Every so often Blackboard users from around the region meet up at one of the hosting institutions. This time I had a long journey to Birmingham University Medical School. (Only fair that I should travel though as Lincoln hosted the last one!). The format of these events is that each attending institution gives a brief update of what they’re doing, and then there’s usually a presentation from Blackboard about what they plan to do. Rather than give a chronological account, I thought I’d treat you to a few blog posts on the main issues. First up is the upgrade to Version 9, or rather the debate about whether we should go for it.
In summary I’d say the jury was still out, but appears to be moving to a majority verdict in favour. The most convincing arguments came from Northampton who admitted to some pain, but identified more positives, which were that their focus groups liked the version 9 interface, and they were getting positive feedback from their early adopters. Certainly, the presentation from Blackboard themselves on the Next Generation did give the impression that in the next release Blackboard would begin to look a bit more like a 21st Century e-learning product. I’ll discuss that shortly, but before I do I should run through some of the negatives. Northampton did admit that they had had as much as 7 hours downtime since the upgrade, but they have a hosted service (rather than running their own servers) and a lot of this had to do with a move of the data centre they were using. They also admitted that their Blackboard contact was very familiar with their server configuration, and this proved a great help. There were some reports from other institutions (albeit not represented at the meeting) that they had needed to updgrade their server confiiguration very rapidly in order to cope with version 9.
Leicester University also reported a problem with the upgrade to version 9 that proved a show stopper for them. Essentially it was that the wysiwyg editor didn’t respect font choices. This might sound relatively trivial, except that they had a number of departments who needed to use mathematical notation, but found themselves unable to use the symbol for pi. In contrast Dudley College, said that they had decided to abandon Blackboard and switch to Moodle, but after testing the latter were planning to launch Blackboard 9 to all students at Easter. Each organisation only had 5 minutes to talk so I never found out what the problem was with Moodle. Interestingly, given the discussions we’ve been having at Lincoln Birmingham University is thinking about using version 9 as a student portal, but from the discussion it seems they’re not much further along that road than we are at Lincoln.
So what does Version 9 have to offer? Well the afternoon was taken up with a presentation from Blackboard staff in the USA (Birmingham has quite an impressive videoconferencing set up.) They were actually describing what Blackboard is calling the Next Generation. Of course, one has to be cautious about this kind of thing. Blackboard presentations always begin with a slide that has a lot in common with those voice overs on the Simpsons when they’re spoofing adverts. “Caution. Any images or promises in this presentation do not imply any connection with reality!” I’m exaggerating of course although not by much.
But, bearing that in mind, this is what they had to offer. The phrase they used was that these features are “targeted” at release 9.1 (not scheduled for it)
Bearing that in mind though there are also some interesting developments in functionality –There are “New” content types. I’m not sure they’re all that new actually. For example they showed us that you can “add a page” and “add a file”. Essentially this seems to be a modification of the add item feature – a page can contain thumbnails of files, which can be stored either with the site or in the content store. If the file is a PDF it can be set to open on the same page. Admittedly it’s difficult to get an impression from a presentation but it seemed to me that they were basically offering a wysiswyg editor, as they are now, but with a rather better interface and the opportunity to separate files from items.
One feature I liked was that you can now see a list of files associated with the site, which you can see as thumbnails, or in a traditional list view. They said that this still needs the content system for full functionality, although in response to a question afterwards said it didn’t. It was getting late so I didn’t pursue that.
Another interesting development is that the Edit View hyperlink seems (on some pages) to have been replaced with a “build content” button which seems more intuitive. On other pages it had been replaced with an Edit button. I thought that a bit confusing but on reflection I suppose if you’ve started to build something, it is logical to go back and “edit” it
Much of the control panel functionality seems to have shifted to the side bar – you still have a control panel, but the links now open as sub menus (Not unlike the Windows file Explorer) The site map too opens in the side bar, again something that is long overdue. I did wonder about accessibility as inevitably the font size is rather small.
Each link in the site has a sub menu for things like adaptive release – in fact they seemed to be roll-over menus which expanded. Rather than the four buttons we know each item has a set of sub menus so rather than go to an adaptive release page, you’d roll over the link and various aspects of adaptive release are displayed – time constraints, user visibility conditions and so forth. A lot of this approach had been taken to the learning module feature, which had been given something of a makeover, in that it had a much more logical structure.
There’s an assign text book feature, which looks very like the old Amazon plug in
They’ve also added a “Lesson plan” feature. Certain parts of the lesson plan can be explained to the student, who sees information about the lesson, instructor objectives, content and practice questions. Instructors get lots of opportunity to identify (and add) metadata – again from a sub menu. Basically it seems to create a template for your own plans. There’s a second part to it which allows instructors insert curriculum resources (e.g. learning materials, subject content etc. making it quite hard to distinguish from a learning module.
Of course, few corporations can see a bandwagon without wanting to jump aboard, so we now have Blackboard “Mash-ups” Actually they’re not really mash-ups except in so far as they show data from other sources. Instructors can easily import Flickr, Slideshare and Youtube data into Bb. You simply search (e.g.) You tube, preview, select it and then embed it. In the presentation this all seemed to work fairly simply.
There is also an add interactive/tool menu button. It seems that BB have now produced their own wiki tool. It looks different from the learning objects wikis but they seemed most anxious to show us the eye boggling level of detail including how many words have been modified on any given page by any given students. They’ve also added some grading functionality to the wiki. You can grade the wiki from within the wiki. True of blogs and journals as well.
There have also been some changes to grade center. Again accessible from control panel which is a sub menu on side bar. Can also search the grade centre for different types of assessements (e.g. Assignments, blogs, tests). Another new feature is the ability to grade anonymously. Also they’ve introduced the ability to grade by individual questions, rather than by students. (although if you do choose this latter option then you can still anonymise the students). Question types are now chosen from within the questions (as opposed to having to select the question type before you created it)
That’s a bit of a gallop through their presentation and I may not have done it full justice. But there’s a lot else to go through, and I’ve already broken my rule about 100o words per post. Future posts on this topic (In the next day or so if I get time) will look at the “assessment handler” a new plug in for managing assessments that is configurable to reflect an institutions procedures, and a second post about some of the issues that were raised in the discussion.