[ed. Cydney Jones is a junior at UC Davis, and she was kind enough to share information and insights during my coverage of the UC Davis LMS outage (their Sakai-based LMS is branded as SmartSite and hosted by Scriba). I asked her if she could write a post giving a student’s inside view of the situation. You can follow Cydney on Twitter at @crabbyCyd.]
By: Cydney Jones
UC Davis’ SmartSite, the learning management system we love to hate, earned that hate when it went missing two weeks before the end of the Spring quarter. As used and abused by students and faculty, SmartSite is accessed constantly. Need to read new class materials, log into SmartSite. Want to learn about assignments and turn them in, access SmartSite. Curious about your grade, look it up on SmartSite. Accessible from anywhere, on campus or off, via smartphone or computer terminal, SmartSite was the glue that held most courses together.
It seemed odd that something so integral to every class and course would need to go down for maintenance in the middle of the term for more than two and a half days. But, the UCD IT department shared their communication from our LMS’s host, Scriba, saying that the system had suffered “failures in our primary data center.” It seemed odd that we were only give a day’s notice. We should have been more prepared, students, faculty, and administration alike.
The first notice stated the system would be down from 9 p.m. Friday, May 20 to 11 a.m. Monday, May 23 and suggested “if possible, any work you would normally do in SmartSite from Friday night through Monday morning should be done outside of SmartSite. You can move the work into SmartSite after the interruption, as needed.” With this notice, I and many other students considered our schedules and downloaded some information.
To understand, consider my usage of SmartSite. I take four classes and have four different instructors for 16 total units. Each instructor uses SmartSite differently. Some put all course materials up on the site for students to download. Some put all the materials up at the beginning of the quarter. Some put the materials up as we go along. Some put assignment prompts up on the site in advance. Some spring assignments on us via notices from SmartSite that “a new assignment has been made available” (this can happen any time, day or night, throughout the quarter). Some just use it for listing grades in the grade book. Some run whole forums of class discussion, chat rooms, drop boxes, reams of articles to read and reflect, quizzes to complete and submit, podcasts to listen to, lecture slides for review; in reality, SmartSite can affect almost every activity in those courses. Multiply me by 32,000 students and you can better understand UCD students’ distress.
When 11 a.m. Monday came and SmartSite wasn’t back online, there was a tittering of nervous laughter across campus. For some students it was excitement like playing hooky with official permission. For some it was panic that they hadn’t downloaded everything before the Friday 9 p.m. cut off. The feeling of being in limbo played out across the campus, students and faculty alike. UCD IT was very good at providing updates, but the updates were mostly “no news.” The most disturbing update was “As of 8:30 a.m. this morning (Tuesday, May 24) Scriba is not providing UC Davis with an estimated time for when SmartSite will return.”
Before the outage I was minimally aware that it was Scriba’s SmartSite, but the fact that it was an entity apart from the University hadn’t really sunk in. That Scriba wasn’t communicating with UCD was alarming, so alarming that I began to wonder, who exactly is this Scriba. After all, as a student at a large campus of the even larger University of California, I assumed that any vendors supplying critical systems, like SmartSite, would be rock solid partners in my (and all other student’s) education. They would understand that they were on the front line of each and every course offered on campus. They would take this obligation to student and school seriously and PICK UP THE PHONE and let us know what’s happening. Instead, Scriba disappeared. No one answered the phone and the voice mailbox was full.
Instructors were joking that if they couldn’t access their grade books, they’d have to give everyone an A. Course assignments were changed and adapted two or three times a day (remember to multiply the confusion by the number of courses taken by the number of students on campus). Seniors began to wonder about graduation – how would they prove they had completed the necessary requirements? UCD was great at providing updates and working to set up a backup system for instructors. Students were at the whim of each instructor.
I understand now why universities use an LMS. Each of my instructors took a different approach to working around the outage. Readings and assignments were slashed by some. Others put coursework up on Box. Some used Google and Mail. Some just went back to paper hardcopies of everything. Instructors had one or two courses they were responsible for and could mandate how students would receive and submit information. Students had to adapt, one week before finals, to a variety of new procedures for interacting with instructors.
Scriba finally put the original SmartSite back up, but we were told that it should just be used for viewing, not for active interaction. It did flutter a couple of times, as reported by the IT department. Finals happened. Grades are a mystery because the version of SmartSite that was restored for faculty use isn’t available to students and that system is where the grades are posted. We have to wait until those grades are submitted and recorded by the Registrar’s Office.
Summer stands between me and the next iteration of UC Davis’ LMS, Canvas. I hope this time the University hosts the site. I am curious to know the costs/benefit analysis that led to employing of a very small company to host a very large system depended on by so many. If we are a large, substantial learning institution, with course offerings in IT, can’t we muscle up the capability to host our own servers? Inquiring minds want to know.
[ed. I pointed out to Cydney that UC Davis is planning to use the cloud-hosted version of Canvas. I wanted to keep her post as originally written but also get her follow-up comments. Cydney’s comments are shared below.]
Learning that Canvas is a cloud hosted LMS caused a shiver to run down my spine. Instructure, the vendor that provides Canvas, is much larger than Scriba, but UCD didn’t start out contracting with Scriba. Amazon Web Services (the Canvas cloud host) is huge, but change happens. My educational plan is redundancy – I am going to copy and download everything. Given our SmartSite experiences, I would still feel more confident with a UC Davis home brew.