Blackboard is About to Change

Over the weekend of May 12-13 Blackboard will be unavailable for an extended period (roughly 7 PM Saturday to around 2 PM Sunday) while we upgrade it from 9.0 to 9.1. It’s important that you know this is happening because when you open Blackboard after that it will look really different. Don’t be alarmed, though. Pretty much everything you need is in the same place as it always was, just a different color and a cleaner look:

New Blackboard Look
View of the announcements page of my (just completed) American Dialects Course.

But under the hood, it will look behave quite differently. Almost everything will require fewer clicks. For example, adding items to a content area involves a single click and you can add not only files but YouTube, Flickr and SlideShare links, which play directly inside Blackboard. You can add textbook information which connects directly to the publisher’s website, simply by typing or pasting in the ISBN number. Here’s how you insert YouTube videos:

Add YouTube
Screen showing how you choose YouTube videos
A set of YouTube videos after searching for ‘SR-71’

And here’s what the textbook facility looks like:

Textbook Display
Inserting your textbook information by typing in the ISBN number


There is now provision for wikis, which are gradable, and, for those who need them, you can establish grading rubrics which can be called up when grading an assignment.
The grade book is much easier to navigate, and you can color-code grades (by, say, percentage or some other criterion). Smartviews have been enhanced as well.
You can temporarily view the site as a student views it.
The Visual Text Box Editor now has many more buttons for inserting stuff (videos, audio files, as well as an equation editor). But, for many of us, the biggest advantage is that you can paste directly from a Word file without losing any of the formatting. Here’s the ‘Create Item’ form:

New Textbox Editor for 'Create Item'
For those interested in foreign languages, Blackboard can be set to display in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Arabic, Japanese, and two varieties of Chinese.
You can learn more by looking at the newly installed 9.1 tab on your Blackboard page. I also recommend you attend some of the training sessions being offered at OTL over the next couple of weeks and additionally spread throughout the summer. Here is a list of those already planned:
Tuesday, May 1, 2:45-4:15PM 238 P/K Library
Thursday, May 3 3:15-4:45 PM 150 P/K Library
Friday, May 4 9:30-11:00 AM 238 P/K Library

Wednesday, May 9 1:00-3:00 PM 150 P/K Library

Friday, May 11 1:00-2:00 PM Webinar (Archived)

Monday, May 14 10:00-12:00 PM 150 P/K Library
Thursday, May 17 2:00-4:00 PM 150 P/K Library
Tuesday, May 22 9:30-11:30 AM 150 P/K Library
Friday, May 25 11:00-12:00 PM Webinar (Archived)


You can register for them through Pipeline, and watch for announcements of more, some elsewhere on both the Main and Medical campuses over the next couple of months.

Not technology per se, but a fascinating copyright question

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a very interesting copyright case. Publishers sell different, cheaper editions of their textbooks elsewhere in the world. The text is the same, the paper and binding may be different. Some enterprising American student leveraged this fact and had friends import these cheaper editions, which he resold here, at a modest profit, but way cheaper than the retail US price. A major publisher sued him for copyright violation, and the courts agreed with the publisher, but only barely. Now it’s gone all the way up to the Supreme court. Read about it here and in the Chronicle.  Comments in both locations are interesting too.


SPAM—More than you ever wanted to know about how we block it

Over the past week or two there’s been a brief bump in the amount of spam you received (if you were one of about 500 lucky individuals). C&IT now seems to have the situation under control, but I thought folks would be interested in how we attempt to control SPAM. It’s a complex process, involving what security folks call defense in depth, and, as with most modern warfare, it’s an arms race.
The Wayne Connect email system uses three different kinds of anti-spam protection, acting in serial (i.e. each one operates on the output of the previous one).
The first layer, Cisco Ironport Senderbase (known sometimes simply as Ironport, which was the name of the company before Cisco acquired it several years ago) filters out mail from any source that has a bad ‘reputation’. This machine relies on a continuously maintained national database of known spammers. That database is assembled from all the other Ironport machines located around the world.  Believe it or not, about ninety percent of the email messages that reach Wayne State are blocked at the outermost wall by this ‘appliance’.
Mail that gets through this filter is then submitted to the second layer, the Quarantine filter you probably know about. This has an algorithm to guess whether things might be spam based on various characteristics of the messages. Messages that ‘look’ suspicious to the software are placed in quarantine and you get a message every morning from the machine telling you what has been quarantined in the past 24 hours. You can then tune the system by telling it which domains (such as ‘’ or ‘’) you want to permit, and it establishes what is known as a whitelist.
The third layer is Wayne Connect itself, which has another algorithm, and places suspicious mail in your Junk folder. I find there is very rarely anything in there, but if something does show up, I look at it (when I remember) and either delete it or mark it as ‘not junk’ and it moves to my Inbox.
The result is that, although the occasional message slips through, over ninety percent never reaches you. And all of this is totally automatic, incidentally—no human being ever sees any message the system blocks.
In case you are wondering what happened last week, incidentally, the first layer was modified (to make it faster by doubling the number of machines it runs on, simplifying somewhat) and the new machine needed a little tinkering to get the filter to work correctly, so anybody’s mail that went through the new machine was not properly filtered for a few days.
For those of you who were spammed, you now can see what kind of stuff we normally shield you from. I was one of those who got some hair-raising messages during. I imagine you want us to keep the shields up.
Just for fun, here’s a graph produced by the anti-spam system showing what got through, and what was blocked by each layer.

Proportion of mail blocked, by category

Notice, incidentally the number in the top right-hand column. That represents messages received over a recent twenty-four hour period. Mail comes in to Wayne at a peak rate (at noon) of roughly 140,000 messages per hour!