Why it’s a good idea to take your teaching off the grid

Phil Hill reports on the Scriba Disaster: Sakai-based LMS for UC Davis is down with no plans for recovery:

In what might shape up as one of the worst LMS outages in recent history, UC Davis has been working without an LMS for the past week and does not expect their vendor to fix the problems before the end of the term. UC Davis uses a version of Sakai hosted by the LMS remnants of rSmart. In 2013 rSmart sold it’s Sakai-supporting LMS business to Asahi Net International, and in 2015 a private equity firm – Vert Capital – bought ANI and renamed it Scriba. Scriba brands the Sakai LMS for UC Davis as SmartSite.

UC Davis is on the quarter system, with the last week of class next week (May 31) and finals the week of June 6. A few months ago UC Davis announced their intention to migrate to Canvas as their LMS. SmartSite subsequently went down on May 19th, and all signs are pointed to a complete and final outage. Scriba will not answer the phones (you get a message that the mailbox is full), and UC Davis staff are making a heroic attempt to in-house recreate LMS tools and even to recover grades that had been entered on SmartSite.

At this point, they’re working on a temporary fix that will permit only instructors (not students) to access their LMS information for the end of the semester.

Friends, I feel pretty vindicated for continuing to be committed to face-to-face teaching and to taking my classes last semester off the radar.  I’d been thinking about it while on sabbatical the previous academic year, and decided that I’d pull the plug last semester.  I only used our BlackBoard/Canvas systems very lightly–I never entered grades into it, and only used it to share copies of assigned articles, primary sources, assignments, and the syllabus.

In both of my classes last term, we met face-to-face three times a week and had our discussions there, so I never used the discussion boards.  Our library still hosts an e-reserve platform, where students can get copies of book chapters or other articles that aren’t available online otherwise.  And I’ve just described how useless and exploitative the plagiarism detection software is.  Fortunately for me, my students were up for the adventure of going completely stealth; their only question was how I might communicate with them if they needed an electronic copy of the syllabus, or if there were a snow day.

I said I’d email them, which was how I would have reached them regardless of any LMS.  They seemed happy with the plan, and said that it worked well at the end of the term.

As I’ve recently proclaimed, software works for me; I don’t work for it.  I am sorry for all of the UC Davis faculty whose quarter’s worth of work has been stymied by this massive failure of their garbage LMS.  But rest assured:  the more dependent we and our students become on this software, the more this kind of thing will happen.

It’s a good feeling to know that my work is securely backed up by my human brain and some reliable, old 1980s technologies (MS Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and email).  Sure, those information storage technologies can fail at any time, but the solutions for recovery are a lot closer to hand for us as teachers.  And the beauty part is that it’s mine, all mine!

23 thoughts on “Why it’s a good idea to take your teaching off the grid

  1. I’ve never gone near any LMS, and have dreaded the day when some small-time autocrat over at Hoodumpler would decide to make it mandatory for faculty. But it never has happened. The less “management” the better around any learning environment, I think, and while you’re at it, you can throw in/out “systeme” too. The vendocracy-industrial complex loves to sign on new programs, and this “migrate” stuff happens because the more you churn the tub, the more future benefits are generated for the program acquisition officers at the institution. Who often revolving door and become vendors. Whenever we have been instructed to “migrate,” a collective howl goes up over the university footprint from colleagues who have “invested a year” in learning the abandoned platform, and all sorts of alternatating placatory and mandatory rhetoric goes forth to grease the move. This isn’t “supported” anymore, that won’t “work” (i.e. interface) with someotherthing that somebody has decided to acquire, the state system has decided to go with a “unified screenface environment,” if we don’t do it, it will ruin our articulation agreements with the community colleges, it will punish transfer students, etc.etc. etc. What this does do for students is prepare them for work-lives on the grid and in the cubicle. I guess that was the whole idea at the curiously named “normal” schools, going back to when people had to “migrate” from knife-sharpening the charcoal pencils to making your own ink.

    Somebody at a conference I went to today described themselves as a “recovering Luddite.” Who could blame them? I also hate all these cutesy-tutesy “D2L”-ish platform names that these corporations give to their campus products. When my generation was barricading deans in their offices, we absolute puked-out at any hint that any of the suits thought that they could talk like they thought actual students talked.

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  2. When I taught my little honors seminar last fall, I had the option of using D2L (OK, now it’s called BrightSpace, I guess). I tried it, instantly hated it, and decided instead to use LibGuides for my course… which I can do because I’m a librarian. The biggest issue was email, which I ended up using the LMS for just to be 100% sure I was reaching everyone. I had a student try to pull off “technical difficulties” as an excuse for turning in late material by saying D2L didn’t work… but since every email I’d sent out via D2L had said not to reply through D2L, student didn’t have a leg to stand on. LibGuides is still dependent on a software company, but it’s drastically easier to use. And to be honest, in my case it was really just one step away from being off the grid: if I’d wanted to, we could have done the whole class offgrid using the library’s electronic reserves system.

    Now, what *was* cool was the in-classroom technology where both the students and I could project from our laptops straight to the classroom screen (no dongles needed) — great for their “look at this cool source I found” presentations. And the wall covered with whiteboard paint (because of course I went out and bought a ton of colored whiteboard markers so the students could draw on the walls). I’ll be using those more in the next version of the course.

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  3. Historiann,

    You know I’m with you in spirit here, but I think your metaphor has made your argument less clear than it should be. I don’t think it’s whether your teaching is on or off the grid that’s really important. It’s who controls the grid. Like you say, software’s OK as long as it works for you – just as it did for Sophie Lou. Other programs can work for you too, but not some ghastly one-size-fits, off-the-shelf learning management system chosen mostly by IT people and administrators instead of faculty.

    I’m sure it doesn’t help that your employer is particularly top-down when it comes to technology. Audrey Watters has written extensively about her fears that the Silicon Valley mindset is infecting academia through tech. While that’s certainly valid, I’m much more afraid of the administrative mindset that’s already in academia destroying the faculty’s traditional prerogatives using Silicon Valley’s tools. My co-author and I (believe it or not we just finished an entire frickin’ book on precisely this subject) advocate for a “buffet approach.” You want to use the LMS? Use the LMS. You want to use something else? Use something else. You don’t wanna use anything? You know where this is going…

    The key point here is that individual faculty members should decide just how far onto the grid they wanna to go and just as importantly they should be able to build their own grid if they so desire. That way if the university’s grid breaks down entirely, maybe the whole place won’t come to a screeching halt.

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  4. I’ve been thinking about going back to an old fashioned course pack for my teaching, especially western civ where my lectures, assignments, and readings are pretty well set. This might just be the thing to make me do it. Two things were holding me back:

    1) I like to change my short assignments and the worksheets on the fly in my classes. Using the MLS to distribute them meant I could change things up depending on where each section of the class needed the most help. I would need to set my assignments at the start of the semester, or rely on my department’s photocopy budget to change things up more.

    2) I find the LMS gradebook useful. Students know where they can look up their grade and I don’t have to spend a lot of time calculating it for them or explaining why they earned what they earned of the class. I also like the convenience of porting the final grade directly from the LMS to the Registrar’s software.

    —-
    An aside: I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me that this is a clear cut case of retaliation on the part of Scriba and Vert Capital. It is also breach of contract for Scriba to allow the system to crash, let it stay crashed, and then not provide support that they contracted to provide. My question is this: will the UC Regents or the UC Davis administration sue Scriba/Vert for breach of contract? They cannot prove retaliation right now, but might be able to do so in the discovery process of suing for breach of contract. My guess is that they won’t because University administrators are spineless corporate lickspittles.

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    • I read a second post by Phil Hill and the outage affected other universities and colleges as well, but it went on longer at Davis. So it probably was not retaliation, but I still think its worth UC Davis for suing Scriba for failing to provide adequate support. Clearly they made the right choice to switch vendors. It might have been even better for them to run their own version of Sakai or some other LMS instead.

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  5. There are a number of faculty on my campus who have decided to use the open source program Moodle as an alternative to the university’s official LMS (Blackboard). I like having students submit everything electronically – although it’s amazing how many of these so-called digital natives find even this difficult to do! Posting papers and reading assignments online also saves paper. I post grades online so students can chart their progress and at the end the system will calculate final grades for me. It’s a great tool!

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    • I remind the digital cheerleaders all the time that our students may be digital natives in some ways, but actually they struggle with classroom technology all the time!

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    • My university quit paying for an LMS a while back (before I arrived three years ago) and now only uses Moodle. Downside – no on-call tech support. We do have one person who is the full-time Moodle guru, but she isn’t available 24/7 obviously. Upside, well, it’s free and open source. I also enjoy having the grades online so I never have to answer emails about people’s grades or what their average is.

      The administration only requires us to use it for two things, however: posting the syllabus, and posting midterm grades. Why anyone would object to putting the syllabus online – which means no student can ever claim NOT to have access to it – is beyond me. I literally do not answer emails that ask questions that that are answered on the syllabus. Such a time savings!

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  6. Oddly, this story solidifies my preference for using the university-provided LMS, for a reason I’ve embraced ever since ours crashed for several days during the last week of school several years ago: when that happens, it’s definitely a problem for professors and students, but it’s even more a problem for the provost, deans, etc., and they will eventually have to come up with a solution, and rules for how to deal with lost work/grades, etc.

    If I picked and chose my own, non-university-provided, tools, it would be primarily my problem.

    This, admittedly, comes from the perspective of someone who teaches online and hybrid classes regularly, and so needs some sort of LMS, or at least a set of tools that provide similar functionality. I also teach 4/4/2 (semesters + summer teaching) and so have very little time to experiment with new tools. I definitely favor the familiar, as long as it works even semi-well (which our campus instance of Blackboard mostly does).

    This story also reminds me that I should back up the grade book more often (the school does it, too, of course, but it’s still useful to have my own copies. I also keep copies of all handouts, discussion prompts, etc., etc. offline, and upload them each semester; I’m not so much of an LMS fan that I’m willing to keep the sole copy of anything that has required considerable effort on my part there).

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  7. Thanks everyone for your replies. Jonathan, I actually think the simplest technologies are probably the best and the safest, but I take your point about my metaphor being broken. I agree in the end that it’s the ownership of the tech (and accountability for it, or lack thereof) that’s the biggest issue. But I find that I can do my job without lending my student’s information and my intellectual property to software companies. Hell, we did this for how many centuries before LMS? And apparently, the humanities were more popular majors back then, too. . . .

    As for the paper: trees are a renewable resource. I’m not sure about the coal and oil that still fuel much of our electric grid. I also think there’s more and more evidence suggesting that reading and writing stuff on actual paper facilitates learning much better than digital documents/desktops.

    But, hey! I’m pro-choice. I’m not here to tell you how to teach your classes or steal your student’s information and your intellectual property. I also recognize that I’m privileged to the extent that I can choose to teach F2F courses (vs. online or hybrid.)

    I’m just a schmuck explaining why it works for me to keep my courses off the grid, and offering an example that it’s really not that scary or difficult. And you don’t have to worry about your LMS going down in week 9 of the quarter or week 15 of the semester!!! W00T! #CanvasSux!!!

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  8. While I am not a huge fan of online teaching or LMSs, having the option of going to a hybrid course made a huge difference to me in the days when I was dealing with long-distance elder care. I could set up a course that included online discussions and all kinds of stuff, do just enough of it to be sure that the students understood how it worked, and then carry on as usual F2F, knowing that if The Call came, I could jump on a plane and put my contingency online plan into action. There is only one person in my department who could possibly take over my classes, and while we could manage that if I were going to be out for a big chunk of time, during a 1-3 week absence that included time spent sitting around, I would rather just manage my own classes myself. So, there is a time and a place for systems like Blackboard.

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  9. One of the big failings of much of the education tech boom seems to be its false promises. In theory who can deny it: 1) Students love technology! 2) It’s intuitive for them! And (3) the biggest one of all: This will increase access (with the implied counter: Oh, you don’t think we need to make education accessible to more students?

    But the problem is that in reality these things don’t work as promised.

    1) Yes, students love their phones and are tethered to them. But that should have almost nothing to do with how we deliver college-level course. I don’t WANT my students taking my course on their phone. Or their tablet. The reality is that tech is every bit as much a part of the life of a Gen Xer like me as it is of one of my students, but I don’ want to or like to do lots of things on my phone.

    2) It’s intuitive for them except when it’s not. These LMS’s oftentimes seem like they ought to be intuitive, but often are not. And every time the system changes, or we move to another system everyone, faculty and students, has to wrestle with the differences in ways that take away from what we are supposed to be doing.

    3) I think this is the most pervasive myth of all. Because far from opening up education, at places like mine (A Masters Comprehensive branch of Big State U System with Hispanic Serving Institution deignation and LOTS of first generation and working students) all the tech does is exacerbate the differences between the students who can afford to be connected and those who can’t. We THINK tech is a huge part of many of their lives. But that might just be because they are tethered to their cell phones for text messages on their otherwise limited data plan. We THINK they all are computer savvy — many of them can browse the internet like it was second nature to them (isn’t it for most of us now?) but have never seen anything like an LMS. And of course this presupposes that everyone has internet at home. That is simply not true among my students, and quite possibly among many of yours. These leaves them at the whim of the computer labs and puts many of them at a distinct disadvantage. Far from opening up educational access, moving closer and closer to what Margaret Soltan at “University Diaries” calls “Click-Through-U” is merely another barrier for the most vulnerable student population.

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    • This really says it. The corpocratic and educratic pandering to *false* premises about the “born digital” generational demographic is even worse than the pandering to the sort of true premises about them. I routinely ask students how many “pages” they are typically willing to go deep into a Google ranked search offering, to find things that you know, actually happened, but just not in ways maximally visible to the algorithm at work there. Thinking that, well, 14-15 “pages” deep is probably a lot to ask. It turns out that 2-3 “pages” deep is a lot to ask. Much of what intuits from the internet as we know it is the utility of skimming on multiple surfaces, not diving beneath any of them. This is also what intuits from much of life as we know it, but one of the basic purposes of education should be to subvert that understanding, not to incorporate and embody it. The bottom line is, the fundamental rationale of a learning *management* system, like any other management tool emanating from the industrial parks and policy shops, is to get the subjects out there accustomed to leading managed, and not self-managed, lives.

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    • I agree entirely. Thanks for your comments, dcat.

      On the whole “digital natives” concept: I agree that it’s way, way overstated. The rising generation have little “digital nativity” beyond clicking on an app. It’s actually baby boomers and Gen-Xers like us who were trained to use physical card catalogs and who know something about how information is organized in libraries who are much more adept at finding and using stuff on the internet. (Little wonder, because much of the current internet was created and organized by people in our age group, not by millennials & younger people.)

      As to your point about not wanting your students to experience your course on their phones–I’m seeing a backlash among my students in terms of screen use. For the first time in several years, I had zero students in my largest class who used a laptop or tablet in class (to take notes, or whatever. . . I did have some students take photos of my PP slides in class, but they usually were photographing slides with a striking image on them, and were taking notes by hand too.) And I’m finding that students themselves are more and more convinced that reading and interacting with information on paper is far superior to reading stuff on screens.

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      • Think of it this way: How much longer has a Milennial been using technology than I, a member of Gen X have? The answer is negative time longer. Even if we discount the really, really primitive programming we did in computer class in the 1980s, even if we discount video games, even if we discount various upgrades in, say, stereo technology, or the Walkman, or whatever (and I’m not sure why we should have to do that, but let’s play the game on the terms of the prosletyzers) I reject the very notion.

        I got my first cell phone in South Africa in 1997, in the US in 2000 or thereabouts. I have been texting regularly since 2004. I have been using the internet since about 1994, when I also got my first email account. I download apps at a rate that probably matches most millennials. I prefer paper books overwhelmingly, but I have both the Kindle App and iBooks on my iPad, plus Free Books to boot. In what way does some 22 year old possibly have that exposure and breadth and depth of technology usage?

        What I do have is a sense of discrimination: I’m not impressed by a new technology, or a new app just because someone else has it also. I’m not a first adopter becauise I’m happy to let others experience the glitches in expensive version 1.0. Yes, I do prefer paper books, and magazines, and newspapers, and can make a solid case for why, but I guarantee I still have more books and magazines and newspapers on my devices than all but the tiniest slice of precocious college students. When possible I still buy cds and then download them to my iTunes not because I am a luddite — I have downloaded plenty of music and movies and tv shows and what have you — but because I know that as soon as they choose, Apple can pull something I download from my computer, just as Kindle did a couple of years back when they realized they had screwed up copyright permissions (a revelation that STUNS my students — not my downloading cds, but the ability of downloads to disappear). In other words, I’m comfortable enough to be selective with technology, and I’m unimpressed with a claim of tech-savvy borne of downloading an app that makes it easier to get laid somehow making those of us olds who are married or what have you out of touch. Using the word “Hashtag” before saying something doesn’t make you tech savvy. It means you speak your age group’s lingo. Tubular.

        So, short version: I reject the very premise upon which this mountain of bullshit has been erected. Come to find out, bullshit is a remarkably unstable platform.

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  10. I never believe anyone who tells me any technology is intuitive. For me, every single piece of it requires a learning curve. For some things, I’m willing to put in the time.

    At the end of the semester I was once again chastising myself for not keeping an electronic grade book. (I’ve never even made the time to learn how to use a spreadsheet.) I would like to do that, to save precious time at the end of the semester. But students know from the very detailed syllabus (I know, I know how few actually read it) what each assignment is worth, etc., and I turn back all of their graded assignments so they can keep track. I actually field very few questions about grade calculations. So I’ve never had to worry about some system or program crashing. My back-ups are simple photocopies. I’d like to think I learned something from watching Battlestar Galactica.

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    • Theresa —
      Don’t feel guilty, or alone. Sad little admission: You know how I keep my grades? On an MS Word document. I keep my assignments worth multiples of 10% with one or two exceptions that can be easily extrapolated. I can usually eyeball their grade at the end, but always have a calculator (well, either my phone or my computer’s calculator app) available.

      I do this for a few reasons, none really worth going into, but it works for me. And if your grading system works for you, roll with it.

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  11. We’ve been told we can’t use unapproved platforms for anything involving student info on FERPA grounds. Something about data security, although it seems unlikely that the officially endorsed system is any better in reality. Mostly making sure the vendor with the contract isn’t undercut.

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    • Good lord. What is an “unapproved platform?” A wordpress blog? What are they going to do: come after you for creating a threaded discussion somewhere not under their control? Whatever.

      IOW, Ellie, I think you’re right that student info is MUCH less secure on the “approved platform.”

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  12. I will stick with the Canvas LMS. Technology for teaching is nothing more than another way to present information to students and a set of administrative tools for the educators. I can teach effectively online as well as in the classroom. The LMS is only as good as the instructor who puts it to work. The heart and soul of any online course is in the discussion forums.

    I find the Canvas gradebook to be outstanding as well as the attendance tool. Both are backed up at our institution. I use the LMS to put a syllabus up, to communicate, and to have class assignments posted so that I do not have to waste a lot of paper. I also use my own website with a ton of links instead of the LMS for additional content. If that LMS goes down and I have had experiences where the previous eCollege LMS did go down multiple times, I will keep on going. I have everything backed up on my computer and a flash drive as well as my computer at home.

    Obviously if I was teaching online courses there would be severe problems because the platform is where the interaction takes place (I am teaching ground courses and capped on credit hours to be taught). As far as my ground courses are concerned, the LMS is really nothing more than a housekeeping tool. This might be due to my experiences with the previous LMS being so clunky that I just bypassed it for content. I also flip classes, so I find having my own website works better for my teaching style.

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  13. Pingback: Against monoculture. | ACADEME BLOG

  14. Electronic gradebook? What the heck?

    Maybe I’m just spoiled because my department (Mathematics) forbids classes over size 30. But I
    record all my grades in pencil on a piece of paper–quizzes, exams, whatever. I have a modestly elaborate method for translating a list of a dozen or two numbers into a grade at end of term, but this is accomplished through a routine I program into my programmable calculator (and, no, it can’t be done on a spreadsheet–the programming’s too complex, including safeguards). If it’s a writing course (yes, there are plenty of those in mathematics), the students turn in their proofs on paper, usually written in pencil; I return them with red marks, inviting a return submission to do better.

    The only places the grid comes in are emails with my students, my class blog (a central repository for assignments, upcoming quizzes, and my daily take on What Happened in class, as if I were taking notes for it) and the final grades I input into the registrar’s system. (And in one course I teach there are exercises to do on the web.)

    Our school does have Blackboard; but I wouldn’t even consider using it, as not a semester goes by without reports of its being down for some period. I see no value in it, in any case.

    Am I missing something here?

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    • Short version: yes, you’re kinda spoiled. Teach a 4/4, with at least one class of 70, several over 30, and you will be all over an electronic gradebook.

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