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Moving to Blackboard Managed Hosting

April 25, 2013

The following email was sent out to University staff (with a slightly different version sent to students) yesterday afternoon:

IT Services will shortly be migrating our virtual learning environment (VLE) Blackboard to an externally hosted solution. This will give us the ability to provide a more reliable Blackboard environment on more resilient hardware. The new system is hosted by Blackboard in the Cloud.

In order to bring in these improvements, we will need to migrate our onsite VLE to the new system. This will mean that from 04:00 Friday 26th April 2013 to 23:59 Sunday 28th April 2013 Blackboard will be in a read only state. During this period you should not make any changes, send out messages, upload new content or mark work online. We hope to have the service fully operational from Monday 29th April 2013, when you will be able to access the new Blackboard site using the current address, http://online.uwl.ac.uk .

Please note that no software upgrades are being applied as part of this migration, so the new hosted system should look and operate exactly the same as the current live version.

We apologise for this interruption to service, but have planned the downtime for a period which should inconvenience the fewest users. We are confident that the upgraded system will provide an improved service for all our student and staff users.

If you have any questions or concerns please contact the IT Service Desk on extension 2222 or externally on 0300 111 4895 or e-mail itservicedesk@uwl.ac.uk or via Twitter (@UWL_ITServices).

I was one of the co-signatories to this message, along with the Director of IT, but I’d like to add a few personal comments and observations to expand on this  somewhat formal communique.

First of all, I think it’s really good news.

Blackboard is a complicated suite of software, requiring high level server maintenance and database management skills. We have a number of highly skilled IT staff, but they’re not Blackboard specialists – they also have to look after  the student records system, the finance system, the HR and payroll systems, staff email etc. etc. Whereas the staff who work for Blackboard Managed Hosting have no other role – their only job is to fine-tune the servers, to manage backups and maintenance jobs, and to make sure that the Blackboard systems they look after are working. This is not to say they guarantee 100% availability – no hosting service would offer that – but I am confident that this move will result in an improved service, and a  more reliable VLE.

Being hosted by Blackboard will also ensure that we stay more up-to-date with new releases and service packs. We won’t ever adopt a new version as soon as it has been released – that would be foolhardy – but we will be looking to stay within a couple of versions of the latest release. That’s not just to take earlier advantage of new features, but to get the bug fixes which each service pack brings. Up until now the entire upgrade process has been managed in-house, and takes a phenomenal number of person-hours. That’s one reason why upgrades happen fairly infrequently. From now on, the Technology Enhanced Learning team will be testing new versions – making sure we know how they work, checking which components we want to enable and which settings to apply, and assessing the pedagogical benefits and applications. But Blackboard themselves will look after the technical side of things. It should also mean that when we do apply upgrades, we need less downtime than at present.

Finally – for this post at least – I think there is a real benefit to having committed ourselves to remaining with Blackboard for the next few years, since this brings stability. No VLE is perfect, and no VLE will ever please all the people who have to use it – no doubt there are features of Moodle and Sakai which some of our lecturers and students would prefer. But equally, Moodle isn’t the all-singing all-dancing panacea which it is sometimes made out to be. Blackboard is still a market-leading product, across the world. It has plenty of rich functionality, much of it still to be fully explored and exploited at UWL. Rather than devoting months to choosing a new system, many more months customising , testing and deploying a new system  – and then having to retrain all our users – we can get on with using the tool we already have to its best advantage. Without worrying that next year, or the year after, we’ll all be using something different.

Meanwhile, assuming you’ve read to the bottom of this post, let me remind you once again that, this coming weekend, Blackboard will be in a read-only state while we migrate all the data across to its new home in the Cloud.

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