This blog post has been a long time in writing.
From about 1998, my team was responsible for supporting learning technology projects within the University. The range of projects was diverse from programmable computer chip simulations to supporting more traditional computer aided learning packages such as CD-ROMs or web-based ‘interactive’ learning objects. We also had a responsibility to identify technologies that could be implemented as University services.
A number of our early distance learning projects had requirements for on-line support. Our manager heard of a project running in Engineering that was using something called ‘Lotus Notes’ to support their distance learning course. Despite some misgivings on my part, Lotus Notes was adopted for our projects. I have to admit, my first impressions (and continued impression) is that the Notes client is awful. I’m probably the only Domino developer who’s never developed for the client. Luckily as a group, we weren’t interested in proliferating clients around the Uni and were more interested in the ability for making Domino database available to students through the web.
As it turned out, I didn’t work on these early Notes projects. Watching colleagues develop the early projects, I really wasn’t impressed by development for the Notes client. It seemed to me that to make something work through the web and client was far too time consuming. It also seemed that the design of the web side was compromised by the client side (for example using framesets). The early projects also seemed to involve too much training and support, such as showing users how to use the Notes client and setting up users accounts. But, importantly, it also appeared the Notes offered a very easy to learn development platform where you could create complicated web interactions, much more easily than with Perl, PHP, or ASP. Something that was very useful for a team of Learning Technologist with a mixture of academic, technical and design backgrounds.
As we moved into 2000, we re-evaluated the work the team were doing. It was clear that the targeted ‘learning object’ developments were not working. We’d develop ‘learning objects’ with reasonably high production values and staff found it difficult to maintain the content. We even had a few projects cease after the academic we worked with left. Often interesting pedagogical solutions we would suggest were undermined by the need of staff to maintain them and to be perfectly honest, in 2000 few academics we worked with could think beyond a linear ‘book’ approach to teaching online. However, the systems we’d built to support these projects had worked better than we expected. So as a group we took the decision to focus on developing a University-wide system that would support staff in their teaching.
At the time, most Universities were looking at ‘Learning Environments’. The two obvious choices were Blackboard and WebCT. We’d played with both, but they appeared to be focused on the academic ‘technology leaders’ and not the average academic, many of whom were still getting to grips with email (I know hard to believe). So as a team we resisted buying a solution and opted to develop our own with the idea that everything should be as simple as sending an email. To be honest, it was a selfish decision. I didn’t want my job to turn into an admin job, just setting up courses and adding students. Developing our own system would be more interesting and we could design the admin ‘out of the system’ by tying everything to our student system and academic structures.
It was at this point our group disintegrated. The manager left and wasn’t replaced. Our web manager left and although we’d recently employed the Notes developer from Engineering, they also found a new job. So as 2001 approached, we were left with two learning technologists and a graphic designer, a promise of more staff, and a commitment to the University to release a University-wide pilot in September 2001. It was important that the technology allowed us to work quickly.
Luckily, the previous summer, I had to develop my first ‘Notes’ project. Unlike colleagues previous Notes projects I took the decision to remove the Notes client from the equation and to design something that could form the basis of a future learning environment. So everything on the website had to be configurable by staff through a web interface. Everything from registering students, selecting functionality, to setting up groups had to be done through a web interface.
With this forming the basis of the main teaching areas and with the support of a senior manager who thankfully developed the basic integration with the data from our student record system, by May we had a portal structure that could be connected to a series of modules. i.e. the basics of a learning environment.
Luckily at this point we employed a Notes Administrator who was able to point out some massive flaws in my design that would have crippled any large roll-out. I have to say, we hit the jackpot with our Notes Admin. We didn’t want an administrator to administer ‘Notes’. There are no Notes clients. We don’t use Domino for email. We wanted a administrator who would be an integral part of the development team who would provide the tools to integrate our system with data from other systems, something he was more than happy to do. With his advice, some minor restructuring, we managed to release a scalable prototype and my colleague was able to start the immense task of training hundreds of staff before the September roll-out.
The amazing thing with Domino is how easy it is to set up simple ‘form-capturing’ type websites and this meant that we could create a wide range of resources very quickly. So by the time of release we were able to provide a wide range of functionality from classifieds and discussion forums through to integrations with our library catalogue. So by (late) September we managed to achieve what few thought we would, we rolled-out this new environment to every student (20,000), every member of staff (2000+), and to every module (4000) in the University.
Although I was working 100+ hours every week for 9 months, I’m not sure such a small group of inexperienced ‘developers’ could have achieved such a tight timescale with any other technology available at the time. This to me has been the greatest thing about Domino. It’s amazing what you can achieve with just a little bit of knowledge. This project was testament to that.
It’s now ten years later and we’re still continuing to expand and develop our learning environment. The majority of it is still built in Domino. Our single Solaris server is now part of a cluster of three (two live, one backup). It’s extremely well used, with 13000 students and 1500 members of staff logging on daily, with an average of 1.4 million page requests per day. Our module website functionality has expanded with blogs, wikis, tests, better group work facilities, podcasts,etc and we now handle about 150,000 assignments submissions each academic year. We now have over 30,000 databases that provide websites for the various academic components (i.e. module websites, programme websites etc). There’s even a simple mobile interface. I could keep quoting numbers and features. But on reflection I’m amazed by what we’ve been able to achieve with Domino in the last decade. Especially as we were told by ‘experts’ across the University that Notes was ‘ageing technology’ that would never scale and wouldn’t be around in 5 years time, never mind 10.
So where does the project go from here?
Although I still think Domino can still form the basis of our environment, increasingly, we’re storing data in relational databases for more complex work and we’re building more facilities outside of Domino using ‘cheaper’ technology.
We’re not yet using XPages. When we have hundreds of thousands lines of code, we’re unlikely to ‘convert’ to XPages, just create new additions as XPages. Plus we’ve learnt the hard way that Domino on Solaris is never reliable at a x.0 and there’s usually something that causes us issues at the x.1 release (usually virus checkers) so we’ve not yet moved all our servers to 8.5.2. Equally, the team’s composition has changed and staff are more development focused and rightly concerned about limiting themselves to a technology that doesn’t transfer elsewhere.
I’m also concerned by Lotus’ apparent decision to not develop a 64 bit version of Domino on Solaris. With us already struggling with memory limitations this could ultimately force us off the platform and if this happened we would have to move to a commercial or open source solution, away from the in-house development.
I also have to state that Lotus’ support for education compared to other vendors has been awful throughout the last decade and hopefully this will also improve.
But personally, despite some misgivings when we first started to use the technology, I hope that Domino continues to provide us with the tools that we require. So that in 2016 I can write another update on how well it’s served us (I would say 2021, but I don’t think Uni’s will still need learning environments)