It’s a little strange for me to be talking about me experiences as a system administrator. I am known to indulge in a little bit of complaining here and there, but never really seriously. Or perhaps my colleagues don’t take it seriously. I suppose it doesn’t matter. However, actually sitting down and discussing how I do my job and talk about the lessons I’ve learned… I’ve never really done that. Recently, I was asked to do just that for training specialists working across the archipelago whose new task was to learn how to operate learning management systems and disseminate what they’ve learned. Amusingly enough, what ensued was a bit of a demotivational presentation. Well… ok, I am exaggerating. But the audience did fully realize that the work of an IT administrator in UP, or perhaps the government in general, is more difficult than it looks.
As of this writing, I am on the final month of my ninth year as an employee of the UP Open University. Back in October 2007, I was barely a month into my job as a junior faculty and was looking forward to being just that in my foreseeable future. Little did I know that the direction of my career had practically been planned for me, the moment I was accepted in the fold.
I was quickly assigned into what was then the Management Information Systems Office of the university. It sounds rather heavy, but it was actually a room with two people who were little more than kids at the time. I wasn’t that much older than them and I had less relevant professional experience. Yet, I was expected to lead them and make sense of what, to the untrained eye, looked like a convoluted pile of hardware and software they called their network infrastructure. My job was to help effect a major transition in the university of which I had been ignorant of. I was expected to have a hand in some of the biggest decisions that needed to be made on behalf of a university which I quickly realized I knew so much less about than I initially thought. And what made matters worse for me was that nothing I had done prior to that time would have helped me prepare for that challenge. I was never given time to adjust and familiarize myself with my new environment without the risk of committing mistakes that can have campus-wide ramifications. I didn’t think it was fair. It was stressful. It was frightening. All I wanted was a relatively quiet job as an online teacher. And now, this…
One of the biggest moves UPOU made at the time I came in was the migration of all courses under all degree programs, and eventually all non-formal courses, to an online learning management system. Face to face sessions were being phased out.
UPOU had already chosen to adopt MOODLE by the time I took over the MIS Office. Everyone was calling it our learning management system. But the reality of the matter was that, with respect to how we were using it, MOODLE was our course management system. I suppose the difference is subtle enough for me to not mind and leave uncorrected. But it was significant enough for me to warrant addressing, albeit in a discreet fashion.
To me, it was clear that MOODLE cannot solve everything for us. And it did not help that its early versions were, shall we say, rough around the edges. The code was buggy and inefficient. For a relatively small number of users, it required a huge amount of server power and Internet bandwidth, both of which we were in extremely short supply of.
Over the course of several years, I was mindful of three things:
- Finding ways to improve how MOODLE itself run.
- Filling the gaps unaddressed by MOODLE as the university’s needs change and grow.
- Being aware if and when something better than MOODLE comes along.
UPOU started with running MOODLE with an in-house server. However, bandwidth limitations forced us to have our server co-located off-site. While this made hardware maintenance inconvenient, at least it partially solved daily accessibility issues for users. But it didn’t take long for the university to outgrow that setup.
Playing catchup with our needs proved difficult, as doing so required constant maintenance, upgrade and replacement of our own servers. The logical next step for us was to find a way to bypass the need for it altogether.
By 2008, we eventually negotiated a hosting contract with what is referred to as a MOODLE partner. It was one of several companies across the world that is certified by MOODLE HQ and its community to administer systems for organizations of all sizes. This solves our dilemma regarding hardware. And with a datacenter outside the Philippines, better access was all but assured. Lastly, as part of the MOODLE partner’s service, day-to-day administration of the system itself were taken off our hands to further lighten my office’s workload.
It was a comfortable arrangement that lasted for a number of years. We would have kept it to this day, had the service remained consistently good. Unfortunately, for some reason that remains unclear to me, the partner’s quality of service declined to a point when we were already within our rights to declare a breach of contract. That did not happen, but it did herald yet another shift for the university.
It was around 2011 when we ended our working relationship with the MOODLE partner. This was also the time when another team took over administration duties, at least for UPOU’s MOODLE system. But from what I have pieced together, hosting changed hands twice. Administrative responsibilities were relegated back to me in 2013, when the MIS Office was re-tooled as the ICT Development Office. Even though I had been doing the job since 2007, it was only six years after, when I was formally designated as a director in UPOU. By this time a local company was under the outgoing MOODLE hosting contract. It proved capable of performing the duties of a MOODLE partner. But the more interesting aspect of this arrangement was that this was UPOU’s early foray into employing a Cloud-based system. I had recommended exploring it a few years earlier, but perhaps up until that point, Cloud hosting was not particularly feasible. And while actual hosting management still changed hands one more time in these last three years, we have essentially maintained the same setup to this day.
MOODLE is commonly referred to as a learning management system. But the reality is that it is rarely fully utilized as such. UPOU certainly is no exception. We do not need all its features. While at the same time, we had several needs which MOODLE cannot provide. In order to address this issue, we had to augment MOODLE with other applications.
Perhaps the most important addition to the UPOU Learning Management System was Google Apps, which we implemented in 2008. The availability of the whole suite of Google’s online applications solve a number of issues, such as official email, Cloud storage and collaboration tools. UPOU had also developed its own academic information management system that handles student admission, records and registration. Unfortunately, circumstances leave us hesitant to implement full integration of these systems to finally implement single sign on, which has been requested for years now.
The exploration and testing of new systems that can possibly complement MOODLE’s feature set is an on-going endeavor at UPOU. My colleagues conduct work of this nature on a regular basis. I am currently studying the use of an ePortfolio system and its full integration with MOODLE. The technical aspect is not difficult to figure out, as both systems have been designed to seamlessly integrate with one another. But it does have administrative and budget implications, which I hope to address in the near future.
Options Aside from MOODLE
Whether it is on behalf of the ICT Development Office or the Faculty of Information and Communication Studies, we are constantly keeping ourselves apprised of the development of learning management systems aside from MOODLE. We are currently active in testing Canvas and are in constant contact with their representatives to assess the prospect of employing the platform. Both parties understand that even if it were to end up being the case, it would still be several years away. However, this is notable in the sense that this has been the farthest the university has come to consider giving up MOODLE.
While it is presumptive, even arrogant, to declare UPOU as the foremost user of MOODLE in the country, I can safely say that we have never done better with MOODLE than we have right now. We also accumulated a considerable amount of experience over the past 10 or so years. There were also a lot of mistakes made and lessons learned which I’ll try to highlight the most important here.
- A system administrator does not need to be the most skilled technocrat in the team. His or her role is, on one hand, to be able to articulate what the team is doing to the rest of the organization. On the other hand, the administrator has to make sure his or her team has the breathing room to work at its best.
- It is a given that technical staff in UP or the government in general are underpaid, especially with respect to their counterparts in the private sector. That is why you need to find ways to keep your people from leaving.
- Technology advances quickly. But that doesn’t mean new tech is always readily available to you.
- Government procurement rules cannot keep up with new technology, services and platforms. Therefore, it is always a good idea to consult with your Legal Office before proposing to adopt anything new.
- Many people have trouble distinguishing between needs and wants when it comes to ICT. It is your job to help them do so, while at the same time not making them feel like you are imposing how you think they should do their
- Always have contingencies. Don’t EVER allow yourself to be backed into a corner where you don’t have at least a few possible solutions for every issue thrown your way. When faced with a crisis, few things will infuriate the rest of your organization than telling them there’s nothing you can do about it.
Yes, working as a system administrator in an organization like UP is not easy by any means. You will feel underpaid and underappreciated. Managing UPOU's learning management system for nearly a decade has been an arduous task, that is for sure. But I have learned a LOT from my experiences and that has helped me adapt. I can't say I'm a happy employee, but through these basic pointers, I can live with the burden. And if you are reading this, maybe you can take these few pointers, as well.