Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Blackboard Education on Tour comes to Dublin

This is a brief report from the Blackboard Education on Tour event which took place in Dublin last week, on Tuesday 4th November. First of all, I'd like to mention that the Irish user community really appreciated that Blackboard included Dublin in its tour, making it so much easier for us to attend. It was good to see such a great turnout from various Irish Institutions.

The programme for the day included 2 tracks: Product Discussion and Professional Development. I'd have loved to get to some of the Professional Development sessions, but because I was the only one from NUIG, I decided to stay in the Product Discussion track.

The event was opened by Demetra Katsifli who welcomed everybody to the event and spoke about Blackboard's development priorities for the EMEA region and some specific examples of where Irish/UK requests have influenced product design. The big one here is delegated and anonymous marking, which is starting to be addressed in the April 2014 release. She also mentioned the particular problem that we've experienced, the Irish language character set and how it works in Collaborate (hint: not very well). The good news is that they've fixed the issue for á, but we're still waiting for ú to be addressed.

Leading the evolution of learning delivery
Demetra then introduced the keynote for the morning, Brad Koch, Vice President for Product Management. Brad spoke about Blackboard's Vision (a world inspired to learn) and Mission (to reimagine education). His talk was very much in keeping with the message that Blackboard has been developing and communicating for the last year, and clearly influenced by Jay Bhatt, Blackboard CEO. See my notes from BbWorld14 and the Blackboard Teaching and Learning conference in Dublin earlier this year for more on this message.

Rather than go through each session in detail, I'll give an overview from my notes on each development/innovation.

Blackboard Learn SaaS
During his keynote at BbWorld14, Jay Bhatt announced that Blackboard is moving into the cloud. This means that Blackboard Learn can be implemented on one of three platforms: self hosted; managed hosted (in Amsterdam for us); or in the cloud SaaS. For cloud installations there are some specific advantages, including zero downtime for upgrades, scalable resource allocation, and protection from Denial of Services attacks. It appears that all managed hosted environments will eventually be moved into the cloud, but it's not clear what are the cost implications for an institution.

Support for MOOCs
Blackboard's open education platform is now available and can be used at no charge by any Blackboard institution. It uses the SaaS platform. An institution can request an institutional account through their client manager.

A new Mobile Learn for students is in design and will be available for iOS, Android and Windows. Functionality for instructors has never been supported in the app, so two separate apps will be developed, one for students and one for instructors, reflecting different workflows.

Blackboard's first app aimed at instructors is now available and works with any Learn installation running the April 2014 release (or higher). It is currently being localised from the US version to one that is more consistent with Irish/UK terminology.

The app (available for iPad only) will allow instructors to grade student assignment submissions using rubrics, and facilitates voice and video feedback. It also includes an individual risk profile for each student, which can be customised. Students at risk can be emailed from directly within the app.

Unfortunately it requires a data connection. Otherwise it looks like it will be a useful tool for instructors, as long as they have decent wifi.

November Release
On Tuesday we were told that the November 2014 release was due to launch next day (this was the October 2014 release). While the April 2014 release fixed about 400 bugs in the system, the November release addresses a further 560 bugs.

A roadmap for the March 2015 release will be available in December.

A new Collaborate app will be released at the end of the month and will include live video, web tour, private and group chat.

A new, Java-free, Collaborate experience will be in-browser, making it easier for students and instructors to join a Collaborate session. We should expect improved quality in both audio and video.

The new Collaborate experience will be available in the later half of 2015, though there may be some early availability to some institutions in Q2.

Blackboard Offline
This seems to be a facility that will allow students download their course content in context for easy access when not connected to a network. This could be useful for students in transit.

A building block will be released later this month. For students it requires a one-time download of an app to a laptop.

ULTRA - the new user experience
I first heard about the new user experience, under development, a year ago at the Eduction on Tour event in London, 2013. Stephanie Weeks gave a presentation at the time, and she gave another presentation on the same topic (though further developed) at BbWorld14.

In Dublin, we had some more demonstrations of the new design, which does look very nice indeed, and quite different from the current, now-outdated, user experience. The new "restful" API involves a much simpler navigation, with easy transition from the top level into courses and elements within courses. There will be a simple x button to close windows - instead of the dreaded OK button hidden at the bottom right of pages in the current design.

Within a course, there is a search function! There is a simple lock icon on a main course page to indicate (and toggle) availability. The email system will be properly integrated so that replies will come back into Blackboard.

All of this will take some getting used to, for many of our users. And so it was a relief to know that the new interface can be enabled at institution or course level. An instructor will be able to decide if and when they want to convert older courses.

However, it will be some time before this lovely new experience can be available to us all. It will be available for pilots and first tries towards the end of 2015. We should not expect to be fully migrated as an institution for 2 or 3 years!

The new interface requires the SaaS infrastructure.


There was a session on the Blackboard Analytics product, which was described as more of a service than a system. This requires integration with various data sources on campus and produces analytics and reports at the student, instructor, course, sys admin and strategic level.

My impression is that it looks great at a strategic, institutional level. But it may be too much for individuals, students and staff.

Integrated Packages??

During his keynote, Brad mentioned that Blackboard will not be selling the Content and Community systems separately in the future, echoing the comment made by Jay Bhatt in Las Vegas at BbWorld14. It is still not clear what this means for costs for licensing institutions. The question was raised last week, but the response was very vague - in 2015 Blackboard will look at the "bundling situation".

This "brief report" has gone on a little longer than intended, and I haven't mentioned the newly resurrected Irish Blackboard User Group (BUG). I'll leave that for another day.


Damien Raftery said...

Thanks Sharon, good summary.

The Professional Development session with Grainne Hamilton was interesting. Good overview of issues around portfolios, badges and feedback. Badges can work directly in Bb Learn (without portfolios) and are easy to set up. If allowed by system admin, can be exported to Mozilla Badge Backpack.


Sharon Flynn said...

Thanks Damien. Sounds like it was a good session. We have implemented the Achievements building block here and I've been using it with a module that I teach. It's a very nice little feature and can be motivating for students. I must write a short post about it soon.