Brad Englert

Friday is the last day for for instructors to request summer courses on Blackboard before the University fully transitions to Canvas.

Friday is the last day for instructors to create a course on Blackboard, in what will be the last semester for the online system before the University makes the full transition to Canvas. 

The University officially began phasing out Blackboard, another learning management system, in fall 2013. In the fall 2015 semester, Blackboard will no longer be an option, and Canvas will be used entirely in its place.

“Our goal is to have everyone on Canvas this summer,” said Brad Englert, chief information officer for UT Information Technology Services. “We’ve been reaching out and using support to help with the transition.”

Of the roughly 3,000 instructors using a learning management system on campus, 222 courses were housed on Blackboard this semester, Englert said.

IT Services began phasing out Blackboard for Canvas after the Course and Learning Management Evaluation Steering Committee conducted a survey in which a majority of students and faculty said they preferred Canvas, according to a September 2013 Daily Texan article. 

According to Englert, one of the driving forces behind making the switch to Canvas was creating a more user-friendly interface for students and faculty.

“I think people appreciate the look and feel, the intuitive nature of Canvas,” Englert said. “It’s not as clunky as Blackboard.” 

Drew Thornley, a lecturer in the McCombs School of Business, who has used Blackboard this semester, said he does not use material from Blackboard in class enough to merit making a switch before it is required.

“I don’t care about the functionality of one versus the other,” Thornley said. “I post the syllabus, I email my class, and I post grades. So I never really gave it much thought.”

Thornley, who accepted a tenured position at another college for the fall, said he would have made the switch come fall semester. 

“If I stayed, I would have gone to a tutorial and never complained and learned how to use it,” Thornley said. “I’m not trying to be defiant. I’m not more important than anybody else. … I’m used to [Blackboard], so why not use it?” 

IT Services, which operates Canvas, provides services to faculty and staff to aid in the transition and learn how to effectively use the system. According to Englert, the Center for Teaching and Learning is the primary source for Canvas tutorials, workshops and office hours. It also operates a 24/7 help desk.

Kyle Doherty, a radio-television-film sophomore, said he prefers Canvas over Blackboard, although he said he felt a two-year transition was too long.

“I think [IT Services] definitely overhyped it a little,” Doherty said. “I think they could have made it a quicker transition, and everyone would have been OK with it.”

Correction: This story has been amended since its original publication. Professors will not have the ability to request summer courses on Blackboard. They will still be able to retrieve information from the platform before it closes entirely in August.

UTBox, a secure cloud storage space provided by Information Technology Services, is offered for free to all 74,000 University students, staff and faculty — but so far, only 11,972 have made use of the service, which costs the University $197,000 annually.

The UTBox service is provided through Box, a privately owned company that provides a cloud sharing platform for individuals, universities, small businesses and Fortune 500 companies. All UTBox users are initially provided with 50 gigabtyes of data, though users can request additional data if necessary.

Chief Information Officer Brad Englert said UTBox provides a more secure storage alternative to Dropbox, which he said is important even if the issue does not concern most UT students.

“UT-Austin needed a secure way to share and store data,” Englert said. “Unlike Dropbox, UTBox fills this need. It would be safe to say that UTBox is widely used by a significant number of faculty and researchers on campus.” 

ITS approved funding for UTBox in spring 2013 as a replacement for WebSpace, another online file sharing service. WebSpace will be retired on May 19, after many issues arose with the security liabilities that the provider did not address in a timely manner, according to Englert. UT purchased Box services through Internet2, a nonprofit community comprised of 247 U.S. universities. Though the University pays roughly $200,000 annually for Box services, Englert said most students don’t need to use it. 

“We don’t actively advertise UTBox to students, since most students use Google Drive for data storage as part of their UTmail account,” Englert said.

Offices around campus use UTBox for work-related matters. Biomedical engineering junior Aydin Zahedivash, said he uses UTBox when working in the McCombs School of Business computer services department as well as school projects.

“I use [it] for storing large files I need for school that I don’t want to keep on my computer,” Zahedivash said. “There is quite a lot of space that UT provides so it’s good for this.”

Zahedivash said he likes that he can put files into UTBox and know that they are safe and secure.

Even though the University provides free storage service, many students have not heard of the program. Biology freshman Bharath Lavendra said he had not heard of UTBox before, but felt even though UTBox offered a lot of storage, he may not use it.

“It’s kind of sad that it’s not better publicized because I don’t know anyone that is using it,” Lavendra said. “Sites like Google Drive and Dropbox already fill that need really, so I don’t know how much UTBox is really needed.”

Photo Credit: Aaron Rodriguez | Daily Texan Staff

After using Blackboard for 13 years, UT professors and students will make the switch to Canvas, a new learning management system. 

Blackboard will be completely phased out by August 2015. Last school year, Canvas was implemented on a trial basis in some classrooms. Faculty and student survey responses showed that 80 percent of faculty and 66 percent of students were in support of Canvas. Based on these results, the Course and Learning Management Evaluation Steering Committee voted in favor of the transition 16 to 1.

As the transition officially begins this semester, not every student will interact with Canvas in their courses. But those who have a class using the new system have noticed a difference in accessibility. 

Tiffany Yick, a mechanical engineering junior who uses Canvas in her Materials Engineering class, said she appreciates the fact that the Canvas courses still show up on the student Blackboard site as well as on the customized weekly logistics sent out by the Canvas system and the assignment notifications.

Professors have also seen benefits from switching to Canvas. When the trial period began, management professor Dennis Passovoy said he eagerly signed on to try out the new system, 

“I’m what you might call a bit of a technology nerd,” Passovoy said. “I’m usually anxious to try out new things, especially when what I’m using is not totally working for me. Blackboard fell into that category. As a [Learning Management System] it is just OK, but there was a lot I needed it to do that it couldn’t handle.”

During focus groups in fall 2011, students and faculty expressed their dislike for the Blackboard interface. They also complained of a lag when waiting for a response.

Passovoy said that many students and faculty find Blackboard difficult to navigate and that Canvas offers a user-friendly interface comparable to Facebook, which makes the system very intuitive.

“The biggest difference is the way Canvas organizes a student’s schedule,” Passovoy said. “When they first log in, they see all the assignments they have due in the next seven days.”

Students also have the opportunity to predict many possible outcomes of their grades based on how they do on upcoming assignments and assessments.

Unlike Blackboard, Canvas operates with a cloud computing system. This allows the developer for the Canvas system, a company called Instructure, to send out updates and new features every three weeks in response to issues users are having with the system. 

Many of the initial issues pointed out during the trial period were solved by both UT and Canvas staff, but a small issue remains in the communication aspect of Canvas, Passovoy said.

“When a student sends me a message from within Canvas, I have to go into Canvas to read and to respond it,” Passovoy said. “I can’t respond via regular email.”

Information Technology Services currently maintains the Blackboard system, according to Brad Englert, chief information officer for IT Services.

“Blackboard is hosted in our campus data center on University-owned equipment,” Englert said. “The current servers and storage are nearing the end of their useful life. The equipment replacement cost is estimated to be $330,000, as follows: $150,000 for servers; $135,000 for high-performance primary storage and $45,000 for utility-grade backup storage.”

Because Instructure does the troubleshooting, IT Services at UT does not control many of the system’s features like it did with Blackboard, but still has a part in maintenance.

“ITS will maintain the UT EID authentication interface to Canvas as well as the system that updates Canvas with current course, instructor and enrollment data from the Office of the Registrar,” Englert said. “ITS will continue to provide Help Desk support to students, faculty and staff.”

Overall, Blackboard expenses for the current fiscal year are $700,000 while Canvas is estimated to cost $635,000 annually. The estimated one-time transition cost is $63,500, Englert said.

This cost includes 24/7 support available to students, faculty and staff as they make the switch.

Mario Guerra, an instructional technology specialist said UT’s transition process will last two years, while many schools have transitioned from Blackboard or another system to Canvas in a semester or a year. He said UT is lengthening the process to allow users to adjust to this change and to allow professors to move their course material from one system to the next.

According to Englert, there are 483 primary instructors using the Canvas system, which equates to 508 courses and over 20,270 students. 

MyEdu CEO Michael Crosno and Vice President Deepak Surana present to the UT System's Board of Regents in July.

Photo Credit: Will Crites-Krumm | Daily Texan Staff

MyEdu claims students support changes made by the company in the past year, but former student leaders doubt the changes are beneficial or worth the $10 million the UT System invested in the company. 

At the UT System regents meeting earlier this month, MyEdu showcased new features providing career services to the company’s website. MyEdu executives cited student satisfaction in their short presentation, which elicited few comments from the regents, but the company’s new career services options may not be the best direction for students, said Michael Morton, former Senate of College Councils president and UT alumnus. 

"I haven’t really been impressed with MyEdu and their communication with students on what exactly they’ve changed in their product," Morton said. "There’s a long way to go in order for MyEdu to be an effective company."

In October, MyEdu began offering career services on its website, as well as a “student profile” service. In an interview with The Daily Texan, Frank Lyman, chief product officer at MyEdu, said the profile gives students a place to showcase their skills to employers.

The partnership between UT and MyEdu began in 2011, when the UT System made a $10 million investment into MyEdu, a website that helps college students select their courses and professors online. John Cunningham, one of the company’s founders, is the son of former UT-Austin President and UT System Chancellor William Cunningham. The UT System Board of Regents were aware of the connection when the investment was made.

“MyEdu has always been an academic platform that helps students plan and succeed in college,” Lyman said. “What we recognized is that for a lot of students, the goal was really broader than just their academic success.”

However, Morton and former Student Government President Thor Lund both said they were concerned with MyEdu’s new focus on connecting students with employers. While in office, Lund and Morton were the only student members on UT’s MyEdu steering committee. 

“It presents a lot of ethical dilemmas when there’s a partnership between the UT System and MyEdu if students’ information is being giving to employers,” Morton said. “It really presents a lot of questions regarding what information is being used and how employers are having their jobs targeted toward students.”

The committee, also made up of faculty and staff members, meets with MyEdu representatives every month during the regular semesters to discuss ideas and issues with the company’s product. 

Lund said MyEdu’s job matching service is not the best place for UT students to find jobs. Lund pointed out that there are already Career Services offices and job fairs offered on campus.

“I don’t think that’s how the job process should go,” Lund said. “I don’t think people should be picked out for jobs based on what activities they’ve been in or how they did in certain classes. I think each person is a unique case, and you can’t judge them based on an online profile.”

Not all members of the steering committee share these concerns. Brad Englert, UT chief information officer and head of the steering committee, said students can choose not to use MyEdu if they do not want to use the service.

“We’re all for students getting jobs,” Englert said. “I’m not sure what the concerns would be, but you opt into it. It’s not that you’re required to use it.”

Englert said more than 90 percent of UT-Austin students have a MyEdu account.

The company also made changes to its professor review feature. Previously, the website allowed students to write both positive and negative reviews of professors and rate them on a five-star scale. According to Lyman, MyEdu removed the negative reviews and star-ratings as part of the company’s decision to move to an objective review method. Lyman said the site now offers questionnaires about professors’ classes.

“We changed our professor [review] model to a recommendation model,” Lyman said. “Every semester, we do a customer satisfaction survey with all of our students across the country. I specifically looked at the UT-Austin feedback for the April survey and there were zero negative comments around professor reviews and recommendations.” 

However, Lund said the company’s previous professor review system better served UT students.

“The reason I go to MyEdu is because I want to know how a professor teaches,” Lund said. “If they really wanted to be a successful company, they would bring back honest professor reviews. But for some reason, the company has decided that they’re a job hunting company.”

Michael Redding, former Graduate Student Assembly president, also expressed his frustrations with the company. Redding said while serving as GSA president, his attempts to contact MyEdu representatives about expanding the company’s services to graduate students were unsuccessful.

“My impression was that they weren’t very responsive when it came to working with students,” Redding said.

In a March letter to Rep. Roberto Alonzo, R-Dallas, Redding called the company an “unproven system.” Shortly after, he received an email from MyEdu CEO Michael Crosno regarding his comments. Redding shared the email exchange with The Daily Texan.

“We have worked very hard over the last year to build a partnership with all the System campuses and especially UT Austin,” Crosno wrote in the email. “Hopefully, you will take the time to learn more about what we are doing at UT Austin to work cooperatively with the administration, students and faculty.”

According to Crosno’s email, Crosno discussed Redding’s comments with UT Provost Steven Leslie.

“That was something that I’ve never seen before: The CEO of a company calling me out for calling his company out,” Redding said.

Lyman said Crosno always takes an interest with any student public opinion on MyEdu. 

“In this case he reached out to Michael Redding to invite him to lunch and try and better understand his thoughts on MyEdu,” Lyman said.

Redding and Crosno were unable to schedule a meeting with each other. 

“None of the other student leaders I have worked with like MyEdu,” Redding said. “I would definitely say that it is not the case that students, at least the elected student representatives at UT-Austin, like it.”

Responding to Lund, Morton and Redding, Lyman cited a MyEdu survey that found 96 percent of UT students surveyed expressed satisfaction with the company’s product.

“That suggests to me that most students are really pleased with what we are doing,” Lyman said.

In the future, Morton said the UT System must find a new way to make its partnership with MyEdu more beneficial to students since it now cannot take back its investment, 

“I can think of about 10 million areas that are better spent for the $10 million,” Morton said. “But you have to move forward. The money is spent. If [MyEdu and the UT System] can find a way that will improve how students find the courses that they need, and how they plan for their four years at the University, then that’s the key.”

Follow Jacob Kerr on Twitter @jacobrkerr.

The UT e-mail system will have a new look, more space and more features once the University finalizes a contract to outsource its e-mail platform to Google, likely during spring 2011.

The announcement came after months of research and planning to meet the demands of students who find Webmail unattractive and difficult to use, said Chief Information Officer Brad Englert. Of the 52,000 currently registered student Webmail accounts, more than 20,000 set up auto-forwarding to an outside platform such as Hotmail or Gmail. The new Google-based platform will look just like Google and have all the same functions, such as chat and calendar sharing, Englert said.

“From space and archiving to aesthetics, everything in Gmail is better than Webmail,” said Senate of College Councils President Chelsea Adler, who served on a student-led steering committee to choose a new e-mail platform. “So many people on campus are outsourcing to Gmail, including me, because things like chat and sharing calendars makes it more than just e-mail.”

While choosing a new e-mail host, the steering committee considered three possible clients. Members spoke with representatives from universities that use each of the servers and considered each choice’s features. Google led the way in every category, Englert said.

The new Google platform will cost $80,000 to $100,000 per year, the same amount as the current University-created platform, but the benefit per dollar will increase drastically, Englert said. The new platform will also allow alumni to set up a UT e-mail account and permit graduates to keep using their address in order to keep their e-mail affiliated with the UT brand, he said.

“Alumni are very interested in this,” he said. “I’m a 1984 graduate of the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and I’m going to be the first to sign up. There’s a lot of unity out there among alumni, but it’s hard to maintain without [the singular brand].”

For graduate students who frequently send large research documents and use e-mail for research and job searching, thousands of gigabytes are needed, much more than Webmail’s 100 megabytes. The Google option is the most attractive, said educational administration graduate student Amardeep Khalon, a member of the steering committee.

“I have to constantly purge my account so I can keep receiving e-mails,” Khalon said. “[Google] is a very technologically astute choice for UT.”