Annual Health Check of the e-Learning System

by Mei-ling Lee
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Have you used the e-Learning system (Blackboard Learn) at our university? It is the unified e-Learning platform and the University e-Portal since its launch in the 2005/06 academic year. Over the years, the advancement in technology and improvement of such platform allow staff to develop more learning-centric activities for students and encourage them to become self-regulated learners. Its popularity within the university community has grown noticeably especially in teaching, learning and related activities. The platform also provides integration to our Administrative Information Management System (AIMS) and other specialized learning facilities. With the continuous growth and significant demands in usage, it has become a mission critical system. It is therefore crucial to ensure that the platform is very stable with high availability and continues to meet the needs and expectations of our users. In addition to the maintenance cycle of hardware and software upgrades, an annual health check has been engaged since 2007 as proactive and effective management of the system.

Like a human body, an annual health check helps to better understand the health condition of a person and then take all necessary steps to improve or maintain one's good health. For an e-Learning system, the goals are to assess the overall well-being of the system, document system status, diagnose potential areas of weaknesses or bottlenecks, provide recommendations to better align the environment with best practices and render services cost-effectively and efficiently. The conclusions drawn from the health check also act as a basis for resource planning and budgeting for future growth. The health check is performed by Blackboard, the software vendor.  Members of the project team include consultants and local representatives of Blackboard, representatives from the e-Learning support team of the Office of the Chief Information Officer and the Computing Services Centre. 

  • Assessment of network configuration, hardware, operating system, database, Blackboard configuration
  • Analysis of error log files, traffic, usage patterns, hardware monitoring and volume
  • Reporting on recommended technological and/or administrative steps

There are three phases to the project:

  1. Preparation of information such as current system infrastructure, technical data and logs for examination
  2. Analyses of data received and report generation
  3. Reviewing and finalizing the report
Upon receiving the recommendations from the report, they will be studied and tasks prioritized.   Each recommended item will be tested in the development environment so that there is no conflicting impact to the system.  If successful, it will be scheduled to be implemented in the production environment.  After it has been applied to the production environment, it will be closely observed for a period of time before implementing the next one, if any.  Usually the recommendations involved fine-tuning of configuration settings, which can be challenging at times to find the optimal set of values, in order to bring the best possible performance out of the current hardware and software.
  
To give a general idea of how the system performs, let's look at the response time data in the access logs.  In the processing time analysis, excluding latency and any other networking between serving and receiving the data, 99% of the total hits (HTTP requests in the access log) are processed in less than one second.
 
 
Threshold
(response time in seconds)
2013
% of Total Hits
(R 9.1)
2012
% of Total Hits
(R 9.1)
2011
% of Total Hits
(R 9.1)
Fall 2010
% of Total Hits
(R 9.1)
Spring 2010
% of Total Hits (AS8)
> 50 s
0.05%
0.05%
0.08%
0.08%
0.06%
10 - 50 s
0.13%
0.13%
0.18%
0.20%
0.22%
5 - 10 s
0.10%
0.11%
0.12%
0.14%
0.15%
1 - 5 s
0.54%
0.63%
0.61%
0.62%
4.75%
0 - 1 s
99.18%
99.08%
99.01%
98.96%
94.81%
 
 
In terms of traffic analysis (a raw hit count), the following bar chart shows the average volume of activities (hits) by day of the week.
 
To assure that a mission critical system is optimally configured, maintained and performing well, an annual health check is certainly an effective means to give a structured and comprehensive review as well as to provide forward looking indicators for planning and meeting the future growth in an enterprise environment. Armed with this information, we are now well prepared for supporting the coming e-Learning demands in 2013/2014.