Duke ITAC - April 28, 2011 Minutes

ITAC Meeting Minutes
April 28, 2011, 4:00-5:30
Allen Board Room

  • Announcements and Meeting Minutes
  • Outage updates (Amy Brooks, Sanjay Rao)
  • Duke Sakai project (Samantha Earp, Chris Meyer, Lynne O'Brien, Ed Gomes)


Announcements & Meeting Minutes

Alvy Lebeck asked the group for questions, comments, or concerns regarding the meeting minutes from March 3rd and 31st that had been distributed with the agenda. There was no objection; the minutes will be posted online.

Much thanks was extended to Mark Elstein and Ben Getson, Duke Student Government appointed undergraduate ITAC members with terms concluding this academic year. Mark said that serving on ITAC had been an excellent experience, and expressed his appreciation for the opportunity. Tracy thanked Mark and noted the great importance of student representation.

Outage Updates (Amy Brooks, Sanjay Rao)

Amy Brooks, Assistant VP of IT, apologized for the recent DukeMail outages. She stated her opinion that that they were preventable through increased testing. She assured the group that procedures are being put in place to avoid similar problems in the future. Sanjay Rao explained the need for the SMTP upgrades that became problematic. The SMTP gateway was more than five years old, the license had expired, and the product was beyond technical support. The system also could not support encryption, which is increasingly in demand. The new product can handle encryption as required. Encryption is initiated by a subject line beginning with “Secure”, any patterns appearing like an SSN number, or confidential settings by mail clients.

Mark Elstein asked if the recipient needs a key or certificate to decode this type of encryption. Sanjay responded that they do not. The system sends a message to the recipient notifying them of an encrypted message, which prompts the recipient to retrieve the message by username and password. After initial setup the encrypted files are delivered in PDF format.
The following issues were experienced as a result of the SMTP upgrade:

  • The keyword “confidential” caused the system to encrypt messages unexpectedly. In order to resolve this issue encryption had to be disabled temporarily.
  • Mulberry users experienced a client certificate error. The InCommon certificate was not being provided to clients. This issue has been resolved. 
  • Mail applications set to use SSL without transport layer security on port 465 were unable to connect. This required a client configuration change.
  • Shared mailboxes in the DukeMail system did not receive mail immediately. Loading of configuration data to the LDAP system was delayed. This issue was resolved as the data was loaded.
  • Forwarding, vacation messages, Remedy, and IT Alert experienced delays due to missing records. Messages were queued for delivery and delayed about 3 hours. No mail was lost.
  • Duke IP addresses were blacklisted by sorbs.net. The entire 152.3 IP address block is currently blocked and the networking team is working to have it delisted as quickly as possible.

John Board asked how to confirm that Duke is not blacklisted with other sites. Sanjay responded that unfortunately we’re not able to do that; we find out when a user reports blocked mail. Amy said the takeaway for her team is that systematic testing needs to be implemented, even for changes seeming relatively minor.

She also noted that the Exchange 2010 upgrade is being reassessed for these same reasons, and will be tested more extensively before deployment. Alvy pointed out that the timing of the recent DukeMail upgrade was not well planned with the academic calendar, and that this was a particularly bad time to lose access. Amy agreed, and again apologized for the timing of the outages. Tracy said that there was a time in the past when we could strictly avoid upgrades during the academic year, but that with the volume of services offered today that simply would not be possible. Instead we need to continue work on classification systems to ensure that essential and critical services are timed appropriately, relative to the academic calendar.

Terry Oas asked if there was any correlation between this event and his departments Exchange server issues. He said users in his department were having to VPN to the 152.3.x.x network in order to access Exchange mail from Apple clients. Amy said this did not sound related, and asked Debbie DeYulia to follow up with Terry on the issue.

Alvy noted that the Chronicle had mentioned the lack of notification for students when DukeMail was not working properly, and asked if there were plans to develop such a system. Steve O’Donnell responded that there is an RSS feed and Twitter updates for outages available. Tracy added that perhaps if outages meet a particular threshold of impact, they should be raised to the level of the Duke.edu or Duke Today sites. A conversation is currently taking place regarding what that threshold should be.

Sakai Implementation Update (Samantha Earp, Chris Meyer, Lynne O’Brien, Ed Gomes)

Samantha Earp began by explaining the method through which Sakai was chosen as a potential future learning management system. The eLearning roadmap group was formed in early 2009 and began an 18-month process of identifying an ideal candidate to move forward with, given there was not an option of staying on the existing version of Blackboard. The recommendation for Sakai was delivered in November 2010 and accepted January 2011. It was determined that Sakai would provide more value for Duke’s investment, greater flexibility, and better possibility of influence to the overall eLearning roadmap and engagement with the community. Primary concerns from faculty were minimizing the transition effort, the difficulty of migration, and the availability of new and improved tools and functionalities.

Samantha noted that we are now in the early stages of developing our own implementation, a process which will continue through the 2011-2012 academic year. Completion of the transition to Sakai is currently targeted for summer 2012. Blackboard will continue to be available through the coming academic year. This will be an iterative process, and the team expects questions, which will need to be addressed and resolved along the way. Multiple forms of training and support will be provided. Sakai will be hosted externally during the transition to allow effective use of Duke resources and meet the proposed timeline. It is expected that many students and faculty will be using both Sakai and Blackboard in the coming year. Robert Wolpert asked if faculty would have the choice of which to use for the 2011-2012 academic year. Samantha responded that this was the case.

A more detailed transition timeline was provided showing a small group of individual faculty and departments beginning to teach courses with Sakai during fall 2011. Ideal candidates for this phase will be those with smaller courses, or new faculty without existing courses developed in Blackboard. Spring 2012 will begin the broader migration of faculty and departments to Sakai. During the Fall 2012 semester, the current timeline calls for all faculty and departments to be migrated to Sakai at which point Blackboard will be decommissioned. Samantha shared that a handful of courses have already piloted Sakai during the Spring 2011 semester. Only one of these courses decided to discontinue use of the system mid-semester, due to shortcomings associated with password resets for Duke users on the pilot system (hosted by UNC).

Mark Elstein noted that Blackboard is used for more than just course management, such as an organizational site used by the Duke police department. Lynne O’Brien said that those organizations would be moving to project sites in Sakai before the scheduled decommissioning of Blackboard in fall 2012. Samantha noted that there are potentially better options at Duke for those types of sites such as WordPress (sites.duke.edu) and the Duke Wiki (wiki.duke.edu). Tracy added that learning management systems are full-featured tools designed to handle the full range of needs of courses; Sakai may be more than necessary for a small group or temporary project.

Samantha said the majority of students and faculty felt the spring 2011 pilot was a successful experience. Most of the issues encountered will be addressed in the coming full implementation. Sakai’s user interface and functionality were highly preferable to their Blackboard counterparts, and faculty reported course creation times similar to or faster than Blackboard.

Terry Oas shared that in his recent course of both undergraduate and graduate students, there was a substantial preference for Blackboard over Sakai. However, Terry has found that he prefers Sakai to Blackboard. There is less effort required in performing various actions and the grade book feature is much improved. Terry predicts there will be a fair amount of frustration with the migration process based mostly on the effort involved in learning a new tool. Even though Sakai is substantially improved, much work is still needed to move to it. Terry also believes the simplicity of the course documents link in Blackboard will be missed. Sakai’s file system is more like that of a computer, and while capable of greater functionality, may be more difficult to navigate.

Mark Goodacre shared mixed experiences from his course, and generally speaking found that Sakai could do everything currently being done in Blackboard. He believes that the issues his students experienced are related to the pilot and will be resolved in production. Teaching assistants experienced problems when more than one person attempted to make changes to an assignment simultaneously, often experiencing data loss. Samantha noted that the team would be investigating a lockout option to eliminate the possibility of two people editing the same assignment. Mark also experienced a large number of students reporting the completion of quizzes that were not showing up as complete in the system. While this happens occasionally in Blackboard as well, there were significantly more instances seen using Sakai. Mark felt support during the pilot was phenomenal, and hopes it will continue to be as good in production.

John Board asked how many of the problems seen in this pilot could be due to the pilot implementation itself. Samantha responded that while working with a borrowed pilot implementation we were unable to work much with the vendor. Now that Duke is moving to its own environment, we should be able to resolve these issues.

Lisa Huettel said it would have been helpful to see more examples in Sakai. Those that exist were useful, but limited in number. Lisa noted that she had received little feedback from her students, and that they had encountered very few problems using the system. The largest issue encountered in her course was that the grade book did not separate sections properly, which caused a problem for various lab divisions in the course. Despite the issues, it was advantageous for all the lab sections to be able to share a single course, which was not previously possible in Blackboard. Samantha said that more than one grade book is available for Sakai and that in our production instance it is possible a different version will be used. This is an example of Sakai’s flexibility, and the importance of testing and fine-tuning our own configuration.

Samantha expects the migration of content to be a large point of conversation during the transition. Determining what content should be moved, and how content will be archived for later use will be a challenge. Management of non-Duke users will be carefully examined during fall 2011 as well as whether or not we can offer self provisioning accounts. Both are technically possible in Sakai, but will need to be examined in terms of policy and governance.

Alvy noted that one of Sakai’s advantages is flexibility, and asked if the external hosting vendor might artificially constrain the various options. Lynne O’Brien responded that the vendor selected to host Sakai was done so based on their ability to provide flexibility. Alvy added that while flexibility may be possible, it could potentially become very expensive. Ed Gomes responded that this is again where the governance will be important. Tracy asked the group to be as responsive as possible during the process, noting that the more feedback received early in the transition the better we’ll be able to assess our progress on this aggressive timeline. 

Tracy further queried the group as to whether anyone involved in the pilot or serving as an ITAC representative had observed any “show stoppers” so far in the evaluation.  None of the ITAC members or faculty pilot participants who were present expressed reservation regarding proceeding with the testing and migration process as planned. 

Terry Oas asked if the decision has been officially made to move from Blackboard to Sakai. Tracy responded that the decision has been made to pursue a pilot and incremental testing and deployment with the expectation that we will move to Sakai over the next year or so.  She further observed that the evaluation to date—including the presentation just provided to ITAC—has not identified any show-stoppers and as such we are continuing with our plans to transition from Blackboard to Sakai.

Lynne O’Brien added that due to substantial changes to Blackboard, many of the issues encountered in the migration to Sakai would not be avoided by staying with the current solution.