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Technology Speed Bumps

For the last few weeks I have been eagerly waiting to start preparing online course shells related to my new university post. Unfortunately, I still do not have access to the Blackboard servers used by the university. The delay, I am told, has something to do with the HR department. The odd part of that explanation is that I do have access to the other online services to which the university subscribes.

As with many smaller colleges and universities, the information technology at this university is contracted out to specialists. I believe the Blackboard services are subscribed to directly via Blackboard, while email and website services are hosted by other companies. Currently, the university email and calendar system is on a Novell GroupWise hosted service, while website and intranet servers running Microsoft SharePoint involve yet another service provider.

I don't know if HR and other departments farm out IT to yet more companies, but I wouldn't be surprised.

When you create a primary account, the information is supposed to be automatically forwarded via directory services to all the various service providers. So, when I change a password for my email account, that password is changed on all the services to which the university subscribes. Of course this doesn't include Blackboard.

I have to admit, if I were in charge I would probably still contract with a hosting service or off-site backup service to ensure data integrity and service availability. However, I'd sure attempt to consolidate as much as possible.

When technology isn't "invisible" to faculty and students, it can be confusing and frustrating. Though I understand that each service I use is actually operated by a separate company, everything should feel unified to users. Instead, it is a jarring shift from Novell to SharePoint to Blackboard. There are three "login" links from the faculty website, each one asking for what in theory will be the same user information.

The two universities I attended for my master's and doctorate degrees had a "My [whatever]" page, where every service was brought together. This is similar to the "iGoogle" or "My Yahoo" portal approach. A single page displayed an overview of email, calendar, course notices, and my student fees. Everything seemed to be in one place, even though several application platforms were involved.

To most users, it would seem illogical that I can use email, group calendars, some administrative applications, but not the Blackboard Learn course management system. While I might do things differently, I really do appreciate the university's logic. I just wish they could get my Blackboard access up within a week of everything else working.

Contracting with Blackboard to run everything course-related means you get instant software updates (it is their system on their servers, after all) and you can quickly change the options for the university's courses. You don't need in-house experts to upgrade and maintain Blackboard, which can be a serious hassle to install and update.

I wonder how many other businesses and organizations struggle with the SaaS (software as a service) model? I'm still not convinced out-sourced services with shared "cloud" storage is better than the same technologies brought in-house. I've read many firms are creating "private clouds" — an approach that seems wise to me. Again, I'd still have an off-site backup service, but I'd sure like to have as much control as possible over critical operations.

Everything will eventually be squared away and I'll be able to get to work. In the meantime, I need to be patient.

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