Conference Report 2: Blackboard Roadmap and upgrade

A second and rather belated report from the Durham Blackboard User Group performance. (Somewhat embarassingly, I’ve lost the notes I made, so this is largely based on the Twitter feed from the conference. Apologies to speakers if I’ve missed anything out. )

The first session of day 2 was the annual session from Blackboard, telling us about their “road map”. This always starts with Blackboard’s representatives telling us what the company has been doing and about their corporate structure. If I’m honest, this bit usually loses me quite early on, and the reason for that, I think is because they need to talk about all their products. For a start Blackboard comes in a number of “flavours”, or, if you want to get technical, “platforms”.

These are

  • Blackboard Classic (which is what we have)
  • Web CT, Vista & CE
  • Xythos, (EDMs and DL)
  • Wimba
  • Transact

I suspect I’m losing you already!  The reason I mention this at all is because it’s a situation that has arisen because Blackboard tend to buy lots of other technology companies, and thus have to cater for the customers of those companies while they change the product.  In the long term, these offerings merge into the various Blackboard products. Currently there are five major Brands

  • Learn
  • Content
  • Community
  • Collaborate
  • Mobile

Just for interest, at Lincoln we have the first three of these. “Learn” is the platform for the sites, that most people use, Community supports the Communities and Portfolio tools, and Content, predictably enough, is the basis for the “Content store”. Strictly speaking Collaborate has not yet been released,  but essentially it is a development from Blackboard’s recent acquisition of Elluminate and Wimba, companies that provide software which offers desk based video conferencing, webinars, and other technology based communication facilities. The idea is to use all five products to offer very large scale deployments of Blackboard. We were given the example of Colombia where Blackboard is used to conduct a National Rural Workforce Training programme, with 2.9 million users, and also, I would think, a very busy help desk.  The sub text seemed to me that Blackboard as a company were going very much for the whole learning experience market. Certainly the Mobile product which comes in two flavours, “Mobile Learn” and “Mobile Central” seemed to support this. “Central” was clearly aimed at pushing university announcements out to students’ mobile devices for example, although I doubt that this would be sufficient. They seemed to acknowledge this by stressing their commitment to Collaborate. (The product, not the activity).  The ability to deliver teaching over the web, and via mobile devices might have been helpful during the recent snow, and we were given a demonstration of how Tulane University had managed to retain 87% of its students after Hurricane Katrina had flooded its server rooms and forced the campus to close for a whole semester. It did this through using Elluminate and assorted mobile technologies to deliver teaching.

Frankly, extreme weather conditions are not that common, at least not in Lincolnshire, so I remain a bit sceptical about this kind of marketing approach. (Why would we buy something we’d only use once a year?)  Nevertheless, we do offer extensive distance learning facilities, particularly at Holbeach, so it may be worth considering. Also, given the likely squeeze on funding for teaching, there may be an additional opportunity for us to exploit these technologies, by, for example, offering reduced fee short courses for distance learners, although clearly such an approach would need a careful cost benefit analysis.

I’m going to skip over the second keynote, (I’ll blog about that next) and move to the afternoon session which is where the user group members get to give the Blackboard team something of a grilling. This is of particular relevance to us, because the question of whether we should upgrade to the next version of Blackboard has become quite important. Last year, there were so many complaints about the new version (version 9.1 for number fans!) that, apparently, the session became known as the “Durham Incident” in Blackboard company circles, and the issues raised went right to the top of the company. The feeling this year was that many of the issues had been addressed. A show of hands showed that about half the delegates had already upgraded, and nearly all of the others were either planning to do so next summer, or were giving it very serious consideration.  We fall into the last category by the way, and if anyone at Lincoln wants to know about, or see a demonstration of version 9.1, please let me know. It should be said that one or two people felt there was still an issue about copying sites in 9.1, which had yet to be resolved, but overall, the feeling was very positive.  Which proved quite a good note on which to end the conference, and does illustrate the value of a powerful and engaged user group for any learning technology company!