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Blackboard Release 9: Stories so far

December 7, 2009

I attended the London Blackboard User Group meeting, held on Friday 4th December at the London Knowledge Lab. These user group meetings are always a useful chance to meet up with other Blackboard users, to pick up some new ideas and find out what works for them. Or indeed, what doesn’t work for them – sometimes it’s just reassuring to find that other universities, maybe even some very well-known universities, don’t have all the answers either.

Friday’s session presented case studies from three institutions who had taken the plunge and upgraded to Blackboard release 9.0: University of Northampton, City & Islington College, and Teesside University.

Now at the previous user group meeting, back in July, we heard from Jim Nottingham of London South Bank University, whose v9 upgrade had literally just taken place (they had gone from 6.3 to 9.0 over the space of about ten days). Jim reported that, having made it to 9.0 they had an extremely long list of support tickets with Blackboard – and some of the bugs they were reporting seemed to me rather serious. About the same time, other institutions started reporting on the Blackboard user group email list that v9 was extremely buggy, and my feelings were that you’d have to be mad to move to a new – and largely rewritten – version of Blackboard so soon after its release. I still feel that, but am glad that some institutions were prepared to jump in feet first – as Kate Boardman from Teesside said, we can benefit from their pain.

All three of the presenters on Friday said that, despite the problems, they thought the upgrade was worth it. Well, you might think, they would say that, wouldn’t they? But Kate Boardman in particular was very upbeat. Since anyone moving to v9 now is unlikely to do so until next summer, the bugs in 9.0 are largely irrelevant – they’ve mostly been fixed, and those which are outstanding should be addressed by version 9.1, coming in the Spring. Her feeling is that version 9, finally, is a Blackboard version fit for the 21st century. Staff moving to 9 from version 8 (as we would be) have not found it a major learning curve; and feedback from students is very positive.

Obviously noone was saying that version 9.1 will be trouble-free, but the general feeling was that an upgrade in summer 2010 will be well worth it. Some positive features which were highlighted:

  • the interface is much more Web 2.0 in feel – goes down well with students in particular
  • Groups – much easier for staff to create and populate; can even be set up so that students can set them up and self-enrol
  • Tabs can have a second layer of sub-tabs – useful if using Blackboard as a portal (allows greater depth of navigation)
  • seems to be more accessible
  • for the first time, the Virtual Classroom actually works (!) – generally far less reliance on Java, which removes one major source of user frustration.

The case studies were followed by a “roadmap” presentation from Mike Straus, from Blackboard’s Washington DC headquarters. As these things go, his talk was remarkably free of jargon and corporate business-speak, and he even seemed to have a sense of humour – on discovering that his slides contained not one, but two instances of Blackboard’s standard disclaimer about future software releases, he quipped “don’t buy anything based on what I tell you”.

The big news is that Blackboard have decided not to rush out version 9.1 for the start of the year. It’s now likely to be release around March. This is because they’ve decided to focus on “software quality” – i.e. they’ve realised that their customers would really prefer it if software worked on release, not a couple of months later. This has got top be a good thing. When it comes, 9.1 will address bugs and issues identified in 9.0 (along with 9.0 Service Pack 1, Service Pack 2 and a whole host of local fixes). New features are likely to include

  • “centralised grading” within courses – not sure exactly what that means, but the implication is that the Grade Centre will be easier for staff to find their way around
  • introduction of anonymous grading
  • introduction of question banks in courses, and shareable between courses
  • course blogs – introduced in 9.0 – will be gradeable
  • course wikis
  • flexible course roles i.e. SysAdmin can create an unlimited number of course roles (in addition to Instructor, Grader, Student etc.) and customise the permissions associated with them. The same will apply for Organisations – with Course and Organisation roles being independent of each other.
  • introduction of a lesson plan tool
  • a “Mashup” feature – not sure if Mashup is really the right word, but it will allow seamless integration of content from flickr, YouTube etc.
  • “Course Files” – version 9 equivalent of a WebCT feature which provides file management for files uploaded directly to a course Item. This will integrate directly with the Content Collection, and even force all content to be stored in the Content Collection. (Talking to Mike after the event, he said that the system will carry out checks on uploaded files, and if 2 files are found to be identical, only one copy will actually be stored on the server – a useful space-saving feature)
  • significant improvements to the Content Collection including
    • thumbnail view of images
    • a Java-based drag-and-drop from the desktop tool
    • improved course integration (e.g as detailed in previous bullet point)

Looking further ahead, 9.2 will apparently focus less on new features, than on making sure that all existing features work really well. Further improvements to the Content Collection – e.g. improvments to Xythos and WebDav functionality, Recycle Bin and Search tools – will come in 9.3 or possibly even later.

Summing up, I think we should (as in fact it already suggests in my business plan) set up a virtual Blackboard 9 installation in the New Year, so that we can start getting to grips with the opportunities and challenges presented by the new version. Then – all being well – we should aim to move to 9.1 in the summer. It does seem to be a much more attractive, personalisable, modern bit of software, which will be more attractive to student users, and provide more flexibility for staff who want to use the VLE to develop a blended learning environment. With the integration of web 2.0 features such as blogs and wikis, it may well be that we can save some money by using native Blackboard functionality instead of third-party Learning Objects software.

Edit 16/12/09

Edit 14/01/10

  • Julian Beckton’s blog (University of Lincoln) reports in some detail on the most recent Blackboard Midlands User Group meeting, which also looked at the pros and cons of upgrading to Blackboard 9

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