Brightspace nee Desire2Learn

I’ve been trying to get my head around the reasoning for the corporate rebranding to Brightspace12, and I’m coming up short. I like the name, but it feels like everything they’ve described here at Fusion could have been done under the previous banner of Desire2Learn. I’m more concerned about signs that the company is shifting to a more corporate Big Technology Company stance.

When we adopted D2L, they felt like a teaching-and-learning company. What made them interesting to us is that they did feel like a company that really got teaching and learning. They were in the trenches. They used the language. They weren’t a BigTechCo. But, they were on a trajectory aspiring toward BigTechCo.

Fusion 2013 was held at almost the exact same time that we had our D2L environment initially deployed to start configuration for our migration process. We were able to send a few people to the conference last year, and we all came away saying that it definitely felt more like a teaching-and-learning conference than a vendor conference. Which was awesome.

We’ve been working hard with our account manager and technical account team, and have made huge strides in the last year. We’ve developed a really great working relationship with the company, and I think we’re all benefiting from it. The company is full of really great people who care and work hard to make sure everyone succeeds. That’s fantastic. Lots of great people working together.

But it feels like things are shifting. The company now talks about “enablement” – which is good, but that’s corporate-speak, not teaching-and-learning speak. That’s data.

Fusion 2014 definitely feels more like a vendor conference. I don’t know if we’re just more sensitive to it this year, but every attendee I’ve talked to about it has noticed the same thing. This year is different. That’s data.

As part of the rebranding, Desire2Learn/Brightspace just rebooted their community site – which was previously run within an instance of the D2L Learning Environment (which was a great example of “eating your own dog food”), and now it’s a shiny new Igloo-powered intranet site. They also removed access to the product suggestion platform, which was full of carefully crafted suggestions for improving the products, provided by their most hardcore users.

The rebranded community site looks great, but the years worth of user-provided discussions and suggestions didn’t make the journey to the new home. So, the community now feels like a corporate marketing and communication platform, rather than an actual community because it’s empty. I’m hopeful that there is a plan to bring the content from the actual community forward. The content wasn’t there at launch, and it was about the branding of the site rather than the community. That’s data.

And there are other signs. The relaunched community site is listed under “Community” on the new Brightspace website, broken into “Communities of Practice”:

Screen Shot 2014 07 16 at 8 51 49 AM

The problem is, those aren’t “communities of practice” – they are corporate-speak categories for management of customer engagement. Communities of Practice are something else entirely. I don’t even know what an “Enablement” community is. That’s data.

It feels like the company is trying to do everything, simultaneously. They’re building an LMS / Learning Environment / Integrated Learning Platform, a big data Analytics platform, media streaming platform, mobile applications, and growing in all directions at once. It feels like the corporate vision is “DO EVERYTHING” rather than something more focused. I’m hoping that’s just a communication issue, rather than anything deeper. Which is also data.

They’re working hard to be seen as a Real Company. They’re using Real Company language. They’re walking and talking like a Real Company. Data.

The thing is – they’ve been working on the rebranding for awhile now, and launched it at the conference. The attendees here are likely the primary target of the rebranding, and everyone I talk to (attendees and staff) are confused by it. It feels like a marketing push, and a BigTechCo RealCo milestone. It feels like the company is moving through an uncanny valley – it doesn’t feel like the previous teaching-and-learning company, and it’s not quite hitting full stride as a BigTechRealCo yet.

I really hope that Brightspace steps back from the brink and returns to thinking like a teaching-and-learning company.

  1. this isn’t about the name – personally, I like the new name, and wish they’d used it all along. But the company had built an identity around the previous name for 15 years, and it looks like they decided to throw that all away []
  2. and there’s the unfortunate acronym. 30 seconds after the announcement, our team had already planned to reserve []

PSA: Mediawiki doesn’t like . characters in MySQL database names

Or, how I spent about 15 hours debugging our MediaWiki installation at, trying to figure out why file uploads were mysteriously failing.

We’ve got a fair number of active users on the wiki, and a course in our Werklund School of Education’s grad program is using it now for a collaborative project. Which would be awesome, except they were reporting errors when uploading files. I logged in, tried to upload a file, and BOOM, got this:

Could not create directory "mwstore://local-backend/local-public/c/cf"

um. what? smells like a permissions issue. SSH into the server, check the directories, and yup, they’re all owned and writable by apache (this is on RHEL6). Weird. Maybe the drive’s full? df -h. Nope. Uh oh. Maybe PHP or Apache have gone south – better check with another site on the server. Login to and upload a file. Works perfectly. So it’s nothing inherent in the server.

Lots of searching, reading about LocalSettings.php configuration options. Nothing seems to work. I enable Mediawiki logging, check the apache access and error logs, and find nothing. It should be working just fine. The uploaded file shows up in the /tmp directory, then disappears (as expected) but is never written into the images directory. Weird.

So, I try a fresh install of mediawiki elsewhere on the server (in a separate directory, with a new database called ‘mediawikitest’). Works like a charm. Dammit. So it’s really nothing wrong with the server. Or with mediawiki. Maybe there’s some freaky security restriction on the new server1, so I set up a new VirtualHost to spin up the new MediaWiki install in exactly the same way as (using a full hostname running in its own directory, rather than as a subdirectory of the “main” webserver’s public_html directory). And it works like a charm.

Hrm. Searching for the error message turns up mentions of file permission errors, and file repository configs. I mess around with that, but everything looks fine. Except that uploads fail for some reason.

Maybe there’s something funky about the files in the Mediawiki install – it goes back to May 2005, so there’s over 9 years of kruft building up. There’s a chance. So I copy the whole mediawiki directory and use it to host the test instance (still pointing at the mediawikitest database). Works fine. So it’s nothing in the filesystem. It’s not in the Apache or PHP config. Must be in the database.

So, I switch the test instance to use the production mediawiki database (named ‘’). And uploads fail. Dammit. I assume something is out of sync with the latest database schema, so I eyeball the ‘images’ table in both databases. AHAH! Some of the field definitions are out of date – the production database is using int(5) for a few things, while the new test database uses int(11) – maybe the file upload code is trying to insert a value that’s longer than the table is configure to hold. So I manually adjust the field definitions in our production images table. That’ll solve it. Confidence! But no. Uploads still fail. But the problem’s got to be in the database, so I modify my search tactic, and find a blog post from 2013:

Problem solved. Turns out the new database backend thing in mediawiki doesn’t like database names with dots in them, and doesn’t tell you. Thank you Florian Holzhauer for finding it!

Dafuqbrah? Really? That can’t possibly be it… The wiki’s been working fine all along – it’s up and running and people are actively using it. If the database wasn’t working, surely we’d have noticed earlier…

renames database from to wiki_ucalgary

uploads file

Son of a wiki. It works.

So. At least 15 hours of troubleshooting, debugging, trial and error, modifying configurations, installing test instances, and being completely unable to figure it out. And it was a freaking . in the database name that was doing it. With no mention of that in any error message or log file. Awesome. An error message that says “could not create directory” actually means “hey - a portion of my code can't access databases with . characters in the database name - you may want to fix that.

  1. we moved recently from an old decrepit server onto a shiny new VM server hosted in our IT datacentre, which is awesome but I’m rusty on my RHEL stuff, so there’s a chance I’m missing something important in configuring the server… []

brian lamb and jim groom on reclaiming innovation

Having spent the last 2+ years of my life working on the LMS selection, implementation and replacement here at UCalgary, I can relate to this awesome new article on a pretty profound level. My life in educational technology has been almost entirely redefined in relation to the LMS. That’s a horrifying realization.

This part weighs particularly heavily…

The demands of sustaining infrastructure have continued to dominate institutional priorities, and the recent promise of Web 2.0 has been unevenly integrated into campus strategies: instances of broad, culture-shifting experimentation along these lines in higher education can be counted on one hand. IT organizations have started outsourcing enterprise systems in the hope of leveraging hosted solutions and the cloud more broadly to free up time, energy, and resources. The practice of outsourcing itself seems to have become the pinnacle of innovation for information technology in higher education. Meanwhile, IT organizations are often defined by what’s necessary rather than what’s possible, and the cumulative weight of an increasingly complex communications infrastructure weighs ever heavier.

and a faint glimmer of hope:

Starting now. A technology that allows for limitless reproduction of knowledge resources, instantaneous global sharing and cooperation, and all the powerful benefits of digital manipulation, recombination, and computation must be a “bag of gold” for scholarship and for learning. It is well within the power of educators to play a decisive role in the battle for the future of the web. Doing so will require the courage to buck prevailing trends. It will require an at-times inconvenient commitment to the fundamental principles of openness, ownership, and participation. It will require hard work, creativity, and a spirit of fun.

It will require reclaiming innovation. Our choice.

My vision for Learning Technologies at the UofC

This is where I go out on a bit of a limb, but I think it’s important to share this kind of info to see if it’s on the right track, too ambitious, or not ambitious enough.

Basically, the last year has been one of constant change in learning technologies at the UofC. We changed LMS, from an antique version of Blackboard, to the latest version of Desire2Learn1. We replaced Elluminate with Adobe Connect2. We rolled out Top Hat as the campus student response system. It’s been a lot of things changing, some while the academic year was under way. I’m hoping we have these things stabilized by the end of the Fall 2014 semester, so we can move on to more interesting things.

We have had difficulty in keeping our key learning technologies up to date over the years, in a kind of digital parallel to deferred maintenance on our facilities. Then, when we reach a crisis, we have to react and strike Urgent High Priority Projects to enable massive change to respond to impending technology failures. We need to get past that reactive mode, which keeps our resources tied up in emergency projects, and into a more proactive mode that is forward-looking, so that we’re able to plan ahead rather than panicking about averting imminent disaster.

As a university, we offer a set of common tools that form up the core learning technologies platform. This is important, because it provides a common starting point for all 14 faculties and various service units. If they can start with a common set of tools, we can provide some cohesive support and enable people to get up and running. It provides a consistent experience for students, so they don’t have to learn one LMS for a class in Sciences, and a different one for a class in Arts, and a different one for one in Kinesiology, etc…. That consistency is downplayed, but it is incredibly important.

Students are under a pretty extreme level of pressure to succeed. They face rising costs, crushing debt, and more competition than ever before. If we can provide them with a consistent experience, they spend less time learning the tools and more time engaging each other and doing more interesting things.

Also, we have students whose success depends on this consistent experience – anyone that uses a screen reader to support their visual challenges will tell you that inconsistent interfaces essentially destroy the learning experience for them, as they have to battle with various navigation models and learn to find things in each environment.

The University of Calgary’s common learning technology platform currently consists of:

  • Online Tools
    • Desire2Learn
    • Adobe Connect
    • Top Hat
  • Classroom Tools (classroom podium software stack)
    • SMART Notebook
    • MS Office
    • various media players
    • various web browsers
    • Skype

These are common tools that are centrally funded, and are available for use by every instructor, student, and staff member in our community. They provide various levels of flexibility, which cover the most common use cases (and even lets you pick various themes and enable plugins to really customize your site as needed). And and probably wouldn’t have been considered part of the core common learning technology platform before I started my new role and basically started telling everyone that that’s what they were.

But, these tools don’t cover all common needs. We still need to add a few tools. The most urgent needs are for video hosting and survey management.

Video hosting is important because we currently don’t have a place where we can say “hey. you need to share a video? just use this…”. Today, individuals have to spin up their own YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, or other accounts and publish their videos there. Which works, but what happens when an instructor leaves the university? The videos they published to their accounts on various services disappear. We have no way to provide support for these services. Students, again, have an inconsistent experience (why does video from my Math course work on my iPad, while my Chem course videos don’t?). At the moment, the only campus platform for hosting videos is a static webserver. So, 500MB video files are uploaded to a server, students are expected to download the video and install whatever video player is required (is it MP4? Will that work in QuickTime, or do I need Windows Media Player? Can I play a WMV file? etc… and we still have courses with Real Media files. Yeah.

So, by adding a video hosting service to our common platform, instructors and students can host videos in a place that’s managed and consistent, and will be able to know that videos will work on whatever device they use, and won’t disappear when a prof moves to another institution.

Similarly for survey management. We currently rely on individuals to spin up their own Survey Monkey or similar account, learn how to use it (there are many many online survey platforms that are used), and pay for the pro account so you can export your full data set. This adds up quickly. If we provided a campus survey platform, individuals wouldn’t have to pull out their credit cards, and we’d be able to manage the data and provide a level of support that isn’t possible otherwise.

OK. So we add video hosting and online surveys to the common learning technology platform. That provides the starting point for all faculties to build from. But it still won’t cover unique needs – we have 14 faculties, each with signature pedagogies, and it’s just not realistic to assume that their unique needs can be fully met by a handful of campus-provided common tools. How do we provide a common set of tools and support innovation and unique requirements?

Departments often manage their own platforms – our Faculty of Medicine is involved in an open source consortium to build and maintain an online platform tailored to their needs. They also get to manage the servers and software required to run that platform. Other faculties use other platforms, and are able to have dedicated servers managed by Information Technologies in our campus datacentre, but each one is essentially a standalone project, requiring separate dedicated resources to maintain and monitor the server and its software.

What if we were able to provide something like the Reclaim Hosting model on campus? That would give individuals access to host whatever software they need, mostly through the one-click installers built into CPanel, while running the whole thing within the campus datacentre so that everything is properly managed and backed up. Again, this is stuff that’s possible now, by having individuals go to GoDaddy, MediaTemple, iWeb, or any of a long list of hosting providers where they can set up whatever they want. But, they have to find a good provider. They have to learn the unique way of managing the software on that provider’s platform. They have to remember to pay the annual fee charged by the service provider. And they need to back their stuff up. That’s a lot of points of failure. We need to provide a more streamlined way of supporting this kind of innovation, so they’re able to focus more on the innovation and less on the management of the service.

I think this is where we need to go as a university. We need to provide the best core tools as a common platform. We need to provide consistency while not stifling innovation. And we need to provide support for innovation, exploration, and truly unique use cases.

So, my visionary plan3 for campus learning technologies is to finish stabilizing things by the end of the Fall 2014 semester (which means before Christmas 2014), adding in the missing pieces to make sure we have a really solid core platform. And then, to be able to start working on more interesting things, including planning out what would be required to implement a Reclaim Hosting service on campus.

  1. that’s probably going to wind up as a blog post or two, but later… []
  2. still in progress, but it started back in January []
  3. which isn’t actually that visionary – it feels more like common sense and catch-up in 2014 []

CNIE session on campus engagement

I was fortunate to be able to present a session at CNIE 2014, to share some of the campus engagement stuff we did as part of our long LMS replacement project. I tried to stay away from the technology itself, and focus on the engagement process. Full slide deck is available online, and fuller reports describing the engagement and findings are still available online, as well as the GitHub repository of LMS RFP requirements1.

Basically, I described the process, which started as a conventional inventory of shiny things. We then realized that we had the opportunity to have a more meaningful discussion as a campus community, and the conversation shifted to more interesting topics such as how people actually teach and learn, and what they actually care about.

I billed this as a hands-on session, and was rewarded with a coveted 90 minute slot. The first activity was to have participants try working through building a “fishbone diagram”, based on the research of Jeffrey Nyeboer. It’s a useful way of organizing the description of organizational attributes – things that make up the workflow of an organization – in a way that’s more meaningful than simple word clouds.


(photo by the awesome and talented Irwin DeVries)

It’s a process we used with faculty leadership across our campus, to describe what they mean by “teaching and learning”. We provided them with a simplified template as a null hypothesis, and asked each faculty to correct/complete/adapt/recreate it as needed to describe what they care about. The beauty of this kind of diagram is that it’s pretty inclusive – it’s easy to work on with a group, and when there is disagreement about something that’s on it, or something that has been missed, it is easy to hand people markers to hack away at the diagram until they like it. Used that way, it’s an interesting way to build consensus around what things an organization cares about, which is something that often triggers conflict and defensive postures. The cool thing about the engagement model is that it has lead to some much deeper discussions about things that are much more interesting than what they need from an LMS – it’s opened the door to ongoing discussions about teaching and learning that would have been difficult, impossible, or unavailable otherwise.

Here’s the simplified fishbone we used as a starting point for each faculty on campus:

Fish Bones

Here’s one of the fishbones that was adapted by one of our faculties:2

Fish Bones  Education

And the fishbones that some of the session participants came up with, to describe various contexts:

Evernote Snapshot 20140515 162905Evernote Snapshot 20140515 162905Evernote Snapshot 20140515 162905Evernote Snapshot 20140515 162905

In the session, I also talked about how we identified the various types of people/groups that make up our community, which is surprisingly difficult at a complex organization such as a university.


The session went really well, even though it was an “LMS session” at a time when we’re finally getting some movement away from The LMS As All That There Is™ – but this engagement model would work well (and has worked well) for anything – the LMS change on our campus just provided us with the Macguffin to get the plot moving.

  1. but I would strongly recommend that you don’t use the full set – this was far too much for everyone, and with enough items, things basically cancel each other out. pick a subset of items that you really care about, and have the respondents tailor their responses to that, rather than the whole shooting match. at a high level, they’re essentially all the same thing anyway… []
  2. we provided these via copies of documents in Google Docs, so people could happily add/edit/remove stuff without worrying about access or tools []

designing online documents

We’re working on something that would benefit from being produced in the form of a well-designed online document, so I’m gathering some samples and links…

Some Samples

Some tools

Any other awesome examples or useful tools to make this kind of design activity not cost a fortune or rely on a large team?

constructioncam test

Just processed a quick time-lapse test, using the camera1 that we installed to monitor construction of the new digs. This’ll work nicely… Now, to test a few video hosting platforms, to see which one mangles the video the least…

YouTube version:

MediaCore version: mediacore is offline

Vimeo version:

Flickr version:

Facebook version:

WordPress version: wordpress

original H.263 .mov file (66.3MB)

also, holy smokes does YouTube compress video files, even at “HD” quality. yikes. Facebook looks janky and won’t seem to embed at full width. Vimeo looks decent, but won’t play HD embedded unless I pony up for a premium account (and made me wait in line for 43 minutes before compression began, for reasons). Flickr and MediaCore seem to be the best so far…

  1. a Foscam FI9821W V2, installed hanging upside-down at an undisclosed location on campus []

on after-hours work email

The results were immediate and powerful. The employees exhibited significantly lower stress levels. Time off actually rejuvenated them: More than half said they were excited to get to work in the morning, nearly double the number who said so before the policy change. And the proportion of consultants who said they were satisfied with their jobs leaped from 49 percent to 72 percent. Most remarkably, their weekly work hours actually shrank by 11 percent—without any loss in productivity. “What happens when you constrain time?” Lovich asks. “The low-value stuff goes away,” but the crucial work still gets done.

via Are You Checking Work Email in Bed? At the Dinner Table? On Vacation? | Mother Jones. (via BoingBoing

I’d love to set this policy up at the office. I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

Update: and… 5 minutes after sending the link to the article, and we have an informal policy in the Taylor Institute to try out prohibiting work-related emails before 8am and after 5pm, and on weekends. Awesome. It’s a start.

winter 2014 d2L activity

Aggregated stats for D2L usage during the Winter 2014 semester (Jan-Apr 2014). Counts number of visits, not pageviews.

W2014 d2l piwik

The first week of January was the ramp-up to the official semester start. Reading week is visible as the slump in February. Kind of trails off as finals approach…

disregard hype.