Day zero: reaching equilibrium

You could argue the toss whether the cold, wet winter’s evening in Brisbane on Monday, 22 July, could be legitimately counted as part of the ‘user experience’ for my first lecture in my MA programme – INN533: Information Organization – and if so, whether it improved matters or not. After all, a hot sticky night have had as many pros and cons as its opposite. What I can tell you is that, following in the footsteps of Max Weber, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas, I think there’s a whole range of salient factors in developing a critique, and that nevertheless doesn’t preclude the possibility that there are no right or wrong answers.

The late notification of the lecture’s nature, the ambiguity of the language used in the notification, the mention of a physical lecture hall, and the fact that I was not alone in misreading the instructions, made me realise quite sharply that things were not going to meet my expectations. The lecture was to be virtual, conducted across the ether, and via some dodgy Java application called Blackboard Collaborate.

The Java conundrum part I

So, after turning up to the listed lecture location, I realised it was either a very small class with no lecturer, of something had gone wrong. Some minutes into the allotted time, one of the others who had turned up managed to access the Blackboard system, and had sound of a lecturer talking, oblivious to the dozen or so of us who wondered where the hell she might be.

However, it was pretty obvious that neither the universe nor the lecturer gave a damn about us, so I raced back to S block, where I knew there were some student access terminals. However, the instructions for accessing Blackboard Collaborate excluded a small and vital part of information: the join.jnlp file downloaded by clicking the link to the virtual space was not recognised by the QUT machine and needed to be associated with an application other than the browser. I looked for other executables I could access, and was pleasantly surprised to see this locked-down machine allowed me to select Java, which promptly spewed forth the series of messages mentioned in the help file, and, eventually, disgorged the virtual classroom. A little bit more fiddling, as I plugged the earphones from my MP3 player into the QUT box, and then hunted around for the master volume control. At last, I joined the lecture at slide 19.

Expectation re-joins experience

I cannot say that I wasn’t feeling a bit cheated and steamrolled by the miscommunication: sure, the link to the virtual space had been provided, but there had never been a clear statement that there would be NO lecturer in a physical location on campus; I guess we were all just supposed to know that.

However, the feeling that I had to be indignant about it faded as the evening wore on.

There’s nothing really charming sitting at a student access machine in the fourth-floor foyer of S Block, being eyed quizzically by a never-ending stream of staff and students as if I might be watching a porno flick, listening to the latest Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album, or just generally misusing campus facilities. But all of that was just in my mind; years of not being this publicly exposed, and minutes in which to get used to the idea that this is how campuses are. Like riding a bicycle, it came back to me how to affect the nonchalance of someone who is supposed to be there, whose presence is not to be thought odd, let alone challenged. Before too long there was no affectation about it. I did belong there, and no one actually questioned me at all, even when I consumed a guilty sandwich from the stash I had prepared that morning, when I realised I would be nowhere near my kitchen for 12 hours on this day.

Twitter and Facebook pangs

Another shock to the system was the encouragement we got to use Twitter and Facebook to communicate with each other as a class. It may be that I’m too critical of the mercenary, intrusive side of ‘social media’ platforms, which I propose are more accurately described as data harvesting platforms. Nevertheless, the ongoing stream of information that emerges about unanticipated misuse of user information, including the prospect of data sharing with state intelligence agencies, makes me uneasy about being too free about sharing personal details on such platforms.

Nor can I see any personally appealing reasons for using Facebook at all, or Twitter for more than shouting announcements into cyberspace. It seemed odd to be guided in that direction, particularly since the Blackboard virtual space, including the associated blog, looked like it might suit the same purposes.

Weighing against that perception is the inescapable reality that millions of people use both Twitter and Facebook, and an IT manager ought to at least understand how these platforms work. So, I resisted the urge to turn my back on them, and embraced them just enough to have a look-see at what others in the unit might do with them. The jury’s out on that.

The lecture itself seemed well-structured and informative, largely expunging the earlier jarring experience of expectations and actual events being somewhat divergent. There was, then, at the end of the lecture, some sense of satisfaction about having survived that experience without the disasters I had visualised earlier. Except …

The Java conundrum part II

Coming home that night I was naturally keen to configure my own PC to access the Blackboard Collaborate platform.

No dice!

No matter how closely I read the QUT help files, or the Oracle help files on Java, or the available online resources relating to Chrome and Aurora, there was no explanation anywhere of why the Java update simply would not run.

Oracle went so far as to suggest that on 64-bit operating systems, you had to install both the 64-bit and 32-bit Java updates. It remains unarguable that on my build the 32-bit version simply will not install at all, instead showing the following undocumented, unacknowledged error:

The almost comically unhelpful Java installation error message
The almost comically unhelpful Java installation error message.

The 64-bit update will run, installs perfectly, but does nothing to enable the two browsers – which are 32-bit applications – to use the Java Web App initiator necessary to open the join.jnlp file.

I was tearing my hair out about this until 01:30 Tuesday morning, coming no closer to any solution, and dropping a line to the QUT IT helpdesk, suggesting that if we were required to use this software, couldn’t they make available to students a remote access session to a QUT system in which the Blackboard platform just works. Of course the helpdesk people rang me in the middle of the following day’s lectures; clearly there is a bit of cognitive dissonance about working hours for IT helpdesk staff also being working hours for their clients. However, I’m confident we shall catch up with each other at some stage.

Sitting in the today’s database lecture, I had a tangential thought during an exposition on expectations of minimum student standards of behaviour, like not putting feet on the backs of seats in front, spitting and cursing (kidding), turning mobile phones off, not talking. All the things you might expect even feral cats to be across, but which apparently escape 17-year-olds.

The thought was to make a note of the precise OS and software versions I had used on the QUT student access machine at GP S4. That proved to be the answer.
The latest version of Java, 7_25, simply won’t install as a 32-bit update. The version I saw running on QUT’s system is 6_30. On returning home I went looking for that version.

There is no room or time here to document the many ways Google (makers of Chrome) and Mozilla (makers of Firefox) despise Oracle’s Java for being a security black hole and performance hog. Suffice it to say that the advice provided by those vendors for installing legacy Java was: ‘don’t do it!’

Oracle itself tries pretty hard in its help pages to convince users not to install older versions but does have an archive of previous builds. One problem: to access the archive you need to sign up as an Oracle ‘friend’ with so many personal details you might as well leak your entire life history to the NSA and get it to fill in the Oracle form for you.

Suffice it to say I didn’t really see the benefit of that approach. Instead I found the Old Apps site and downloaded the Java 6_41 offline installer (http://www.oldapps.com/java.php?old_java=11886?download). This one ran perfectly and installed the required runtime without a hitch.

I was now able to connect to the Blackboard Collaborate environment flawlessly. I could see it now: late lectures in the comfort of my own plush chair, with a cuppa, in my jim-jams! Definitely better than cold rainy nights in forlorn building foyers. A new expectation set, and so much the rosier for the false start.
I don’t deny that there was a little bit of satisfaction about resolving the issue without assistance, but I still wonder at the process which saw the Collaborate space being so untested that documentation on this issue was absent, that QUT IT staff did not make an earlier version of Java available on the software downloads page, and that use-case testing seems to be the process of waiting for reports of failures, and then ringing people while they are at work or in lectures.

The Java conundrum part III

On discussing the matter of the right version of Java with QUT’s IT Helpdesk, the following insights were added:

  1. QUT IT Helpdesk is aware that there are versioning issues with Java not just for Blackboard, but some other university applications as well.
  2. The Blackboard team is a separate entity who will receive my feedback via the Helpdesk and reach its own conclusions about what to do.
  3. QUT cannot recommend any course of action that runs contrary to Oracle licensing conditions, which might mean they could not recommend going to Old Apps and downloading the Java version 6_41, as I did, and which I know to be working fine for Blackboard. I suppose I also cannot recommend this as a course of action, but I can mention that it worked pretty well, and without the pain of submitting endless personal details to Oracle just to access their own repository of legacy Java versions.
  4. QUT does not make available any virtualised access to a desktop on which the Blackboard system just works without fiddling.

NB: my experiences are solely related to Windows 7 (Ultimate, SP1), and may not work for Apple Mac users, or previous Windows builds.

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