Blackboard upgrade. Should we go or should we stay?

We’re beginning to think about whether we should upgrade Lincoln’s implementation of Blackboard to the current release of the software. We’re currently using version 8, and Blackboard are now on version 9.1. I should stress that no decision has been taken yet, and this post is just the start of a longer process of reviewing and considering the relative advantages and disadvantages of such a move.

The question of whether to upgrade a piece of software, especially one that has a relatively large user community such as Blackboard is often tricky. It’s made more so by the fact that Blackboard is considered by many members of that community to be mission critical. Frankly I’m not so sure about that, but I’m prepared to accept that if many people believe it is, then, for them, it is. It’s going to take a long time to review this in full, but here are some preliminary thoughts. Most of this comes from reviewing what other users have said on the web site, and Blackboard’s own publicity material. There’s no substitute for diving in and getting one’s hands dirty, which I will be doing over the next couple of months.

One of the most compelling arguments for upgrading is that as software develops and the manufacturers bring out new versions, support for older versions diminishes. This is made worse when the software is delivered on-line, because web browsers too get updated and become incompatible with different versions of the software you’re trying to use. We’ve recently had one or two problems reported by users which we’ve managed to identify as being caused by this sort of thing. But when I say “one or two”, I do mean one or two – the numbers, so far anyway,  are still in single figures. Furthermore, we can’t really exert any control over what off campus users have on their computers. If they must use IE6 (for example), I don’t see what we can do about it – other than to strongly advise them to upgrade. It’s a fair bet that if Blackboard 8 is incompatible with an old browser, then Blackboard 9.1 won’t be either. I suppose having the latest version of both should provide a solution.

Which is all very well, but a powerful argument against upgrading is that people will be unfamiliar with the new version, and have to relearn their way around the interface. In this case, for instructors at least, the Blackboard 9.1 interface does look rather different. Blackboard themselves claim that the new interface is more streamlined, and easier to navigate. Well they would, wouldn’t they, although, it looks to me like the underlying architecture has not changed, so conceptually, it’s not all that different)

I’ve been having a look at 9.1 and I think these are the main differences:-

  • You can drag and drop modules around your front page, rather than use the rather ponderous dialog box that version 8 offers. I haven’t seen this functionality much used in version 8, but then, I don’t get to see what individual users have done with their front pages. But we don’t get many enquiries about it so I suspect most users are happy with the default provision.
  • It requires fewer clicks to accomplish common tasks. Again, that’s nice, and it was a bit irritating to have to click “submit” and then “OK”, to get something done. You might say that clicking two buttons instead of one hardly constitutes Stakhanovite labour, and I’d agree, but I have come across a few instances where people have not posted things that they thought they had. So that’s a plus point.
  • Blackboard claim that 9.1 has a more intuitive interface. Perhaps it is, if you’re starting from scratch, but most people will have learned the interface for 8 and thus will have to unlearn that first. Yet, it doesn’t look too demanding to me. The change that will have most impact on users,  I think,  is that you can switch “edit mode” on and off across the whole site, rather than having to turn it on in each individual content area.  In effect it looks as though it could be used as a default state for instructors and teaching assistants.   It also looks as though Blogs, wikis, tests, assignments etc are easier to create and integrated into the system (This may save us some money, as presumably we won’t have to pay for the Learning objects LX plug in which provides them now). I haven’t had chance to test this for myself yet though.
  • Again, I don’t know how true this is, but it seems that the Grade Centre functionality has been improved. Group assignments and and grading are now possible, but not having had the chance to create a dummy course yet I can’t really comment. There is also (they say, again, I haven’t tried this) the addition of Enhanced Feedback with VTBE (whatever THAT might be) for feedback and comments, grading of interactive tools; and also the ability to give feedback for tests, (which is in 8 isn’t it?) assignments, and group assignments. Finally they have enhanced My Grades Feedback so that provides students with the ability to view VTBE feedback from instructors in My Grades.
  • Multimeda such as YouTube videos and Flickr Photostreams can be more easily embedded into a site, although I need to check this there seems to be an embedded search tool built into Blackboard. Also Bb claim that videos have “built in, accessible controls” (Need to check what they mean by this.)
  • Another new feature is a course “Home page” allows users to easily see and navigate to newly posted materials. Currently, in version 8, most sites default to the Announcements page. (Although you can change this with the control panel). In 9.1 they default to this new home page, the content of which is controlled by the instructor.
  • The group tools look more sophisticated (now Groups tasks and Group Journal are available).
  • Looking at the web site they also claim that Blackboard Learn (what we call the Learning system is now integrated with Blackboard Connect (whatever that is) and interestingly suggest that Mobile Learn is included in BB9.1. We have had a few requests for this, but currently it is rather expensive, so it might be another plus point if we did go to Blackboard 9.1
  • Finally and importantly, Blackboard claim that 9.1 has been certified as accessible to visually impaired people, by the National Federation of the Blind (presumably in the US) to Gold level. I have no reason to doubt that, but again, we need to find out what that actually means.

2 thoughts on “Blackboard upgrade. Should we go or should we stay?

  1. I say go. People need to get used to the fact that web-based software can and will be updated at any time with very little warning to improve the overall experience, fix bugs and add new features. How hard can it really be to come up with a quick summary of the changes and a bit of help on things that may catch people out (like the edit mode changes)?

    It seems like a lot of the time there is concern that everybody will need massive retraining for the tiniest of changes, such as buttons gaining rounded corners and a drop shadow. “It looks different, will this button marked ‘Edit’, in the same place as the old button which was also marked ‘Edit’, do the same thing?”. Until people are used to the fact that change happens we will be stuck trying to support users on legacy software (on legacy browsers) just because they can’t engage their brains and keep up with the kind of software and services which the 21st century runs on.

    On the legacy browsers vein, OST has dropped IE6 support as a formal requirement and people wanting support will be told “You’re using software 10 years old which is unfit for purpose. Upgrade”.

  2. “You’re using software 10 years old which is unfit for purpose. Upgrade”.

    All very well… except for work-based students on NHS, MoD, or company networks, who have no choice and zero influence over which browser they use. (The MoD and a good chunk of the NHS are locked firmly into IE6, unfortunately.)

    I can imagine those types of students (already important for Lincoln) and that learning environment, IE6 and all, becoming even more common as fees changes kick in.

    What are we going to tell them?

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