Breda, The Netherlands
In 1998, Arald den Braber returned to his alma mater to support the school’s IT unit. Over fifteen years, he would become a unique witness to the evolution of the LMS in the Netherlands, an area where he would also become a key player. His presentation, for Blackboard TLC Milan 2017, mirrors his path, and the contributions he made to learning platforms.
A lesser-known LMS predecessor
The presentation, documenting a “big cleanup” last year, could be considered as the third act of a story about the technicalities of content delivery, with the first one taking place in 2001. The Academy of ICT and Media (AIM) was born at Hogeschool Brabant (university of applied sciences, or those offering vocational education). They launched AIM with a vision for a whole new education concept. AIM set out to foster a deeper relationship with information technologies. As a result, he received a major assignment: the development of AIMWeb, a system with course contents and teacher pages. It would coincide with other LMS: OLAT, Moodle, and Blackboard Learn itself.
Arald clearly remembers the time with affection, but he admits, “It was a race against the clock. I was still developing some parts the same day students started.” Arald alone was serving a platform for 300 students, a number that would continue to grow. The kinship among IT departments let others see the work, and they were impressed. Generously, AIM did not share the code, but decided to host the data for neighboring schools. AIMWeb was set up in a way so that each user would not know it was delivering content for 50 independent institutions concurrently, a practice known today as multitenancy. “It was one of the first versions of a SaaS (Software as a Service) business model. Except that AIM charged the schools nothing for it,” Arald describes.
From Hogeschool Brabant to Avans, and from AIMWeb to Blackboard Learn
As things progressed, the adoption of a more robust and standardized LMS became imperative. Moving forward, Arald’s relationship with students would also start to play a key role. A happy accident turned his occasional teaching job into a permanent position. “It was a little overwhelming, at first,” he recounts, “but then I liked it.” In 2004, Brabant merged with Hertogenbosch to become Avans. A year later, the Hogeschool chose Blackboard Learn as its official LMS, bidding AIMWeb farewell. The move would be valuable training, at a smaller scale, than that of the upcoming “big cleanup”. When comparing the processes, he recognized the similarities to be “not technical, but procedural.” Faculty and alumni knew of his double role as a teacher and an admin, which he embraced when it was time to set up content placeholders in the new LMS. “We asked, what do you want? How do you want us to organize things? Do you want to keep things the way they were, or do you want things to change?”
Avans’ Academic Head, representing the whole school, had some answers ready.
Since the beginning, Avans wanted to keep what worked in AIMWeb. Fortunately for the operation, by then a staff of three people with server administration support, Blackboard Learn had an Application Program Interface (API) ready. Using the API, the team quickly saw “how easy it was to work with Blackboard” to make content transfer as simple as possible. It also brought peace of mind. “With AIMWeb, we had to be alert every hour. Now, weeks could go by without an issue reported.
Blackboard Learn takes a bath
No matter how easy an LMS is to maintain, a decade of service takes its toll. The big cleanup was in the making, perhaps at the very introduction of Blackboard Learn in Avans. Many protocols about course contents came too late. But above all, the one cause of instability and “weird errors” was crystal clear: It was the tendency of teachers to click “Course Copy” and call it a day. Over time, this leads to databases with several duplicates that are “the copy of a copy of a copy,” according to Arald. Done without proper care, duplication can corrupt data and carry “garbage” along with it. To make matters worse, the late enforcement of a protocol on IDs orphaned most of the data. Apparently, out of the 37,000 courses in Avans online inventory, only 7,500 were active―it was time for a cleanup.
The first measure taken to ensure a successful move was evident: Automatic import of course contents would be prevented, or at least restricted. He recommended creating new courses from scratch, every time. As radical as it may sound, in reality many teachers were already doing this, some even since the beginning, including Arald himself. Arald aims to review and update his slides every year. When this wasn’t an option, he devised a form to fill out as a second way. Teachers would request to copy their content, and the team would oversee the transfer.
Once again, he was soon building new functionality that would become available to other schools for free. Only this time, content protocols were enforced from day one. In class, students now report a smoother online learning experience to Arald, who then shares this lesson in class. Taking advantage of his admin privileges, he shows them the system-monitoring dashboard in real-time.
The cleanup nears its first anniversary while the old one will still be available until August. In the success of the big move, Blackboard Learn was a key ally during the whole process. By servicing 30,000 students ―a hundred early AIMWebs―, it will continue to be put to test in the years to come. Avans has ambitious plans for expansion on their graduate programs; they plan to capitalize on its reputation as the number one Hogeschool in the Netherlands and to further build their content delivery with Arald’s expertise.
The next step: The cloud. While Avans want to continue with Blackboard, European legislation on tender procedures may inhibit their plans in 2018. Otherwise, another big cleanup is not on the immediate horizon.
*Arald den Braber, Senior eLearning Advisor, Avans Hoge school
*Photos by: AFP Jan-Joseph Stok