Category Archives: Support

Blackboard, SunGard and rSmart : A Client’s Take on Support, Oh My.

“Support” in the context of this posting is that service for which a client contracts that includes a way to report issues to a vendor such that the vendor is expected to respond with a resolution. That’s just basic, right?

Unfortunately with technology vendors the evaluation of which vendor to choose for ones initial purchase is so complex that it can not and does not include an evaluation of the structures and process the vendor has in place to provide that support. This leads to wide disparity among technology vendors as to how they resource support and what they think support does for their bottom line.

I know these three companies fairly well from personal experience. Here’s this year’s report card from me:

  • Blackboard    A
  • rSmart             B+
  • SunGard         D

In every single encounter the following is what the support structure must deliver.  Here are my ratings for these three vendors on a 1-5 scale; 1 being exemplary and 5 indicating you’d be looking for another vendor if it were your cellphone service:

Parameter Bb rSmart SunGard
Timeliness 1 1 5
Expectation Management 1 4 4
Trustworthiness 1 1 3
Accuracy 2 3 4
Knowledge 2 3 5
Meaningfulness 2 3 4
Totals 9 15 25

So vendors, I’ll say it straight out: Your clients expect to be able to contact you quickly, receive immediate word that you’re working on their issue, and have a meaningful resolution in a timeframe commensurate to their urgency.

We want what you tell us to be truthful and timely and we don’t want promises to guestimate to a greater degree of accuracy than you’re able to deliver. If you say the service pack which includes my issue resolution will be available “soon” – tell us if that means 3rd quarter or next year and get it to us by then. If you say, “April” – you’ll lose points for Accuracy, Trustworthiness and Meaningfulness if you then deliver in May. And God forbid that what you deliver should end up being nothing like what you told us it would be!

“Meaningful” – let’s talk about that specifically. No one wants repeated “We’re working on it,” messages. Even if you personalize those messages, they aren’t meaningful. 

“Knowledge” – SunGard has a lot of knowledge, but I can’t locate it myself in their huge knowledgebase site – so what good is that?

“Expectation Management” – I’m not sure I have any help for you vendors on this one. On the one hand, I appreciate multiple ways of communicating with you. On the other hand, if none of the people who say they’re going to escalate my problem actually do, or attempt it, but don’t understand my problem well enough to communicate it, I’m still looking for someone who can. I should also remind you saying “no,” is sometimes the right answer. But if you say that to a new client there could be a deeper issue. The fact that they asked the question in the first place probably means you didn’t manage their expectations well when you sold them whatever they bought from you in the first place.

When I started this post I thought I had a bias toward smaller companies. It’s true that larger companies with complex products often have unwieldy support structures that make self-service almost always impossible, however, larger companies that keep it personal and pay attention to quality follow-up can still effectively meet my needs.

At least when they’re not in the middle of a merger.


Pithy Truisms on Blackboard Vista and Chat and Wimba under SSL

Those who’ve followed, referenced or read this blog for any length of time know that my posts follow my thoughts – one day pondering the ineffable, another day contemplating market changes in the LMS space, and the very next mired in the nuts and bolts of maintaining one of those systems.

Today is one of those days. Maybe these observations will help someone else, at least they’ll be breadcrumbs for me.

So far, in the last week on Bb Vista 8.0.5 I have confirmed these things:

  • Blackboard Collaborate/former Wimba changed out the cert at our site, on April 14th without notifying us, effectively breaking SSL.
  • The cert, key and ca files in the /WebCTDomain/userdir referenced by Weblogic are only read when the application is started. In other words, overwriting their contents while the application is running does not constitute a valid test unless you restart the app node.
  • In these days, cert renewals are being complicated by the fact that 2048 bit is the new standard but your old cert is probably still 1024 bit-based encryption. This makes a difference if you’re chaining certs, make certain you don’t mix 1024 with 2048 …  (I can’t say if it makes a difference to keystores. I would think you could import both types to keystores.)
  • Configuring Chat for end to end encryption means nothing more than sharing the key and cert files from your load balancer and pointing to them in the Chat config file and Weblogic > Server (incl. Admin) > SSL tab.
  • Configuring end to end encryption with a 3rd party server such as Wimba means constructing a ca chain which includes their cert, the intermediate and the root. Don’t worry if your cert vendor’s intermediate and root are not there – focus on theirs.
  • In order to encrypt both, I ended up chaining our cert vendor’s intermediate cert to the chat cert in /WebCTDomain/userdir AND chaining Wimba’s cert vendor’s intermediate cert in the ca.pem file located in that same directory /WebCTDomain/userdir

Emails to Faculty: Are they read?

Here’s an example of an email I sent last week:

From: Laura Gekeler
Sent: Thursday, March 10, 2011 12:51 PM
To: ‘’
Subject: Service maintenance on Concourse

Good Afternoon All,

I wouldn’t expect this information to be of great importance to many of you, nor to your students -given that it’s the Sunday before spring break, but it’s my duty to tell you. So I will. 😉

This Sunday, March 13th, from 5am to 11am,  yours truly will be awake, alert and patching the Concourse application. Those of you wishing to rise early, forego family, spiritual or meditative activities, and login to Concourse will have to find other occupation as it will be unavailable during that time. Enjoy your Sunday morning and check back after 11am.

Take care and have a good spring break!


Many Instructors tell me they read my emails because they like my writing style or my sense of humor. After the email above I even got an invitation to face time at lunch with an Instructor. It was terrific. (And she bought!).

I know, I know, the opening sentence is counter-intuitive… the practice should NOT be to begin with an apology or disclaimer, and I don’t begin that way as a matter of course. (But it was the weekend before spring break – a great time to patch the application!).

How many emails does a college instructor get in a day? What is their relative importance?

We in central IT or Academic IT centers tend to think our emails are of maximum importance because faculty are using our services and we want them to know that we’re offering workshops, we have new online tutorials, there will be a service outage, a software defect has been identified for which we have a workaround (or we don’t have a workaround and want to say: “Don’t Press that button!”), ETC. In other words, reading our emails are supposed to reduce pain.

So what have we tried? (All things I agree we want to do)

  • Limiting distribution lists to those whom we can specifically identify as users of the service in question
  • Using fancy HTML to make our messages pretty
  • Keeping the messaging short and to the point, with a link to further information (the scheduled outage page, for instance)
  • Using descriptive subjects that notify those who may scan email without opening
  • Sending the email at the right time for faculty

What else could be done? Here are my suggestions…

  • See your readers face to face when writing
  • Be friendly (if you’re a service organization, you want everything you do and say to make yourselves approachable to your customers)
  • Use humor appropriately
  • Make it fun

Is it a project or a relationship or a language?

My ‘seat’ at the table of higher ed is smack dab in the middle of the IT service organization. We build stuff and keep the lights on, and oh, also support the Academy.

Every month we start new projects. Every month we end projects. Most of our thought is project-based. On the walls around here are posters of our most recent project process revision, representing how to do projects better than the way we did them before. Although it’s great to have more definition of what it takes to get a new project out the door, I don’t like the chart so much. There are 6 steps with the last one being “Operationalize” with the comment that this is supposed to mean “Thoughtful transition to support.” To understand the chart requires you to enter our world of IT.

Despite the location of my seat at the table, or maybe because of it, I am passionate about strengthening my relationship with faculty impacted by ever-transitioning technology. That’s why I’d like a project process encapsulated in my faculty colleagues’ language.

That’s because if I’m going to serve them better, I invite them to sit at the table with me to help me understand and prioritize their needs. And I don’t want to dictate who they have to become or what language they have to speak to sit here.

I want to understand from their point of view the  technologies they are required to use  (ie final grade submission, email, course instructor feedback, calendaring), as well as technologies we make available for them to choose to use- technologies which could make their teaching management easier (ie online gradebooks, online quiz question banks, online syllabus distribution, online office hours); technologies which, meshed with their teaching styles, could engage students in learning to a greater degree (ie discussion boards; RSS feeds; podcasts; polling software; classroom back channels) .


To understand the Academy, which we know is not a unified entity, but which is made up of Engineering, Arts & Letters, Architecture, the Sciences, and others – all constantly transforming according to perceptions of strategic need, I do not need them to sit at my table.

I need to sit at each of their tables.

One of the outcomes of their talks about operational needs and strategic directions will be projects to build the tools that they want.

I will do the translation of their language into my language.

That’s a good first step. Now how do they get aggregated and prioritized by a single institutional service provider, assuming that what each of them decide is good for their College, school or department may not be good for the institution as a whole? If there were such a table where all of them could sit, listen to each other, and together prioritize their separate goals for the good of the institution, whose table would that be?

Transitioning platforms in support of teaching and learning… new LMS anyone?

I was reading up on Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania this morning, starting with an article about loaning out iPads in a business class, but also mentioning their legacy “LMS” platform called webCafe (cool name, don’t you think?). Unlike the rest of the University of Pennslyvania, since 1998, the Wharton School has used the eRoom business-based document sharing software package customized with some 3rd party tools like Cogix ViewsFlash survey software and the Questionmark Perception assessment platform. Undoubtedly these were chosen individually as best of breed at the time.

But, like many of the rest of us, Wharton has been evaluating a system upgrade.

What you need to hear is this : “Any transition of this magnitude will be difficult, so we need to make sure we get it right,” said Alec Lamon, Senior Director of IT at Wharton.

Since the rest of UPenn uses Blackboard, it was evaluated. I’m not clear on the reasons, but they chose to upgrade to a newer version of eRooms. What’s interesting to me is that their notions back in 1998 of what an LMS should be remain viable:

  • forums for faculty and students to discuss and vote on topics of interest (non-class based groups)
  • share documents
  • group calendars and task lists
  • collaborate on projects online
  • support and enhance regular accredited classes, faculty research and collaboration

A new LMS is a huge decision. Rather than focusing on the tool decision itself, I’m generally seeing that more resources need to be utilized in planning for the transition itself.

In the case of the Wharton School, it may be that their gap analysis of changes between the current, and at least one of their potential replacements, was the single most important factor that went into the the final decision. Too often the gap analyses are not done as part of the initial decision-making process, but are done during transition planning. Maybe we have that backwards?

How my work might change: support again

(How my work might change if Notre Dame chose Sakai as its next LMS)

I posted our current and future hypothetical support structures back on October 12th. I’m still ruminating on it.

I’m still ruminating mainly because the current support structure is not sustainable. More users, same amount of support? Greater diversity of needs met, same amount of support? Continually increasing interfaces to other systems, same amount of support?

The upticks in the past 6 years have been gradual and mostly, but not completely, absorbable. For example, we’ve quietly added iTunes U, but don’t really market it. And there exists no documentation for a mashup between that content and our LMS. We’ve added Wimba tools, but only the Language programs officially know about it… and therefore the Language Resource Center is one to whom we direct support calls. We don’t regularily update any library of online support FAQs; recently instead we started writing blog posts, attempting to make them timely, and relying on their searchability so they can function also as online support resources.

But a new system rollout always brings more exploration and establishes new users even after the transition is over.

I think we should anticipate that some portion of ramped up resources for the transition will need to continue to support the new system.

And I’m saying this without reference to whether the new system is attached to an open source community with the added decision point for Notre Dame of: What kind of a giveback to the community do we want to maintain? Where and how do we participate in the community?

Those questions need to be addressed and resources allocated for their implementation.

Random Error in Assessments containing Paragraph style questions

AssessmentParagraphTypeRightFrameError This is a screen capture (Thanks to Andy Freed of Portland Community College) of a quiz. In the left frame are the quiz questions and the ‘Save Answer” button after each. We always recommend to students that they save each answer as they progress through the test.

In the right hand frame a student normally sees green checks appear for every question they’ve answered and saved.

In this screen capture taken after a student has answered a paragraph style question (not a short answer style, but a paragraph style), an error condition is noted.


This bug doesn’t happen all the time. When it does happen, it’s been traced to quizzes containing at least one paragraph style question.


As always, advise your students to compose their answers to paragraph style questions in notepad or other desktop application and then paste it into the answer box. IF they receive this error message, have them immediately close the quiz and restart it. All answers they’ve saved will still be there. They can re-paste their paragraph answer, save the answer, and continue, lastly pressing the “Finish” button at the bottom.