University of Liverpool Online — Part 6: Switching to More Freedom

The University of Liverpool just contacted students saying that they will be switching from the FirstClass system to Blackboard. This is great news, as Blackboard has a very functional web-based interface. This means that UoL students will no longer be forced to use proprietary software on their machines when studying at Liverpool online.

I hope they will also reconsider using secret file formats for their lectures. If they do, they will be almost free, and this freedom can extend to students.

5 thoughts on “University of Liverpool Online — Part 6: Switching to More Freedom”

  1. Hi,
    I differ with you on that. Having tried both firstClass and Blackboard,I
    I think that the offline version of first class has many more
    advantages. FYI even firstclass has an online web-based version, so
    there is no advantage to blackboard.
    Some of the advantages of FirstClass include:
    1. Instant update of messages and posts. No having to ‘update’or
    2. Flagging of new posts with red flag, and sound notification (very
    3. Reply with ‘quote’of person you’re responding to. Very handy.
    4. Text resize function
    5. Sort by name, size, date, etc.
    6. Collect all posts in one handy text file, which can be saved and
    read at leisure.
    7. And so on and so forth!


  2. Thanks for your comment. I know the web-based FirstClass, but there are quite a few problems with it:

    1. If you want to have text formatting features (and it’s almost a must, otherwise you will have lower grades because of bad presentation), the JavaScript-based text editor will make you curse like a sailor. Making something bold might make the whole text flicker and then turn into a combination of underline and strikethrough that you can never remove again, forcing you to delete your text, copy from your source (I write my things in a text editor) and paste it in again. If you are lucky, FirstClass might have forgotten the faulty formatting. In many cases it hasn’t, forcing you to close the post you’re replying to and reopening it.

    On top of that, the editor will often mess with your answer but not show it to you. It will insert unsightly spaces in words (e.g. like “uns ightly”), but it won’t give you a chance to correct that. It will also display data garbage from the posts you are replying to, sometimes in the middle of your own reply, without letting you know. In one seminar, it almost always made me sign my posts with the e-mail address of the instructor. How embarrassing is that?

    That the editor doesn’t produce very good HTML and will often have clusters of nested and improperly closed tags is almost normality here.

    And if your browser can’t deal with the reasonably heavy JavaScript that is running, you are reduced to a rudimentary view that feels like a discussion board from 1996.

    Why on earth didn’t they just use FCKeditor or one of the other time-tested and lightweight solutions? It seems the responses are stored as XHTML anyhow, so FCKeditor would have been fine.

    2. It has an auto-timeout for sessions that can’t be customized by the user. I was often logged out while reading someone’s longer comments and preparing my answer.

    3. Response threading only works up to one level deep, i.e. the eigth reply won’t be indented by eight levels, it will still just be visualized as one of many replies to the original. This isn’t very intuitive, especially compared to how this works in other programs. It makes it very hard to follow a discussion.

    4. Displaying uploaded content is flaky at best. It seems incapable of properly displaying an attached and embedded JPEG or PNG image about 95% of the time, but sometimes it seems to work (?).

    5. I agree that the downloading and archiving feature is nifty, but also here we find many bugs. Downloading an entire folder of things that contains one single thing that you don’t have permission to view will cause the entire download to fail in the middle. The system doesn’t pre-check for such conditions. This is particularly annoying when you want to download a whole module folder to archive all your answers, as module folders often contain assignment or group folders that you don’t have permission for.

    6. Blackboard doesn’t have the ability to quote for replying? That would be really disappointing. And no sorting or flagging? Those would be quite trivial things, I’d really expect it to have that.

    7. Text resize (for viewing, if that’s what you mean?) should come with the browser. Even if pages are silly and specify font sizes in pixels, many modern browsers can still override that and use your own size.

    8. Also and so forth 🙂

    So it’s clear that we have to critically analyze both solutions, but switching the entire UoL program to one single, web-based solution that all students use will surely put more pressure on that solution being workable. The current web frontend isn’t, and the native client has many of the problems of the web version plus being non-free. I’m quite sure that a web-only interface will have to live up to higher standards than the current web interface.


  3. Almost 4 years later, I’m winding down my studies at the UOL. Blackboard is still lurking behind the newly overhauled shiny fadey slidey Javascripty “Laureate LENS”, as far as I can see. Never having tried Firstclass I can tell you that I’m glad I didn’t seen as how I already found BB clumsy and slow, and TurnItIn almost unusable from Firefox on GNU/Linux (I’ve had to selectively disable Javascript with code like “if windows, A, if OSX, b, else FAIL”.) Support has been blatantly telling me to buzz off because they “don’t support Linux” even in cases where the problem was clearly on the server side. Sad..

    The good news is that the dissertation I’m about to submit was written in vim, typeset in LaTeX (guess whose work I’m building on there? :_)), and that the code in it is GPLv3, with the explicit approval of the faculty. So there is hope there!

    I got Jens-Christian Fisher’s version of your LaTex work, and updated that a bit, since there were small differences with the latest template I got..

    Wouldn’t it be a good idea to make this into a project, say, put it on github and work it so it becomes a no-brainer for UOL students to fork and just put contents into, asking them to contribute updates? What do you think?


  4. Hi Frank, another LaTeXer! Even though my template rapes LaTeX and punches it in the face until it commits all manner of atrocities against good typesetting practices, at least we can remove all those and generate a better-looking version of our dissertation just for our own use. Even the LaTeX defaults look better…

    About the template: It has been on GitHub for about 3 years now, but Jens-Christian apparently didn’t fork it there:

    I admit the name isn’t the best ever, but searching for “uol latex” should flush it out of your favorite search engine.

    I’d be very happy to receive any changes you’ve made, so that this template follows the typographic adventures of UoL’s original. Sad to hear that they’re technologically still not more savvy. It’s quite a disgrace for a university that wants to brag about its online learning program 😦

    Thanks for getting back to me (us, actually!) about the template and I’m looking forward to any improvements. Feel free to just submit pull requests.


  5. OMGs I didn’t even try that search.. JC must have forked from there (I forked from his – but that was removed so I moved to a copy then, breaking the chain). I’ll contribute, once I recover mentally from writing this DS you may expect my pull requests.

    Yeah, the UOL. There’s some mighty fine folks in there, fortunately, but you certainly couldn’t tell from the tools :_).

    I’m about to submit this one, and get my studies over with:


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