E-Learning 2.0 and reliability of external services

BAM is a little project of mine playing at the edges of post-industrial e-learning. Since 2006 it’s been relying on students creating and using blogs provided by external service provides – mostly WordPress.com.

This reliance on external service providers has been one of the “problems” raised by folk who don’t like the idea. They fear that because the university doesn’t own the technology or have a contract with the service provider there is no certainty about the quality of service. That the students and the staff will be left high and dry as the service is yanked in the middle of term.

Those fears are not unfounded. There have been stories of Web 2.0 services disappearing in the middle of a course. However, my argument has always been that if you pick the right service providers and design systems to allow safe failure you can achieve generally better outcomes (for a cheaper price) than the mandate and purchase approach traditionally taken by institutions.

This post shares a recent experience that supports this argument and ruminates on some alternate explanations for why this approach might be better.

The story

Yesterday I received an email from one of the teaching staff involved in a course that is using BAM. The course has 170+ students spread across 5+ campuses using BAM with their posts being tracked and marked by 10 staff. Three of the students for this teacher are reporting that they can’t access their blogs.

While BAM allows students to create and use a blog on any service provider we have found it useful to suggest providers whom we find reliable. Originally this was blogger and WordPress.com, in the last year or so we’ve recommended WordPress.com only. i.e. based on our experience, we found WordPress.com more usable and reliable. I should point out though, that the institution I work for does not have a formal agreement with WordPress.com. The students create free blogs on WordPress.com like any of the other of thousands of folks who do each week. I’ll pick up on this later.

After looking at the reported problem it was apparent that the blogs for the three students had been suspended because they apparently had contravened the WordPress.com terms of service (ToS). This mean that the students couldn’t post to their blog and no-one could see any of the content posted to their blog. While it seemed unlikely that the students would have done anything to deserve this, it’s amazing what can happen. So the question was what had they done?

A key part of BAM is that it is designed to enable safe failure. If, as in this case, the student’s blog has disappeared – for whatever reason – it doesn’t matter. BAM keeps a mirror of the blog’s RSS/Atom feed on a university server. So while I couldn’t see the blogs posts on WordPress.com, I could see the content on BAM. Nothing there looked like it would contravene the ToS.

So the only way forward was to ask WordPress.com why they did this. This is where the fear of failure arises. I’ve seen any number of examples of technical support being horrible. Including instances where the institution has paid companies significant amounts of money for support only to receive slow responses that do little more than avoid the question or report “it looks alright from here”. If you get this sort of “service” from supplier you pay, what sort of response am I going to get from WordPress.com.

Remember, these blogs are not my blogs. The blogs belong to students who attend the university I work for. A university WordPress.com is not likely to know anything about. A university they certainly don’t have any relationship with. In fact, it’s a university that appears to favour a competitor. Both IT division and our Vice-Chancellor have blogs hosted by blogger.

For these reasons, I was somewhat pessimistic about the response I would get. I was fearful that this experience would provide support for the nay sayers. How wrong I was.

12 hours after I contacted WordPress.com about this issue. I received an email response which basically said “Oops, sorry it looked like the profiles matched spammers. Our mistake. The blogs are back.”.

12 hours might seem like a long time if you’re picky. But I’m more than happy with that. It’s streets ahead of the response times I’ve seen from vendors who are being paid big money. It’s orders of magnitude better in terms of effectiveness.

Do one thing and do it well

It’s my proposition that if you choose a good Web 2.0 service provider, rather than being more risky than purchasing, installing and owning your own institutional version of the service, it is actually less risky, less expensive and results in better quality on a number of fronts. This is because a good Web 2.0 service provider has scale and is doing one thing and doing it well.

Unlike an integrated system (e.g. an LMS) WordPress.com only has to concentrate on blog engines. So it’s blog service is always going to be streets ahead of that provided by the LMS. Even if the LMS is open source.

A commercial LMS vendor is going to have to weight the requirements of huge numbers of very different clients, wanting different things and consequently won’t be able to provide exactly the service the institution needs. Not to mention that they will be spread really thin to cover all the clients.

An open source LMS generally has really good support. But the institution needs to have smart people who know about the system in order to properly engage with that support and be flexible with the system.

There’s more to draw out here, but I don’t have time. Have a paper to write.

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