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Internet bugs delay Blackboard

For the first three weeks of school, Blackboard’s new software and hardware has caused delays for students taking tests and submitting assignments for online classes.

However, USF has adopted a new and improved Blackboard system with new hardware to combat the problem.

“The adoption rate has grown and thousands of people are using Blackboard,” said Alicia Balsera, associate director of Academic Computing.

Due to the growth of online classes and an increase in the amount of students enrolled at USF, the academic computing department needed to upgrade its system from Blackboard version 5 to version 6. However, Balsera said, there are many ups and downs to this upgrade, including the frequent interruptions occurring when students try to access Blackboard.

“The interruptions are caused by bugs in a completely new version of the software and new larger computer systems,” Balsera said.

The time that was allocated for the upgrade was from Aug. 11 to Aug. 25.

“During this time the amount of data we had to migrate from the old hardware to the new hardware was over 70 gigabytes of data. This alone took us nine days to do,” Balsera said.

After this was done, there were only a few days left before the fall semester began, Balsera said, and academic computing still had to test the hardware and get it prepared for the thousands of students who would be accessing it.

“This only allows a very short period for system renovation and forces us to curtail pre-released testing procedures,” Balsera said. “We are victims of our own success because by now the adoption rate of this system by faculty and students has grown immensely,” Balsera said.

Balsera said budget cuts have made it hard to maintain the system.

“With the budget constraints, we have only two people (Glen Parker and myself) to operate and maintain the Blackboard systems,” she said.

Balsera said they work into the midnight hours, including weekends, with little sleep, trying to work out the bugs in the new system to make it compatible for thousands of students to use.

“We have not had a normal day since this system has gone up,” she said.

Balsera does not blame the students for the bugs because up until now Blackboard has been reliable.

Since school started, Blackboard has had an exceptional amount of student activity. Balsera said the level of activity is producing high-load conditions, which require immediate fixes if data losses are to be avoided.

There are other large institutions going through this same problem, including Florida State University and other major universities nationwide, Balsera said.

Balsera also said this new version of Blackboard has been installed for better features and upgrades used in everyday technology. Blackboard is now more convenient and has many new options.

It was USF’s choice to change the hardware, Balsera said, and the new hardware was also installed because Blackboard used to be operated by a different computer system which made it difficult to fix problems when they arose. There were also no backups, which was a risky situation. With the new hardware installed, there is a backup system, which shows professors when students were on Blackboard, and it provides a less risky atmosphere, Balsera said

“Blackboard has not been off-line continuously on any given day (since Aug. 25) for longer than 2 to 3 hours,” she said.

We are furiously working on providing rapid response systems, and we do believe that the current problems will soon be resolved. USF is making Blackboard a reliable resource for its students.”

Although Blackboard has been causing some problems, this is not stopping students from using it. There has been an increase of almost 100 percent in online classes offered at USF, with an increase in online enrollment of approximately 80 percent from spring 2002 to spring 2003, said Kathleen Moore, Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs & Educational Outreach.

Of the total 39,262 students enrolled during the spring 2003 semester, 27,299 participated in classes with online elements. Out of all the courses taught online in spring 2003, over 23 percent of them ran through Blackboard, and 43 percent of USF instructors taught a class on Blackboard.

“Blackboard has really been a problem this semester. There are many nice things with the new system, but what I have mostly had to do is extend deadlines and just change some of the ways that I am doing things for the students,” said Eleanour Snow, a USF professor who instructs oceanography online.

Continued Snow, “It has made me get a lot of extra banter(emails), but I am not going to hold the students accountable for things they are not in control of. I have used Blackboard for years and it has been really good. I hope what we are going through right now is a temporary thing.”

Bob Mertzman, a USF telecourse instructor, said he hopes that the bugs and problems with Blackboard will soon subside.

“The difficulties seem to be lessening, so I am optimistic about improved performance as the semester continues. My students should (do) fairly well even with these occasional frustrating problems,” Mertzman said.

But even though there have been difficulties, students still seem to have a good outlook on using the system.

“I think it’s a great thing to have, especially so you can see your grade online. I never have had any problems with Blackboard,” said Andy Boyer, USF graduate.

Manny Cervoni, a USF student, said after taking regular and online classes, she prefers using Blackboard. However, she said, the problems are a pain.

“This semester it has caused me to have to re-take tests again and again because the system was too slow,” she said.

As time progresses, Blackboard will be back to normal with no problems, Balsera said. If any students have any questions regarding how to use Blackboard, they can e-mail Academic Computing at myusf@acomp.usf.edu.