By: Joseph Cacciotti

David Loignon, Paul Schieman and Vanessa Marshall are part of the team that keeps Algonquin’s Blackboard running smoothly.

Like any technology, Blackboard is not perfect, but is has a team of dedicated administrators and student and Faculty support members who work tirelessly to ensure the system is working as smoothly as possible 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

Paul Schieman, Administrator, Vanessa Marshall, and David Loignon, manager of Learning Management Systems & Solutions Automation for Algonquin College are members of the team that keep the system that accommodates and facilitates access to over 721 courses across 120 full time programs used by people all over the world.

Some of the routinely asked support questions from students as well as Faculty are around account activation, course access and the availability of posted grades. It is important to note that the account creation process is all done through our Student Information System called the GeneSIS and take about 24 hours before it’s available on ACSIS and another 24 hours to become available through Blackboard.

It is also important for users to understand the factors that affect their access to the service. When there are problems accessing the internet this does not mean that the services found online are no longer working, simply that there is a problem in the connection between the device they are using and the server they are attempting to access.

“We have McGraw Hill a publishing company and other add on functionalities or ‘building blocks’ that link to 3rd party sites, and we have no control over their accessibility.”

Today students use laptops, smartphones, and tablets to access college materials, and Blackboard has adapted to accommodate the need with versions and applications compatible with most systems. “Blackboard Inc. officially certifies versions 9 and above of Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari,” said Schieman.

Google chrome does work however has not been officially certified, and there are plans for this to happen in the future.  Numerous third party programs are only compatible with certain browsers, therefore Firefox users may experience difficulties accessing a resource through Blackboard that an Internet Explorer user would not.

“When I was teaching courses, I was using my IT Lab, it was only compatible with Internet Explorer,” said Marshall.

“Since late December, when we implemented a new load balancing device and as a result have consistently achieved 99.5% system availability,” said Schieman.

Each program’s use of the College’s online resources differ, and not everyone uses Blackboard regularly enough to properly judge its performance.

“I don’t use it enough to have problems with it,” said Matthew Frohlick, a building construction technician student who has attended Algonquin in intervals for the past five years.

In the past few years there have been numerous obstacles that Blackboard has overcome, and many of these accomplishments remain unsung.

“If a server goes down, you are seamlessly connected through additional servers without any loss of data and without being prompted to log back in,” said Schieman.

One of the reasons Blackboard has become so robust is due to technologies such as server virtualization.  This means that we can bring online and off additional resources as needed.  “I could take down six servers and still support the entire college seamlessly on the remaining six,” said Schieman.

“The last time Blackboard was down was in November or October,” said Schieman. That is only once across two semesters.

Based on past years, this is a good track record, and other than that event, every time the system has been down was due to a planned event. “Blackboard is taken down on occasion for scheduled maintenance and we are very cognisant as to when we do this, so we don’t take it down when there are exams going on.”  Since we support international programs, it is at times difficult to co-ordinate the routine maintenance and updates that the system requires due to the time differences. There is always a chance that even scheduled maintenance can affect student’s access to the system.  “The system is operational on a 24/7 basis, we have people from China, from Saudi Arabia that use our Blackboard environment.” said Loignon, “We have one System Administrator and three Educational Application Support members to assist our Faculty with their BlackBoard support needs.”

Students often blame Blackboard for connectivity issues, yet it is rarely Blackboard itself that causes their problems.

“Unfortunately, there have been a lot of anecdotal complaints about Blackboard, which has led to the system getting a bad reputation.  What IIRTS is attempting to do with its Client Care department and Faculty support team is to capture any and all pertinent information about an issue when it happens.  Information like, the contact information of the person experiencing the problem, what exactly is the issue.  It’s very difficult to troubleshoot an issue that happened a week ago or in some cases, a month ago…  Once we have the information it’s is fed through the support chain and we try to reproduce the issue.  In some cases we can reproduce the issue and get to work on the solution be it end user education or something more technical” said Loignon.

“Last semester Blackboard logged me out during a quiz,” said Theresa Mendez, a student of practical nursing, “It was a quiz that only allowed one attempt, and when I logged back in my attempt had been used.”

Though there have been problems with Blackboard there are many students who have never experienced any issues at all.

Kelly Wood, and Sherry Strickland are both graduates of Algonquin’s police foundations program, and are currently enrolled in the personal support worker program. Having used Blackboard for the past three years they both said they have never had a problem with Blackboard.