TIMM SHOWALTER and KAY FORREST
“C’mon! Are you serious?!” Students all over the Pensacola area have blasted these words, and many others, at computer monitors over the past few months due to PJC’s online course component, ANGEL.
ANGEL is a program that allows students to interact with each other and their teachers as if they were in a digital classroom. The issue is that it is a piece of technology that requires a good bit of attention, and when it doesn’t receive that attention, problems such as crashes, miscommunications, or failed assignments can arise.
“Distance learning has been around as far back as the 60s, but the U.S. post office was fairly reliable. Now we are dealing with things that are entirely based on electricity,” said Bill Waters, director of Distributed Learning.
These issues may not seem like a big problem, but the students who get caught up in ANGEL’s kinks walk away with severe disdain for the program.
“ANGEL sucks,” said former PJC student Nathan Christian. This is the same reaction given by nearly all the students when asked about their feelings towards it
English professor Stacey Albaugh said many students feel that the program is too confusing (keep in mind many PJC students are over 30 years old), but the program provides a great way for students to communicate with their teachers and overall she feels like the system is a good thing.
In fact, one crucial element of ANGEL is the freedom it gives teachers. “We don’t want to prescribe, ‘this is how you have to teach.’ We want to provide technology that helps them and lets them do the things they want to do more effectively,” ANGEL Vice President, David Mills said.
But, as Waters mentioned, this freedom adds another level of complications to maintaining the program.
He pointed out that the program has only been down approximately “.001 percent” of the time. But, “that’s not to say that it’s not a major problem if someone takes a test and they get knocked offline. When ANGEL comes back up, that’s not the end of their problem. Now the instructor has to decide whether the student is going to redo the test; maybe the student can’t make it in. It’s just a chain reaction.”
So, why does ANGEL go down?
The program is essentially rented from a company by PJC, and is housed on a server. That server has a capacity, and when that capacity is reached, the server can become overloaded.
For instance, if 25 teachers give an assignment that is due Sunday night and 20 students from each of those classes all log on at once to complete the assignment, a “traffic jam” can occur. This could ultimately lead to the server crashing. Waters and his team urge teachers to stagger their assignments in order to prevent this from happening.
According to Waters, lack of manpower is the biggest obstacle when trying to keep the servers up.
Because of budget cuts and a clenching economy, PJC does not have the financial power to keep an eye on ANGEL at all times. “People on the server management team are making themselves available on weekends, and people are taking calls while they’re in church,” said Waters.
Although teachers seem to feel it is a valuable tool, students sometimes hate it, and administration looks at the crashes as a small percent, other colleges in the area, namely UWF, don’t appear to have the same troubles.
UWF student Chris Edgar said that the school’s eLearning online component has not gone down, unscheduled, once in the two years he’s been there. He also claims that the support people are easy to get a hold of and there is even a live chat option. He says that, aside from having “rinky dink” internet connections in the dorms, he has never had an issue with turning in assignments, keeping in touch with teachers, or logging on.
Although UWF may seem advanced with their live-chat support systems, PJC may not be far behind.
Waters stated that the biggest improvement he feels could be made to ANGEL is the implementation of a live chat, along with a webcam.
“This would allow people to communicate in real-time. This type of web-conferencing would enable us to have a better picture of what a person is having a problem with on their computer. It helps us go in and experience what the student is experiencing,” he said.
However, the final chapter of the ANGEL saga may prove to be a dark one. If students think things are bad now, they may be in for a ride in the near future.
A company known as Blackboard has just recently bought out ANGEL. “This company is sort of the Microsoft of learning management systems,” said Waters. He also pointed out how incredibly difficult it is to get any type of customer support from major companies, such as Blackboard.
Right now the major question is how Blackboard is going to handle ANGEL. Waters wonders if the company is going to just “swallow ANGEL and integrate it into Blackboard or leave it as its own thing.”
Love it or hate it, ANGEL will still be around for quite some time. Though Waters did hint that the Blackboard buyout could potentially lead to a new type of software on campus; however, he said it wouldn’t be for another two years or so.