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Several Campuses Are Disrupted by Outage in Course-Management Systems

Course-management systems have become crucial to the everyday operations of colleges so gradually that many users may not think about it all that much. That is, until the lights go out.

A number of institutions had a rude awakening this week, when Desire2Learn, which makes a course-management system used by many colleges, saw what one top official described as the biggest malfunction in the company’s history.

Desire2Learn was moving its clients’ data from the servers of one “cloud” storage provider to another, when sometime on Tuesday a technical glitch triggered errors and outages across its entire network of higher-education, public-school, and corporate clients.

About 25 percent of the company’s clients were affected, according to Jeff McDowell, Desire2Learn’s vice president for marketing and business development. The company does not know what percentage of those clients were higher-education institutions, said Mr. McDowell. About 11 percent of nonprofit colleges and universities use Desire2Learn’s system, according to the Campus Computing Project.

The University of Colorado at Boulder is one of them. Some professors there have had to post course information and links on alternative sites, such as Google Docs, according to The Daily Camera, a local newspaper.

A professor at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, has resorted to passing along course information to his 250 students via mass e-mails, according to The Record, a newspaper in that Canadian city, which is also where Desire2Learn has its headquarters.

Some users took to Twitter to complain. “Prof spending lecture time reading out presentation dates b/c he cannot post it due to #D2L being down,” wrote one Waterloo student. “This is what I’m pay [sic] for.”

“Grateful I have a good memory,” wrote Sasha Boersma, a marketing instructor at Centennial College, in Toronto. “With @Desire2Learn down, all my raw notes for students are inaccessible, and I have to recreate from scratch.”

Offered one Colorado student: “Class should just be canceled when #D2L is down. It’s like, do I look like I have my syllabus memorized[?]”

The degree of the problem probably varied from campus to campus and even user to user, ranging from waiting for slow page loads to being totally unable to access the system, said Mr. McDowell.

Desire2Learn has been working nonstop to fix the problem since Tuesday evening, when reports of outages first started coming in, he said. As of Friday afternoon about 60 percent of its clients had confirmed that the problem had been fixed; the remaining 40 percent were still checking for lingering issues. No data have been lost on any campuses, Mr. McDowell said.

He said he expected Desire2Learn would have to mend fences with some clients, especially those that had been skeptical about using a vendor that stores its clients’ data on a faraway network rather than on campus servers. But he said the glitch was an anomaly resulting from the unusual conditions of moving data from one storage provider to another.

“What we did was no different than what any institution would go through if they were migrating from an older system to a newer system,” said Mr. McDowell. “This risk had nothing to do with cloud-based architecture in general.”

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