any organization. As important as social networking and communities of practice are within an organization, people are venturing out into the blogosphere for good reason – reasons that will benefit them and your company. Don’t follow them and don’t let the worlds collide.


Are you afraid of social loafers and free riders? I was having a discussion the other day about creating a shared, online directory of technology training videos. The issue of exploitation came up. The concern was that certain individuals who create a lot of videos would feel exploited by those who were using them without contributing anything themselves. It struck me that this is the same concern raised by faculty when discussing open courseware (OCW) initiatives. They ask, “Why should I contribute my intellectual property freely so that another instructor can just use it without expending any effort?”

I think this is actually a pretty complex psychological response and it wouldn’t hurt to try pulling it apart. It also needs to be interpreted within a larger social and political context, one that is in the midst of dramatic change. What seems irrational today might not seem so crazy five years from now.

What beliefs underlie this faculty concern today? I think there are at least three:

  • Welcome to the Academy. Many faculty identify very strongly with the group, the “Academy.” They see all faculty, especially tenured and tenure-track, as members of this group. There are grueling initiation rituals, well-established norms, and tacit performance expectations, particularly for junior members. The idea that members of the Academy could simply use another member’s syllabus, course materials, and activities versus producing their own is anathema, even if the final product is virtually identical to existing work. Thus, faculty concern over OCW may be largely due to the belief that other members of the Academy may loaf and not pull as hard on the rope. Junior members may be reluctant to use OCW resources for fear of being pegged as a loafer by the very members of the Academy who will grant them tenure and promotion. Of course, faculty who believe that their Academy membership is based on something other than teaching will probably be less concerned about sharing and using OCW resources.
  • Mine, Mine, All Mine. Some faculty believe strongly that their course-related materials and activities are their inventions. For many, the validity of this claim is obscured by the inexcusable morass of half-baked, poorly communicated campus IP policies. In the absence of clear, fair, and reassuring policies, faculty, particularly those who see teaching as their primary contribution to the Academy, cling tightly to their work for fear of being lured by OCW into a decision that might lead to their own obsolescence. Interestingly, the other edge of this sword is the strong belief that the Academy expects course-related materials and activities to be the unique and creative contributions of individual faculty. Thus, some fear that participating in OCW might reveal their “deep dark secret,” one likely shared by everyone who has ever taught a college course, that much of what they do when they teach is neither unique nor their own invention.
  • Pay Me. All faculty members that I know believe that they should be compensated fairly for their time and effort. Some of their concerns about OCW relate to the fact that sharing instructional content with the world may require additional time and effort on their part. They may need to rework their material, obtain copyright clearances, and learn how to use an OCW content management system. The MIT OCW initiative had significant external and internal support. Faculty could literally put their materials in a box and send them to someone else who would do all of the work for them. The concern among some faculty contemplating OCW is that those who will benefit from it and who have the means to support it will free ride. A more extreme form of the “pay me” belief is the notion that certain course materials have significant commercial value. This is probably not a major obstacle for OCW in that faculty pursuing commercial success would not offer this content to the world for free.

Are these beliefs irrational? I think one is and the other two aren’t. I think two will be gone within the next five years, but one will change shape and become stronger as the direct result of faculty use of information technology. More later.


In Stage One of our review of the Winona State University Laptop Program, faculty, staff, and students gathered this spring for several open discussions that helped clarify questions, concerns, and opportunities. After reading the summary of our activities thus far and our plans for the next stages of the review, I found myself reflecting on several memorable moments from the listening sessions.

  • In the midst of a discussion about the potential of laptops in the classroom to distract otherwise attentive students, one faculty member suggested that simply walking around the room can change the social dynamic positively. She lamented that many classrooms do not allow this freedom of movement and wondered whether smarter classroom design would facilitate smarter laptop use. The EDUCAUSE ebook on learning spaces came to mind. I think we have all known for a long time that the answer is a big, “yes.” I am looking forward our upcoming review of both the formal and informal learning spaces on campus.
  • My favorite comment came from a staff member who joked that administrators should thank their lucky stars for the Laptop Program because it allows employees to take their work home with them. She estimated that her laptop is largely responsible for the additional two hours of work per day that she gives to WSU. All joking aside, this is an important and relatively unexamined consequence of mobile, ubiquitous computing in higher education. In our quest to provide 24-7 access to our students, we are also promoting the expectation that employees should be “always on.”
  • In our discussions with student leaders, I was struck by their very thoughtful and knowledgable approach to the issues. They raised all of the tough questions in a respectful and professional manner. They applied business, marketing, and other concepts expertly. Overall, they were excellent collaborative partners in this stage of the review. Reflecting back, I am now struck by just how this struck me. In higher education, I think we tend to underestimate our students’ abilities. Perhaps this stems from the traditional “parent-child” relationship schema that still holds fast for many faculty and administrators. We think we know what’s best for students at times when they don’t. In fact, what appears to be student apathy is probably a lack of understanding due to poor communication on our part. It may also reflect the learned helplessness that often results when exposed to unpredictable and uncontrollable change. I think these listening sessions did more to educate faculty, staff, and administrators than students.  
  • The laptop is one important component of a larger, integrated learning environment. I think just about everyone who attended a listening session understood this. I can’t recall anyone arguing that we should abandon the program and return to shared computer labs or some other, lesser form of ubiquitous computing. If anything, attendees argued that we should be expanding our academic use of laptops and improving the learning environment to better support laptop use. As expected, cost appeared to be of greatest concern to students and will be a major focus of the next stage of the review.


Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services 3.0 is a powerful collaborative application, but can it be used to support social networking? I recently launched two online communities of practice, one using a SharePoint 2007 team site and the other using a Ning social networking site. My top three requirements for an online social network are:

  1. Members must to be able to socialize.
  2. Members must own the network.
  3. Members must  be able to integrate the network with other important tools, information sources, and communication channels.

It’s important to note that Sharepoint was not designed to be a social networking tool and Ning was not designed to support collaborative work within an enterprise. However, Microsoft is incorporating what it considers to be social networking features into SharePoint and I imagine that many SharePoint customers would like to support social networking activities within and across organizational boundaries.

This is especially true for colleges and universities, where informal communities are difficult to establish. It’s not uncommon for people who work in the same building, department, or office to have little knowledge of their colleagues’ interests and areas of expertise. Some institutions are joining their students in using Facebook and MySpace, a risky practice at best. Can SharePoint meet the same needs in a manageable, secure, and serious way? How does it compare to a tool like Ning? The following are just my random, preliminary impressions.

  • Right out of the box, Ning sites offer many more social networking affordances than SharePoint sites. In other words, when you enter a default Ning site, it looks and feels like it should be used for social networking. When you enter a default SharePoint site, it looks and feels like it should be used for file sharing.
  • SharePoint Web parts with social networking features (e.g., discussion forums, RSS viewers, member lists showing Windows Live Messenger status) can be added to the site by someone with Designer access or better. A social networking template could be applied to streamline this process. However, among the default templates delivered by Microsoft, none are designed to support social networking exclusively. A recent addition to the downloadable templates library by Inetium called the Community Kit for SharePoint, is a step in the right direction.
  • Customizing a SharePoint site to support social networking is not as easy as tweaking a pre-configured Ning site. Although I love SharePoint’s complexity, I am also a major geek and most team site members won’t share this love. That means we will either need to modify their sites for them, create great templates that can be used without major modification, or train selected members to be site designers/owners. WSU eLearning is working on a set of video tutorials and we have created, using SharePoint, a virtual community of practice around, “Working Together Differently,” that includes a SharePoint special interest group.
  • Although we are still tinkering with the social networking features in SharePoint 2007, the RSS Viewer is quite useful. The wiki features are limited, but open up opportunities for communication and collaboration that go beyond discussion boards (which are relatively weak). 
  • The average SharePoint “contributor” can’t create the equivalent of a Ning Group. There is no “Create a group” button.
  • The People and Groups lists contain personal profile information and pictures of members, but it’s not easy to expose that information on the main page (e.g., similar to Ning’s Featured Members component). This contributes to the overall impression that a SharePoint team site is not a very social place.
  • SharePoint’s equivalent to Ning’s My Page is called My Site, which exists independent of any team site and is presented in two views: public and private. The private view is very useful. Essentially, all users have their own personal workspace that they can modify as needed. Among other things, the Colleague Tracker Web part lets users access their colleagues’ My Sites quickly and easily. Unfortunately, most of what’s displayed in the public view cannot be changed by the user. The value of fixed parts like Memberships, Sites, and Organizational Hierarchy are apparent only if that information is manged well centrally. If it’s not, the public site can be a very confusing place for visitors.

Look for more observations and a more extensive report (with pictures) later. If anyone is using SharePoint to support social networking, I would love to hear from you.


In the second of two posts inspired by a recent article in the LA Times describing Silicon Valley companies moving to “topless” meetings in which laptops are banned, I try to capture the issues by taking the perspective of a teacher or meeting convener who has looked out over too many groups busily attending to their laptops and cell phones. In the first post, I took the perspective of someone who has endured too many boring, unproductive classes and meetings. It was surprising how easily the two stories could be transposed. What does that mean?

Here is what I imagine goes through the heads of typical teachers and meeting conveners when faced with a room of text messaging, YouTube browsing, Facebook editing, email checking students or employees.

“Look, I don’t mean to be rude and I really do understand how technology has changed our lives, why your laptop is an important tool, and how it can be used to support learning, but if you’re going to sit through this entire meeting with your laptop open, please make sure you:

  • Come to the meeting ready to participate in the scheduled task, discussion, or group activity.
  • Don’t distract anyone, including me with what’s happening on your laptop screen, what’s coming out of your speakers, or your nonverbal responses to that funny story on Web.
  • Don’t ask questions later about what you missed in the meeting, what tasks were assigned to you, or what decisions were made that affect you.

I’ve come to this meeting prepared, I’ve provided you with information and materials ahead of time so that you could prepare yourself, and I’ve made it very clear to you why your participation in this meeting is important for both of us. If you still decide to pay no attention to the meeting activities and check your email instead, then I would ask you to reconsider why you are sitting in this room today. Please don’t insult me by telling me that it’s because you were forced to be here, that you’re a good multi-tasker, or that I just don’t understand technology. If you pretend to “multi-task,” I might not say anything to you, but you should know that you aren’t fooling me.”

“Although I may look like a Luddite who doesn’t come close to matching Solitaire’s level of excitement and I certainly have hosted the occasional boring, unproductive meeting, the truth is that I am trying very hard to engage you and I care very deeply about the work we are all here to accomplish. I am not simply going through the motions and I am not a meeting junky. I see no indication that you’ve prepared for this meeting, that you’re invested in what we’re doing, or that there’s much chance of that changing in the near future. I don’t want to cause a fuss and embarrass you, so I am just going to let you sit there quietly and do whatever it is that you’re doing until the meeting is over. I’m fully capable of conducting this meeting without you and working with those who are interested in participating. If I see some sign that you want to participate, I’ll engage you.”

“You should know that I actually wish things were different. I’m tired of asking you to come to these meetings when you provide so little input. I also appreciate how frustrating it must be for you to leave the meeting feeling that it was such a waste of your time. I would much rather spend the time we have together productively and I’m willing to make a deal with you. I will come to the next meeting fully prepared to engage with you if you promise to:

  • Prepare for our meeting. I can tell immediately when you’re unprepared. Spend some time getting ready for the meeting. Read the meeting materials. Do the homework. If I’ve asked you to do some online discussion before the meeting that would allow us to start our face-to-face work together at a deeper level, then do it. If you aren’t prepared for the meeting, then don’t attend.  
  • Prepare me for our meeting. I’m not a mind reader. If you don’t understand why we’re meeting and what’s expected of you, let me know. Give me some suggestions and feedback. Start participating before the meeting. What do you want to get out of this meeting? What’s the best way to make that happen?
  • Relax about device prohibition. First, I am going to ask you to engage in some activities that will not require a laptop for taking notes and I may even ask you to use a Sharpie, Crayon, or some chalk. Deal with it. Second, set your communication devices to silent or vibrate and don’t worry about incoming calls unless you think they’re really more important than what we’re doing in the meeting. If a potentially important call comes through, don’t answer your phone in the meeting. Ignore it, then politely excuse yourself and call the person back from outside the meeting room. Third, remember that my time is valuable too. If you are not participating in the meeting and have decided that you would rather do something else, don’t distract me or others. Better yet, quitely leave the meeting.
  • Develop your skills. Nothing personal, but your learning/teamwork skills could be better. Becoming a better learner and team member is a matter of continuous improvement. There are all sorts of methods and tools that you can use during meetings to participate effectively. If you need ideas or assistance developing your skills, ask me, your colleagues, or those in your organization who can help you learn. Don’t be afraid to try something new at the next meeting, but please make sure it’s something productive and positive. I don’t so much like the “Devil’s Advocate” method, but if you can use it without deflating the group, go for it. The bottom line is that we have met in this room to work together.

In the grand scheme of things, we have so little time together and it’s so difficult in today’s world to get people to sit down in the same place at the same time. Let’s make the most of it.”

Yours truly,

Ken the Teacher/Convener 

A recent article in the LA Times described Silicon Valley companies moving to “topless” meetings where laptops are banned. Whether it’s a classroom or a conference room, the perception of some teachers and conveners is that people aren’t really present unless they disconnect their devices and give their undivided attention to the meeting. In a two-part post, I will try to describe this situation from the perspective of both a student or employee who has endured too many disorganized and unproductive classes and meetings and as a teacher or convener who has looked out over too many students and attendees engrossed in other things. 

Here is what I imagine goes through the heads of typical students and employees when informed that a particular class or meeting will be topless.

“Look, I don’t mean to be rude and I really do enjoy interacting with people, but if you are going to ask me to stop what I’m doing and put down the tools that I’m using to do the things that are important to me, then please have something interesting to:

  • Tell me that you couldn’t tell me as well via memo, email message, or online post.
  • Show me that you couldn’t show me as well by directing me to a book or online video, podcast, learning module, demonstration, or simulation.
  • Engage in with me that we couldn’t do as well individually.

If any one of these things are true, then I will gladly give you my full attention. If none of these things are true, then I would ask you to reconsider why you have asked me to meet with you. Please don’t insult me by telling me that it’s because you are the boss, that you don’t trust me to read/learn/do things myself, or that you don’t have time to learn how to use the tools that I use every day to coordinate, communicate, and collaborate. If you try to force me to pay attention to you, I might obey and give you what looks like my attention, but you should know that my mind is elsewhere.”

“Although I may look like a device addict and I certainly have read the occasional text message when I should have been paying attention to something else, the truth is that I am not really distracted by my devices. I am simply choosing them instead of you because I don’t understand why I am here. I have no stake in this meeting. I didn’t even know what was on the agenda until I walked in and sat down. So far, you haven’t engaged me in any activity that is meaningful to me and that I couldn’t do outside of this meeting. I don’t want to cause a fuss and embarrass you, so I am just going to sit here quietly and do something else, until it’s clear to me that my presence is important. I am fully capable of giving primary attention to my instant messages while monitoring the stream of activity in this room. If I hear something that sounds interesting or important, I will stop what I am doing and attend to you.”

“You should know that I actually wish things were different. I’m tired of coming to these meetings and getting so little out of them. I also appreciate how frustrating it must be for you to look out over a group of people who don’t seem to be paying attention to anything you’re saying. I would much rather spend the time we have together productively and I’m willing to make a deal with you. I will come to the next meeting fully prepared to engage with you if you promise to:

  • Prepare for our meeting. I can tell immediately when you’re unprepared. Spend some time planning for the meeting. If your plan includes spending over 25% of our time together telling me something, then you are not prepared. If there’s something that we could accomplish before the meeting that would allow us to start our face-to-face work together at a deeper level, then let’s do it. There are some very good tools out there for facilitating this work online. Let’s use them. If you aren’t prepared for the meeting, then cancel it.  
  • Prepare me for our meeting. I am not a meeting addict. I am so tired of attending fruitless meetings and I have no reason to believe that the next one will be any different. You’re dealing with a biased and reluctant participant here. Help me to change. How are we going to spend our time together? What do you hope to accomplish and what’s my role? Help me see that my presence in this meeting will actually be important for both of us.
  • Relax about device prohibition. First, I use my laptop, not paper, to take notes: deal with it. Second, there are messages that I might receive during our time together that are more important than this meeting. Like you, I have a life outside of this room and sometimes it intrudes. I will keep my phone on stun, my audio muted on my laptop, and minimize the intrusions. Third, remember that my time is valuable too. If you are engaging me, I won’t have time to check my email. If you are not engaging me, then I am going to do something that I value. I understand completely that this behavior shouldn’t distract others in the meeting who you might be engaging.
  • Develop your skills. Nothing personal, but your teaching/facilitation skills could be better. Becoming a better meeting facilitator and teacher is a matter of continuous improvement. There are all sorts of methods and tools that you can use during meetings to engage me and support our work together. If you need ideas or assistance developing your skills, reach out to those in your organization who can help you learn. Don’t be afraid to try something new at the next meeting, but please make sure it’s not just that warm, fuzzy stuff you learned at your last leadership workshop. I like socializing and team-building, but the bottom line is that we have met in this room to work together.

In the grand scheme of things, we have so little time together and it’s so difficult in today’s world to get people to sit down in the same place at the same time. Let’s make the most of it.”

Yours truly,

Ken the Student/Employee 

So much for being committed to the open exchange of ideas, collaboration, and innovation. In a letter on their Website on Friday, Desire2Learn (D2L) President and CEO John Baker, conveyed the news that Blackboard had been awarded $3 million from the jury in their Kafkaesque patent case against D2L. The US Patent and Trademark Office will be reviewing the patent, but the decision in favor of Blackboard is sure to reverberate across the educational landscape and send other commercial course management system vendors scurrying.

At issue is D2L’s apparent infringement of Blackboard’s “invention” of network file access control, wherein users can have varying levels of access to different network file directories based on system-defined roles (e.g., teacher versus student). According to their Opening Claims Construction Brief, the world before Blackboard was a chaotic and confusing place, where people had to access different files on different servers using different network credentials. The Blackboard course management system presumably ended all that by “inventing” what everyone knows existed before Blackboard.

It’s very difficult for me to remain dispassionate about this. Winona State was one of the first universities to switch to Blackboard 6 and we paid a heavy price. The system was down for weeks as we waited for hotfix after hotfix. It was immediately clear that Blackboard had shipped Version 6 too early and that WSU faculty and students had become beta testers. Of course, Blackboard didn’t pay us for our wasted time and we didn’t sue them. As bad as it was, there was a sense that we were somehow in it together and that we all wanted what was best for the students. We knew that Blackboard was just learning how to be a good software company. We were willing to wait for them and suffer through their growing pains because we believed in what they were trying to build, we trusted them, and we thought they were listening to us. Now we all realize that Blackboard is still just a spoiled adolescent; after over ten years they still haven’t grown up.  With this lawsuit, they damaged their own brand and public image to the tune of well over $3 million and I am not confident that they will ever recover. I am certainly not going to wait for it.

What would we do if this puts D2L out of business? We are working on an instance of eduCommons OCW and Moodle and we have Windows SharePoint Services 3.0 and Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional already being used to support course delivery. If D2L went belly up tomorrow, I have no doubt that our IT and eLearning team could have a solution in place involving just those four tools in less than a month that would duplicate 75% of the functionality available in D2L or Blackboard. In a few months, we could probably approach 100% functionality and throw in a decent open source blog and wiki tool to boot. There are good alternatives out there.

By the way Blackboard, we are already supporting academic courses using Microsoft SharePoint 2007 team sites and Adobe Connect. In SharePoint, there are multiple user roles (e.g., Read, Contribute, Design, Full Control). These roles can be set for the same user within the course site and across course sites. Students and faculty can be readers on one area of a course site and contributors in another. They can have full control over one course site and contribute access to another. SharePoint is built to allow this flexible level of access control. In Connect, there are multiple user roles (e.g., Participant, Presenter, Host). Instructors can be hosts of one course session and presenters in others. Students can be assigned any of these three roles across and within course sessions, which controls their access to course information and activities. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Should Microsoft and Adobe lawyer-up? How much money do you have left in your war chest?


I presented Respondus 3.5 to several groups of instructors this week as part of our initial roll-out and the response was mixed. Based on a recommendation from the Instructional Management System Council, MnSCU announced the availability of a system-wide license in late January for the beta version of the Desire2Learn (D2L) Respondus “personality” that allows instructors to create question pools and specific tests and quizzes for import into D2L. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of entering 100 multiple choice questions into D2L manually, it’s no picnic. Using Respondus, the experience may be slightly less painful. Here are the major benefits of Respondus compared to simply using the same functionality already available in D2L:

  • You can do all of the work offline. Respondus then creates a zip file that can be unpacked into your D2L course.
  • The interface for reviewing and modifying questions is somewhat more usable. A full list of questions and individual question properties appear on the same screen in Respondus, whereas you must switch between pages in D2L.
  • A test can be printed or copied to a word processor for proofing by the instructor prior to releasing the test, a feature curiously absent in D2L.
  • Instructors can import questions into Respondus from properly-formatted Microsoft Word files as well as from online test banks available through the Respondus Test Bank Network. Although D2L allows for the batch import of questions from a CSV file, this requires considerable rework, often to the point of being more time consuming than entering questions individually. Tests already developed in Word would require less rework to conform to the Respondus formatting requirements, saving instructors time when re-purposing existing tests.

That seems to be about it. In terms of question authoring and editing, I actually like the HTML editor used in D2L better than the one available in Respondus. I had much less trouble with the equation editor and there is no code view available in the Respondus editor (although you can insert raw HTML). Initially, I thought Respondus might facilitate the sharing of question pools and assessments across instructors, but the course component export feature of D2L 8 makes that just as easy as exchanging Respondus files with colleagues. I think this lack of support for collaboration and sharing around assessments, is a major weakness of both tools.

Overall, I think Respondus might appeal to instructors of large sections who rely on multiple-choice tests delivered via D2L and who must maintain a large pool of test items. It would be particularly useful for those who can tap into the Respondus Test Bank. However, I am personally underwhelmed by this version of the tool. When it comes to D2L, I expect to suffer through the common limitations found in most Web apps. When I installed Respondus on my laptop, I had much higher expectations. I believe what instructors want out of a tool like Respondus is essentially a secure, multi-functional, end-to-end assessment management system (AMS) that they can keep with them. Instructors like to keep their tests close and the idea of maintaining that AMS on their own laptops would resonate with them. This AMS might include such features as item analysis data tracking to help instructors evaluate the performance of test items over time and repeated use, a reusable media library with some basic annotation and editing tools (e.g., cropping, callouts) and the ability to track which object is associated with what question, a feedback library of commonly used phrases that might speed up the addition of feedback to new questions, and some collaborative test construction and question sharing features. Now that would be exciting.


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.