BlackBoard Learn: possible futures
Staff from different parts of the University of Edinburgh, with different areas of interest and responsibility were able to attend a “roadmap” consultation event organised by Blackboard in October 2013, as part of their series of consultations with HE customers in the UK.
This is an attempt to draw together the observations and “highlights” from these staff, so I am grateful to Myles Blaney, Graeme Ferris, David Findlay, Karen Howie and Kacper Lyszkiewicz for sharing their notes and comments with me. It is not a full description of the day, and any errors or omissions in this summary are entirely my own.
Company policy and planning:
We all welcomed Blackboard’s intention to “focus on the core educational business”, and to work towards a better understanding of, and service for, their European customers: this is reflected in plans to develop some key tools and functionality which have been requested by European users, and especially the UK, for some time.
The more technically-oriented also welcomed a revision of the release pattern for fixes and upgrades, to release technical fixes and functional upgrades separately in future. Discussion on the day indicated that Edinburgh is not alone in finding the change management process difficult, both for the annual cycle and to implement any necessary fixes. Blackboard have been releasing “bundled” patches which combine fixes to known issues with updated functionality. This causes significant problems for system administrators who might want the bug fix as soon as possible but want to plan and develop appropriate staff support for the introduction of new functionality
• Content Editor and Video Everywhere (a feature of the Content Editor)
The Content Editor in SP10, in use here at Edinburgh, allows users to paste text from an external source such as HTML or Word documents, then remove the embedded formatting using the Remove Formatting button.
You can also use the Content Editor to import images, but it’s still best to do any image manipulation or re-sizing before importing into Learn. The Content Editor will prompt you to add an image title and description for accessibility, and to set the alignment settings for your images (right click on image).
Video Everywhere is a new feature which enables users to create video content with a webcam and microphone, then upload to YouTube. It can be used anywhere in Learn where the Content Editor is used, so it can be used with Instructor announcements, blogs or journals. A link to your video is created in YouTube, so a YouTube or Google account is required. This cannot be searched for, but a link can be copied and reused. So Video Everywhere needs to be used with discretion as videos are stored in an area which is technically open to the public, and is therefore not suitable for sensitive content such as individual student feedback or confidential material.
There were demonstrations of tools and additions which are coming in the next Service Pack release, and other functionality which is planned but not yet developed in detail.
The Blackboard user community is invited to comment and contribute: Interested users can sign up to the Ideas Exchange and contribute to the discussion about new features and tools.
New Tools and Features
A range of new features and tools were discussed and illustrated – some are close to release and others in very early design stages, so there are opportunities to shape and feed into prioritisation. The list below selects those we thought worth watching and/or commenting on.
• Improved User Interface including the ability to “drag and drop” content items, which if it includes a way of adding multiple items in a folder would be a helpful improvement.
• Date management for roll-over courses: this could be a major time saver, as it is planned to automatically present a “best guess” at date changes from year to year, and give instructors a single page overview of dates to check and manage.
• Student preview for instructors: at Edinburgh this is available as a community-developed Building Block, so there is concern that a built-in option should function at least as well as this currently does.
• A range of improvements to the Assignment, Grade Centre and Marking tools – including an interface redesign for the Grade Centre, improved anonymous marking, a double blind marking option, more flexibility ion the use of rubrics, better facilities for peer review and marking. Comments from participants on the day included a suggestion that the focus should be on improving these core tools and removing bugs and quirks rather than adding more functions.
• Cloud-based services supporting community and social interactions in Learn will be opt-in on an individual tool basis, instead of the current “all or nothing” settings. This is one of the main reasons why we have not yet been able to make any of these features available in Edinburgh. The meeting consensus was that UK institutions would want more granular control over these cloud-based tools because of data security and privacy requirements.
• We were all interested in a cloud-based Polling Tool, currently being piloted at http://polls.bb/about. It’s not yet clear if this would become part of the core toolset within Learn, or what form the integration might take, but worth watching.
• Deeper integration between the virtual Classroom tool Collaborate and Learn – this will include the automatic default creation of a Collaborate room for every course, and easily setting up a “virtual office” for staff, and a simple “set up a meeting” option for staff and students.
• As part of the Learning Analytics agenda, there was some tentative discussion of improved integration with other student records systems, but its not clear yet how discussions between potentially rival companies might develop.
• Additions and improvements to the Retention Centre and options for tracking progress received a mixed response – there was concern that existing tools should be fixed before additional functionality added. It was unclear where the division between core functionality and additional separately-licensed products would be.
• Plans for a “Course oversight” tool which would provide a kind of checklist analysis of the tools and features for a course received a mixed response. There was concern that it might be seen as too formulaic an approach to course design, and too prescriptive. The current “Teaching Style” option is considered quite inadequate, and is little used in Edinburgh, so this may be an improvement.
• Responsive design: plans for an improved interface design which would automatically adjust the presentation and use of screen space depending on the device being used. This design trend is seen elsewhere and should provide not only an improved user experience but help to future-proof our courses and tools. While the Mobile Learn App is still being developed and improved, the responsive design approach should eventually eliminate the need for separate products, and improve support for a wider range of platforms and devices.