Since 2002, UMKC has used Blackboard, an online course management system. A new version of the program has presented many problems for students since the semester began.
The Blackboard system is used by many schools, and according to its mission statement, is designed “to increase the impact of education by transforming the experience of education.”
Problems have ranged from minor glitches affecting a few users to system-wide outages that have prevented students and faculty from logging in or sending emails through Blackboard.
UMKC’s 195 online classes, which include synchronous, asynchronous and blended modes of instruction, depend heavily on the Blackboard system.
Traditional classes also use components of Blackboard, which can include tests and assignment postings.
On Oct. 20, students and faculty unable to log on to the UMKC Blackboard system were notified of the problems with a message on the Blackboard website.
“Use of Blackboard is at an all-time high this semester,” the message read. “Unfortunately, this has resulted in the performance of Blackboard not meeting the standard which UMKC Information Services deems acceptable. While there have been few system-wide outages, issues affecting a few users at a time have been frequent and troublesome.”
Dr. David Brichoux, who teaches political science courses at UMKC, uses Blackboard to post class readings and tests.
Brichoux said his combined classes have become disconnected on Blackboard.
“That’s when you have two different sections for each course and one is the parent course and one is the child course,” Brichoux said, “and all the ones in the child course get dumped in the parent course.”
This created issues for Brichoux’s students.
“The people in child course could no longer access the material,” Brichoux said, “and in this case it was the exam, which was on the parent course.”
A more serious issue Brichoux experienced was being unable to see completed exams on Blackboard.
“This has only happened to two students but it’s ongoing and bad,” Brichoux said. “The students submitted the exam, and now when you try to click on the exam in the grade book, it fires error messages back. That to me is the most damaging [problem] because it carries with it the threat of [erasing] student work.”
Brichoux said the issue is still being resolved by IT.
He received complaints from several students when a system-wide shut-out occurred around the same time the error message was posted on the Blackboard site.
Mary Crosson, software support analyst principal for UMKC Information Technology (IT), said her department has worked to address the errors.
“We’ve tried to be as transparent as possible in communicating information about these problems to users,” Crosson said.
Crosson cites two causes for the glitches: an increase in the number of people using Blackboard and problems with the new Blackboard version 9 software itself.
In response to the first problem, Crosson said the number of application servers has doubled from two to four and the IT department is prepared to quickly add more servers as needed.
The second problem is still being addressed by technical experts at Blackboard and the IT staff at the University of Missouri- Columbia (UMC), which hosts UMKC Blackboard.
However, Crosson added certain configuration changes have reduced the number of user complaints, and when glitches do occur in the system, they are addressed on an individualized basis.
“We have different escalation procedures and times where UMKC internal staff, UMC hosting staff and Blackboard technical support are contacted,” Crosson said. “These procedures vary depending on the type of issue. At all times, the UMKC Blackboard instance is monitored by multiple services.”
One of those services is an internal monitoring service at UMKC that oversees Blackboard operations 24/7.
An external monitoring service at UMKC also performs similar functions in addition to sending pages, texts and emails.
Brichoux said he thought constantly uploading new versions of Blackboard was unnecessary.
“There’s this incessant need to update, and in my opinion, the new system isn’t better than the old one,” Brichoux said. “It’s annoying that we just have to update at all.”
Fortunately, Brichoux tries to anticipate problems with Blackboard when he plans his online tests.
“Luckily, the way I do the exams it’s not a big deal,” Brichoux said. “I always know they’re going to have all kinds of glitches.”
Crosson said she is sympathetic with frustrated users and her department’s goal is to provide the campus with as much uptime as possible.
“The feedback from students and faculty has been understandably frustrated on occasion, but generally positive,” she said. “While we appreciate this goodwill, we don’t take it for granted.”