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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Web Culture at OU, New and Old: A Cautionary Tale

Some of you may have seen the gorgeous new redesign of the OUCreate project which Adam Croom announced in a blog post here: Rolling out a new front page for 2016. You might also have read Jim Groom's follow-up, where he talks about how this represents "a sign that this could be a much broader shift in the academic web culture of the university." Here's Jim's post: OU Creating Again.

While I am a big booster of OUCreate, I am dismayed to think that the bigger picture of "academic web culture" at OU is not being taken into account here. One of the problems that OUCreate faces, in fact, is the big discontinuity between OUCreate and OU's previous efforts to support web publishing through our IT department at faculty-staff.ou.edu and students.ou.edu. Since students.ou.edu was shut down in December 2015, and since faculty-staff.ou.edu is scheduled to be shut down this summer, I thought I would say a few words here about my experience as a user of both of those services since back in 1999, and why I am much more cautious than Adam and Jim in my assessment of OU's support for web publishing by students, faculty, and staff.

And, yes, this is tl;dr ... which is one of the problems with the assessment of OU's web culture. It takes some time to work through the nitty-gritty of what we have at the moment and how we got here. But the nitty-gritty is important, and OU has a history of making bold claims without the follow-through that is essential in long-term projects like web publishing. I've been teaching students how to publish their creative work on the web since the Fall of 1999; in that time, I've probably taught 2000 students some basics of web literacy that they can use, if they want, to create a web presence for themselves in school and beyond. I'm in this for the long term, and in this post I'd like to sketch, from that long-term perspective, some of the history of web publishing for faculty, staff, and students at OU, along with some of the questions we need to be asking so that we can avoid making mistakes that have been made in the past.

Faculty-staff.ou.edu and Students.ou.edu. When I first came to OU in 1999 as a faculty member in the Classics department, I was glad to see that there were web publishing opportunities for faculty, staff, and students. The system had just been set up in 1998, and for its time, it was really excellent! We didn't have to request permission from anybody for anything; we just went to the IT account management page where also we set up an OU email alias, password, etc. You clicked a button, and an account was created for you based on your "dotted name" which is a unique identifier that OU still uses for default email. My dotted name is "Laura.K.Gibbs-1" (the number is for those rare instances when someone has the same first-initial-last name). Students.ou.edu was shut down in December, but you can take a look at this screenshot to see how it worked for faculty, their directories being listed on pages alphabetically in this view of the site:


You can tell how ancient the system is because it features the old OU logo (unkindly nicknamed "the toilet seat") which was phased out around the year 2002.

Yet at the time, this was spectacular: any faculty, staff, or student could turn on their webspace and start uploading files, publishing on the open Internet. I had students publishing webpage projects in their spaces using Netscape Composer in Fall 1999, and faculty were publishing with Netscape Composer or maybe Dreamweaver, the tools of the day back in 1999. Student webspace was limited (just 3MB if I remember correctly); faculty space was limited too, but you could request additional space. After I left the Classics department in 2001, I went to work for IT, evangelizing about faculty-staff.ou.edu and urging faculty to create and share teaching materials online. In 2002, I started teaching for the online course program in the College of Arts & Sciences, and my classes then, as now, focused on students sharing their work online.

Integration with search.ou.edu. One of the best things about this system was that it was automatically integrated with search.ou.edu; when you looked someone up in the official Search Directory, you saw the link to their webspace along with their name, office location, email address, etc. That integration still works; someone who searches for me at OU instantly finds my faculty-staff.ou.edu web address, which I have configured to redirect to the web space I actually use for my homepage now:


That was super; you could also enter a redirect directly through the account management page (no longer true, since web space management has disappeared without fanfare from the IT accounts page). What's going to happen when faculty-staff.ou.edu is taken down this summer? Are we going to be able to manually enter some kind of address for our web presence? Configurable profiles are something IT started promising the faculty back in 2001... I know, because I was one of the IT employees making that promise. Here we are in 2016, 15 long years later, and that basic element of web presence is still missing. OU will help you find someone's email address, sure. But their web presence? Nope. Presumably it's just not important.

Student profile links at search.ou.edu. So, students.ou.edu is gone. What does that mean for their web presence? Well, if you search for a student at search.ou.edu right now, you still see a link to their students.ou.edu account; click on the link and you get a splash page that says students.ou.edu is out of service.

Can a student update their profile to indicate their new web address? Hmmmm. I'm not sure. The IT Help pages online tell you where to go to activate your OUCreate space (it's not an IT project, so you go to the create.ou.edu space that Adam Croom and the Center for Teaching Excellence are maintaining). I couldn't find any information for students about how to now display your correct address in your profile. If OU students were relying on this system to help boost their web presence to, say, potential employers, the broken link and an OUCreate splash page is surely not going to help their job search.

Integration with enroll.ou.edu. We used to have a homegrown enrollment system, and it was fully integrated with faculty-staff.ou.edu. That was seriously cool: when students were searching through the online course catalog and enrolling in courses, there was a link displayed automatically for faculty who had activated their web space. If you wanted to share your syllabus with students so that they could know what they were actually enrolling in, you could do that! I always did that. It was great. That was the closest OU has ever come to a system that could support open syllabuses.

But when that homegrown system was replaced with a new SIS called Ozone (I think that was in 2009), that integration disappeared. Poof: all gone! OU Faculty are told to upload their syllabuses in the LMS... but those syllabuses are only visible after classes start and only to students who were already enrolled in the class. The ability of faculty to proactively share course information with students that we had in enroll.ou.edu was gone. Will it ever come back? It would be great it it did. I doubt very many people even remember that we used to have that integration back in the days before Ozone.

The end of faculty-staff.ou.edu. As mentioned above, students.ou.edu is now gone; see below for a bit of information about a previous plan (aborted) to shut down both students.ou.edu and faculty-staff.ou.edu back in 2010. Web hosting is a serious business, and to end a web hosting service requires enormous care. Yet faculty are still updating content on faculty-staff.ou.edu; I saw at least one faculty member still using it for the open content of his Spring 2016 course (a highly touted "Presidential Dream Course," in fact, one that was written up in our student newspaper just last week). But people with active accounts on faculty-staff.ou.edu have not received any specific information about the shutdown of the service in Summer 2016. The only reason I know about that is because Adam Croom included that information in an email he sent out to all faculty about OUCreate in the Fall; how many faculty simply missed that email? (We get a LOT of email.) No email, so far as I know, has gone out to people with content on faculty-staff.ou.edu; I have a redirect page there and some old files, so I would presumably receive such an email. Nada.

Indeed, if you go to faculty-staff.ou.edu right now, there is nothing about a coming shutdown. In fact, the site even urges you to go to account.ou.edu to set up your account:


But if you go to account.ou.edu there is no mention of web hosting of any kind at all (you can see the current logo there by the way):


I looked through the IT Help site to find out just what was planned regarding the summer shutdown, and the only information I found said that when students, faculty, or staff leave the university, their faculty-staff.ou.edu or students.ou.edu space is closed. It didn't even say that students.ou.edu was completely shut down down (as it is), and I didn't find any information about the coming shutdown of faculty-staff.ou.edu at all.

Help! I'm sure OU IT is eager to get out of the web hosting business... but helpful, detailed, timely communication with customers is crucial. Here we are with the final semester of faculty-staff.ou.edu already underway, yet there is apparently no way of finding out that the service is being shut down this summer, much less any way of knowing what to do about it. Will IT assist in the migration to OUCreate? Will there be redirects from the old directories to a new address we can designate? Will there be an address we can list in the search.ou.edu profile? So many questions. Answers: none. When I asked IT about this directly last August upon first hearing about the demise of faculty-staff.ou.edu, I received this reply: "We are formulating a specific plan and will communicate the details directly to all involved as we flesh them out. We do intend to allow some sort of forward / directory transfer or alias feature for faculty and staff, but until that is decided and we have the details, we will not be able to answer your specific question. We are working with CTE and will ensure that adequate communication is made. Please let us know if you need anything else." I guess they are still fleshing things out.

Optimistic... but cautious. So, while I am excited about the potential OUCreate has to offer, and while I am indeed recommending it to my students as one possible web publishing option, I am cautious. I have to be. It's not just about the poor management of faculty-staff.ou.edu and its coming demise; there are other reasons to be cautious. OU giveth, and OU taketh away. I've written up two appendices below that provide examples of OU's unsteady support for academic web presence; I could list more (just click on blogs.ou.edu for the aftermath of another defunct effort).

As I said above, I am in this for the long term. The single biggest mistake I've ever made in my online teaching was to have relied on students.ou.edu long after OU was willing to support it; that is a big part of my cautious attitude now. I hope that OUCreate really does represent a new era in commitment to student web publishing, as well as support for faculty and staff web publishing. I've been waiting for that a long time here at OU, and I'm still waiting — more optimistically than before, to be sure — before claiming we really do have a new academic web culture at OU.

~ ~ ~

APPENDIX 1. Portfolio.ou.edu. Back in 2010, IT made its first effort to shut down students.ou.edu and faculty-staff.ou.edu. For those of us who were relying on students.ou.edu at the time (as I was for all my classes), it was a disaster. OU IT set up a branded installation of Xythos named Portfolio.ou.edu, insisting that this was the web publishing alternative that was going to replace the student and faculty-staff web servers. It was clear to anyone actually publishing on the web that Xythos was an inadequate solution. Why? Xythos was built for file-sharing, not for publishing on the web. I tested it extensively and concluded it was not adequate for my students, and it was certainly not adequate for my web publishing. That was when I realized I could no longer rely on OU to support my students' work, and I began recommending third-party alternatives — Google Sites, Wix, Weebly, etc.,  free sites that the students themselves set up and maintain, keeping the content up or taking it down after the class was over. That is the practice I still follow, with the addition of OUCreate to that list of recommendations (which, while not free, is absolutely a bargain at $12/year).

And what about Portfolio.ou.edu? It is being shut down in June, but without any notice to users (at least no notice so far). I have files on the system that I put up for testing, and I have not received any information about the demise of the system. Shouldn't they have said something to users about shutting down our personal web space, as they claimed it was...? It was where we could "create personal web space," as the screenshot shows:


So, yes, if you go to the site, there is a note that the system is being shut down, and users are told to go to OU's Microsoft Office 365. Help transferring files? Support for redirects? Nothing about that. Too bad for anybody who trusted OU back in 2010 when they told us that Portfolio.ou.edu was the web publishing solution we should be using. I wonder if OU IT will ever get around to sending a note to users who put their trust in Portfolio.ou.edu.

APPENDIX 2. Janux.ou.edu. In a flurry of press releases and an ambitious marketing campaign, OU released Janux.ou.edu in Fall 2013 as a platform that would support courses for registered OU students as well as courses open to the general public: "OU [is] now offering courses taught by university professors to anyone around the world." Indeed, we had set a new record: "The 20 open courses offered by Janux sets the record as the highest number of classes offered in the first year by any other university. By comparison, the University of Texas system launched in the Fall of 2012 and so far has offered four courses." The webpage making these claims is still up; you can see it here: Janux Open Courses.

I have made it a point to enroll in an open Janux course every semester to see how they were going; without exception, the courses I enrolled in fizzled into non-activity. If you go to Janux.ou.edu to see what courses are available for Spring 2016, the first thing you see is the US History course that is for sale — in fact, it's on sale; $449 for credit (marked down from $500), $149 not for credit (marked down from $200). There are three open courses, a sharp decline from the "record-breaking" 20 courses of 2013.

It's not that our support for Janux has gone down; the OU Regents voted to spend $3 million dollars on a contract with NextThought, the company that provides our Janux platform (well, not quite 3 million: $2,800,000, following costs of $2,770,000 last year and $709,400 in the first year of operations; those numbers are from the September 2015 Regents Agenda). I have no idea what the overall budget for Janux is; the contract with NextThought is the only part that has been made public.

Just to keep up my past practice, I enrolled in the Janux Statistics course, which is one of the three courses being offered in Spring 2016 as an open course. As near as I can tell, nobody else is enrolled; there is, anyway, zero activity on the discussion board. Janux claims to be a social learning environment; that claim doesn't match the reality of those screenshots. I wonder if anybody at OU has even looked at the open course. Is there anybody else even enrolled in the open course...? Hard to tell.


Assignments? Baffling. There are two views; one with a list, and one with colored boxes; neither of them makes sense. Although I apparently have three quizzes and an exam "due today" (the class started last week):



I'll see what kind of notifications I get now that I've enrolled, and I will update this post accordingly. I did get an email when I enrolled, a generic email, the same as for all the Janux courses I've ever enrolled in: "You are about to embark on a one-of-a-kind learning experience through Janux. More importantly, you are joining a true learning community built to connect, engage, and inspire all who wish to learn." The marketing for the open Janux courses may have pretty much come to a halt, but the hype lives on.

~ ~ ~

In closing, I hope that OUCreate morphs into something more and more real with each passing year, a story of rising up rather than the story of decline-and-fall that has marked our previous web efforts. OUCreate is an excellent product, the kind of excellent product our students, faculty, and staff deserve. I'm even hoping that the faculty-staff.ou.edu transition could still work to OUCreate's benefit. Will faculty get the support and encouragement they need to transfer their content to domains through OUCreate? Or will they just abandon their web presence out of frustration? That's still really up in the air; perhaps this blog post will play some role in moving that process forward. I'll be sure to update with any information that gets sent to faculty-staff.ou.edu account holders in the months to come!

















6 comments:

  1. Thanks Laura for this. I've posted several thoughts on my blog as well: http://adamcroom.com/2016/01/a-create-promise/

    One thing I do wish to clear up locally is that OU Create has a free version as well and isn't just $12. When students login, they first choose between a free subdomain ______.oucreate.com or a full domain (which is $12). Just don't want your students to think that there's only a paid version of OU Create. :-)

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    1. Aha, Adam, I did not know about that! I knew some schools were running their DoOO with that way of doing the domains. And if students go that route, is the idea that they would then have some limited time after they graduate to transfer their oucreate.com domain to another domain with Reclaim's help? Or that they could even keep that domain if they wanted and transfer it to their name, assuming the Reclaim fees? I've just been sending students to the Create site without a lot of details so that they could explore and see what they find, but I would definitely want to let them know that there is a free option they can use to experiment with and see what they think. Thanks for letting me know!

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  2. That's correct. In most cases, students could export all their posts from Wordpress and then move it over to something like Wordpress.com. We also have a built in system where they literally click a button to move over to Reclaim Hosting and start paying themselves. As I mentioned in the blog post, we haven't done a good job writing that documentation so we're on that right now.

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    1. That all sounds excellent, Adam! Thank you for filling me in! And I am excited to think that probably someday soon I will have a student show up who already has a domain, who already knows about blogging for a class... and that will basically be the coolest thing ever!!!

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  3. You might want to explicitly ask if a student has used OU Create. I've had students in my class who were concurrently taking yours as well and they were using separate spaces/blogs to manage the courses. It's surprising to me how students feel most comfortable just adopting the technology the professor is comfortable with. I've had students come in with Blogger, Wix, and Weebly site already built and I question why they don't just do it all in one place. Usually, their answer is "Well so-and-so required us to use X to build a portfolio." My guess is if I had access to your roster I could find several students who are, indeed, on OU Create and vice-versa! :-)

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    1. I do ask (and I urge people to use whatever blogging software they are familiar with; I have two people who are using WordPress for their blogs this semester — and last semester people did projects on Wix, Weebly, and on Tumblr; the Tumblr ones were something new and they both turned out great)... I think I know the student you mean because she mentioned doing a PR class where they used blogs. I guessed that it was your class and asked her about that, but she didn't reply; I'll check with her again. She could even do the mapping thing so that her Blogger blog shows up on that domain. I think she wanted to experiment with Blogger, so I should make sure she knows she can map it. The instructions you wrote worked perfectly when I mapped a Blogger blog as a test. Thanks for reminding me - last week was crazy for sure, so I will go check with her right now!

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(I have limited this to Google accounts only, but no word verification; meanwhile, if you want to contact me directly, you can do that too! laura-gibbs@ou.edu.)