Blog Archives

A New Portal for Wellesley

Wellesley has had Luminis portal for quite some time. We began actively promoting its use in the past 4 years. However, this is a very challenging system to understand, implement and maintain. The origins of Luminis are in an open source portal called uPortal. Ellucian, whatever the company was called back then,  decided to take a version of uPortal and implement it to work with Banner. This is the simple version of a long story.

Unfortunately, such techniques just don’t work as well as developing something that coexists with your software in a more integrated fashion. And it shows. I just spent a few weeks trying to unravel the mysteries of Luminis in order to get the information out so we can use it for our new portal and I was flabbergasted.

So, why a new portal? The version of Luminis we are currently running is being phased out & it is running on older operating systems that are not being upgraded. We spent considerable time and effort to look at what it would take to implement the upgraded version of Luminis, which in my opinion, is yet another mistake. Ellucian has decided to take LifeRay, a new open source portal, and branch it off to suit their needs. We estimated that the total resources required to implement and maintain the new Luminis portal is not worth it. We are not the only one who has come to this conclusion.

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Ola Cabs – a Mobile App that I love!



My wife and I spent three weeks in late December/early January in Sri Lanka and India. As always, we had a fabulous time. This time around, I got a chance to give two talks. One at CUSAT (Cochin University of Science And Technology) on MOOCs and another at MOP Vaishnav College for Women on emerging technologies. They were well received and there were some great questions.

We spend a lot of time in Chennai whenever we visit, because that is where most of our family members live. When we are in Chennai, we rely on autorickshaws (the three wheelers with the top covered), or simply “autos”, and taxis. Whereas autos are very easy to find anywhere in the city, that is not the case with taxis. In other words, you can easily “hail an auto” but not a taxi. You basically have to call in a taxi. There are variations in the theme. For example, when you arrive at the airport, there are “prepaid” taxis where you pay a flat fee, but then there are the ones that go by the meter and then there are many who do whatever they want. Taxis are costlier than autos, so generally, the local population favors auto. When you go from the US, given that each dollar buys you 61 Indian Rupees, you will see that the rides are ridiculously cheap. For eg. the 13 KM (8 miles) ride from the airport to my in-laws’ home cost about $6 in a taxi.

Riding in the auto is an experience in itself! It is cheap alright, but the greatest advantage is it’s agility. The traffic in the city has become a nightmare and the best way to get to where you want to are two wheelers like scooters or motorbikes. Since we can’t do that, the next best option is Auto. The driver will squeeze you through in traffic, take the local alley ways etc. You will be breathing all the polluted air, but that you cannot avoid whether you ride the auto not! However, the auto drivers almost never charge by the meter, despite the fact that it is the law. Negotiations with them is an art. And no matter what you do, they know that you are not a local! They can sock it to you. I hate it when they try to cheat me and try to find an honest driver who goes by the meter, but then tip him so heavily for his honesty. The other advantage with the auto is that most of them know about the city and will get you where you need to go. Most cab drivers have no idea (they are not locals) and you better know your way. Thanks to Google Maps, I survived. Not that I don’t know to navigate the city, but with massive expansion and constant construction, there are one way roads that have popped up all over that I don’t know about. Google knows all about them, of course!  Read more »

Copyright and MOOCs – again

I will be writing several short ones from here on because of time crunch.

So, why should MOOCs be governed differently than a face to face class when it comes to copyrighted material? For that matter, many institutions engaged in blended learning and online courses. I assume that fair use and teach act are used to govern the use of copyrighted materials in blended and online courses. So, whats different about MOOCs? In fact, in this article about the teach act and distance education, the following is mentioned:

Under TEACH:

  • Instructors may use a wider range of works in distance learning environments.
  • Students may participate in distance learning sessions from virtually any location.
  • All participants enjoy greater latitude when it comes to storing, copying and digitizing materials.

What’s so different about the MOOCs that we can’t apply the same rules of the game? Except for some lawyer speak and risk aversion, which is very legitimate, I have not been able to get a sound argument as to what the differences are. Some question whether those enrolled in MOOCs are really “students” or should they be called “learners”. Does it matter? Whether it is face to face class, blended or fully online, there are one or more teachers using copyrighted materials from various sources to teach to the students. Rapid advances in technologies has resulted in copyrighted material being distributed digitally than the old way – copies of paper distributed to a specific group of students. Much harder to duplicate and redistribute, which is not the case with electronic content. However, why would the use of a powerpoint presentation with copyrighted material used by a faculty in a face to face class can be used for a blended class or fully online class but not in a MOOC? Is it the scale? If so, where does fair use or teach act mention that? Whereas a small liberal arts college may have 15 students in a class, large classes in big universities can have 300-500 students or even more. In case of MOOCs it is significantly higher, but if you take the scale aside, whats the problem?

In face to face or online classes students actually pay the institution and apparently they can get free access to copyrighted material in compliance with fair use and the teach act. Whereas in MOOCs, they don’t pay, it is free, but they cannot get access freely to the same materials. What gives?


MOOCs – What do the students think?

From: a tweet by Jane O'Dwyer -

From: a tweet by Jane O’Dwyer –

I was at the edX Global Forum last week. This is a meeting attended by faculty and staff from edX member institutions. This was my second one and the number of attendees and the diversity of institutions they represent have grown tremendously. It was great to meet several new people, including several from edX with whom I have only had phone contact. Because of our early start and the fact that we have completed four courses through WellesleyX, many attendees were eager to talk to me about our experiences.

Of all the talks and sessions I attended, the best was a student panel. Nine students from MIT, BU and Wellesley (may be Harvard also) who have taken “blended” classes discussed their experiences. Wellesley student Sharvari Johari is seated fourth from the left in the picture. She did a terrific job as a panelist. In almost all the courses these students took, their faculty taught a face to face class and was either teaching the same course at the same time on edX or had used an archived edX course that the faculty member had taught before. It was refreshing to hear directly from them for a variety of reasons, primarily because they are not afraid to express their opinions.

They liked the experience overall

All the students liked several aspects of the blended experience. The most liked aspects of the blended experience was the availability of the materials outside the classroom and the “stress free” assessment. Seven of the nine students are STEM majors and the courses that they took had assessments that are multiple choice questions which allowed multiple tries and provided a detailed answers that they could look up after completing the assessment. One of them mentioned how the stress of having to get the correct answer in a given period of time is a bit too much and many a times one is penalized for making silly numerical mistakes. Whereas in this medium, the focus is on learning. If you made a mistake, the explanation provided helps guide you to do it right the next time around.

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Privacy in the Digital Age

During the Cybersecurity month presentation by John Sileo, I heard him mention something to the effect that the constitution does not guarantee privacy. Whether the constitution explicitly provides privacy protection seems to be unsettled and different legal scholars seem to have different opinions about this. Whether constitution guarantees it or not, we have all made serious assumptions about privacy and lived with those assumptions and in the digital age, this has become a serious issue. In 1999, Scott McNealy was quoted as saying ““You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” Despite the fact that this was pretty scary to hear, in the networked world, this has turned out to be correct.

Whenever you have a networked device that connects to the internet, it needs a unique identity, typically an IP number. I will keep things simple (because in reality they are very complicated as to how this works) by saying that in order to reach the destination, say a web site, information travels through multiple networked devices and all of them pass information from you to the destination. If your connection is encrypted (such as an SSL connection using https://), the content traveling back and forth is encrypted and generally hard for those intermediate devices to unravel, but there are certain pieces of information such as source and destination IP numbers and the “ports” on which they communicate which have to remain unencrypted. Ports are some predefined mechanism for different types of network communication to occur. This simply means there are a whole lot of devices and operators of those devices who have access to at least the IP numbers of who is communicating with who and what type of communication it is (typically based on port numbers). You need this information to properly route your packets back and forth. Requiring every intermediate device to unencrypt and re-encrypt this information is not practical and provides no additional security. And one we can generally agree that this is a serious privacy issue, especially, as we have found out that the government itself uses this information in ways that violates privacy!

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Copyright & Fair Use

We heard from Kyle Courtney  yesterday (Oct 22, 2014) about “Fair Use and Copyright in the Digital Era”. Kyle is a terrific and engaging speaker. I had spoken to him earlier when I had questions regarding the use of copyrighted material in MOOCs.

Bottom line – there are no simple answers and use your discretion in interpreting a complex set of laws based on your risk tolerance. As we have seen in the Georgia State University e-reserves case (Cambridge University Press et al v Patton et al), even the courts can’t seem to decide one way or the other! For all the resources related to this case, click here.

The core issue is that faculty rely on content created by many others for their teaching. The content comes from a variety of sources and from all over the world. Copyright laws provide the general framework for the appropriate use of the content, however, there are considerable variations from one country to the other. Copyright protection is in effect the moment content is created and stays with the author. Duration of the copyright is pretty complex subject matter and you can read more about it here. When an author publishes content, generally, they transfer the copyright to the publisher. This results in enormous inconveniences for the use of published work including the fact that for certain uses of the published work, the original author himself/herself need to seek publisher’s permission. Open access policy is beginning to address this issue somewhat in case of  scholarly articles.  According to this, the author exercises his/her rights to the content in addition to granting rights to the publisher.

As always, technology is ahead of policies and this issue is not an exception. The explosion in born digital content and the use of digital materials in teaching, learning and research has brought to light the lack of clarity of current copyright laws which are still catching up.

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National Cybersecurity Awareness Month

Taken from:

October is “National Cybersecurity Awareness Month” (NCSAM). For details regarding what LTS has planned for this, please refer to the Daily Shot article here.  There are several events and informational messages that being prepared to increase awareness amongst our users. I strongly encourage you to take advantage of as many of these as possible. I would like to highlight the featured event which is being co-sponsored by Babson, Olin and Wellesley Colleges. Here is the description from the Daily Shot article:

“The featured event is a BOW-sponsored presentation and book signing by John Sileo, an award-winning author, trusted advisor, and leading speaker on successfully managing privacy and reputation exposure. He is CEO of The Sileo Group, which advises clients like 60 Minutes, Blue Cross, the FDIC, Homeland Security, the Pentagon, Pfizer, USA Today, and organizations of all sizes on defending privacy, profits, and reputation. His presentation, “Data Spies, Human Hackers & Internet Attackers: Bulletproof Your Privacy & Profits,” highlights current data privacy trends as well as practical, tactical solutions.

His talk will be held on Friday, October 24 from 10 to 11 a.m. at Babson College in the Olin Hall Auditorium, with a book sale and signing immediately following the presentation. Food and beverage will be provided. Transportation from Wellesley to Babson will also be available; shuttle vans will leave the Campus Center beginning at 9:30 a.m., and will return following the presentation at 11, and then again at11:30 for those wishing to stay for the book signing. RSVP: please click here. This event is open to all faculty, staff, and students.”

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Big Data

“Big data” is a relative term in that at least for the past 25-30 years, with the advances in digital technologies, the collected data would look “big” relative to say, a year ago. However, we are currently at a point where the rate of growth looks far more than ever before. According to WikipediaBig data is an all-encompassing term for any collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using traditional data processing applications.” I believe that all along, we have been keen to collect as much of the data as possible and worry about processing and analysing them later. The act of collecting data has gotten so easy these days that no one wants to get rid of any of these data with the hope that the data will be useful in some fashion, some day!

On the one hand, the availability of such vast quantities of data is very exciting for researchers. On the other there are many issues about analyzing and processing them that need to be sorted out. And then, we need to worry about a whole slew of associated secondary issues such as the misuse of data, long term storage of the data and the impact on the society because of misinterpretation of the data.

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Hype Cycle

We had a few things that contributed to difficulties during the first week of classes. Our last minute communication to the faculty regarding a welcome change in the time time it took them to login to a Mac in the classroom got us in trouble with some faculty. They felt that such last minute emails create a lot of confusion and concern. I agree that we could have worded it differently by starting the communication with something like “This is about an improvement to the login procedure in classrooms. However, the method you have always used will continue to work. If you are not interested in learning about the new method, you don’t have to read further.” Then a network outage on Friday afternoon disrupted activities on campus and access to the campus resources. Though we have a second connectivity through a different provider, as luck would have it, one of their equipment failed too!

After they came back up, we started seeing weird behaviors – on campus users not being able to get to media heavy resources such as Kaltura or YouTube, and Comcast customers from Massachusetts and New Hampshire were unable to get to the campus resources. Long story short, there were lot of fingerpointing between the ISPs on the actual cause of this and finally, we restored service on Saturday afternoon by clearing routing tables that were found to be corrupt, presumably from all these things going down and passing confusing information back to us.

Now that we are back on line, I thought I would write a bit about the technology “Hype Cycle“, a term coined by Gartner, a well-regarded technology research firm.  As you see in the Wikipedia article, the Hype Cycle consists of five phases.

No. Phase Description
1 Technology Trigger A potential technology breakthrough kicks things off. Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven.
2 Peak of Inflated Expectations Early publicity produces a number of success stories—often accompanied by scores of failures. Some companies take action; many do not.
3 Trough of Disillusionment Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Producers of the technology shake out or fail. Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters.
4 Slope of Enlightenment More instances of how the technology can benefit the enterprise start to crystallize and become more widely understood. Second- and third-generation products appear from technology providers. More enterprises fund pilots; conservative companies remain cautious.
5 Plateau of Productivity Mainstream adoption starts to take off. Criteria for assessing provider viability are more clearly defined. The technology’s broad market applicability and relevance are clearly paying off.

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Another exciting academic year is about to start

I had committed to be with my colleagues at the campus center a couple of days ago to welcome the first years’ and their parents. For reasons we don’t need to go into here, it was not on my calendar, so I was able to go there only for a few minutes. The place was buzzing with the usual excitement with the first year students, parents and relatives and it did cross my mind that I probably read some of their applications! Though there was a lot of activity, my colleagues told me that though our “stress phish” was very popular and were gone mostly by the time I arrived, there were not that many questions at our table. Phishing has become such a big problem that we are spending inordinate amount of time resolving them and we are out there to increase the awareness.

How times change! There was a time when questions like “How do I get connected to the network?” brought so many of the students and parents to our desk. But, thanks to the advances in technologies as well as the hard work by our staff of planning ahead and being prepared has made many of these to be non-issues. We vastly simplified the wireless guest access and we saw a significant increase in the number of guest wireless connections and to the best of our knowledge, no one needed help. That’s pretty good!

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