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!

Conference Report 1: Augmented reality

This was my fourth visit to this annual conference, which is always held at Durham University. (Because it’s organised by Durham’s Blackboard team, who always do a fantastic job). I have presented a paper here before but this time, I was actually co-presenting one of the sessions with a colleague, Esther Penney from Holbeach, but more about that in another post. First a bit of scene setting. There’s always a theme for these conferences, and this years was “Location Location Location”. The rationale was that if you can’t get to the conference, then we (the conference organisers) have excluded you. The conventional model of a conference, like that of a classroom doesn’t allow for a great deal of flexibility, at least not in geographical terms. But, we shouldn’t get too hung up on location as physical proximity (or lack of the same either). Geographers are finding that people don’t always visit places because they happen to be near them. There may be all sorts of reasons for that which are more social and practical. (Consider how long you’ve been at the university, and consider which buildings, on your campus, you’ve never been in. I’ll bet there’s at least one.
What I propose to do then, is rather than write a long account of all the sessions I attended, is to do single posts about each of the sessions – at least those I found the most interesting/

So, to the first keynote speaker. This was Carl Smith from the Learning Technology Research Institute, whose interest was in exploring the relationship between context and knowledge formation. He did this through looking at what he called “Augmented reality” and he offered some fascinating demos. Perhaps the most conventional of these was a headset worn by a mechanic, that demonstrated which parts of the car engine needed to be dismantled (by highlighting the parts in colour on a virtual display and explaining where the various screws and fastenings were. The point was that the mechanic could switch between the virtual and the real world as the process was worked through. The second demo was a CGI rendering of a seventeenth century steelworks which brought the process to life (and Carl had inserted himself as one of the workers, just for a bit of fun.) These kind of things are engaging, and can be accessed from anywhere, but they lack a mechanism for drilling into the dataset to explore the evidence that the model is built upon.

The real power of augmented reality allows us to augment our vision (no kidding!) However it really is quite powerful. Carl showed a video of man watching an image of the back of his head projected 3 feet in front. The researcher, brought a hammer down hard on the illusion. – That is the point in space where the man in the headset could see himself. The man in the headset flinched violently (and clearly involuntarily) as he saw the projection being hit. He evidently expected to feel the hammer hitting his “real” head. The point was that  consciousness can be convinced it is elsewhere than the physical body. Even into another body. (By placing the headset over a second person’s head).  The point is that it may be easier to switch  locations than we think. From a learning point of view, the question becomes one of how to plan for this escape from a fixed, fragmented point of view? Imagine a real time version of Google Street View. What will change for learning when everything is recorded, and everything is available?

Carl also highlighted the ability of many devices to take a “point cloud” image of people’s faces. This has an obvious application for facial recognition, but it can do more. It is theoretically possible to can take a 3D scan of a bit of the real world, so we can take a 3D scan of our friends, rather than just a 2-D picture, although I suspect this technology is some way from the mainstream yet. On interesting pedagogical application is in the creation of Mediascapes. These overlay digital interactions onto real world. E.g. Google maps can be toured and users given links to images or other digital resources – So you stand in a street and see a film of the same street from some past era displayed on your iPod or iPad)  Effectively that’s a form of time travel for history students, although I don’t think 3D imagery is strictly necessary. That’s nice, but the real power is to drill down to the tiniest part. We saw some quite spectacular examples of architectural details in the ruined Cistercian Abbeys in Yorkshire, which had been recreated in 3D. The user can then home in on some tiny detail and get a history of it. Another application might be to tag a real world item with a QR code, which directs the user to URL, linking to learning materials about the object.

The session concluded with the idea of using your own body as a storage device. To be quite honest, I wasn’t quite sure how that would work, (although I often feel that I could use an extra memory card implanted somewhere!), and on the rather messianic note that Man would no longer need documentation if he were assimilated into an omniscient being – as with God himself. Which is a quote from the 1930’s, suggesting that these ideas have been around for quite some time, even if the technology hasn’t.  Well, to coin a phrase “It is now!”.

Blackboard 9.1 Announcements (And a bit about adaptive release)

Here’s my latest post in the series describing the changes in the next version of Blackboard. (If you want to see others, simply click Blackboard 9 in the tag cloud on the right (or the link at the bottom of the post) and it’ll bring all the posts on the subject together.)

There have been some changes to the announcement features in Blackboard 9.1.  The main change is that Email notifications no longer contain the full body of the announcement text, but simply offer a link to the announcement. This means that users will now have to log into Blackboard to read the announcement. Blackboard have also removed the announcement date filter because they were getting feedback that students were missing important announcements because they didn’t log in until after the announcement had been filtered (In our current version announcements are shown for 7 days after they are made, and after that, if a student wishes to see them, they have to click the “announcements in the last 30 days” tab.)

On the plus side, announcements can now be displayed in courses, the front page, and  on a special course specific announcement module – so students can choose to have a module on their front pages that displays only announcements from a specific course.

Perhaps more usefully, instructors can now set the order in which announcements are displayed, thus removing the need for “permanent” announcements to be used to display an announcement first,  although it will still be possible to use permanent announcements.

Adaptive release will not change significantly,  although it will be possible to notify students when a particular item becomes available (for example, after a given date), and you won’t need to click to confirm quite so many times when you’re creating an adaptive release rule.  As with many features in Blackboard 9.1, you can access the controls from a link to a drop down menu adjacent to the title. (When you’re in Edit mode)

Blackboard 9.1 and Accessibility

While I’m on the subject of Blackboard 9.1 I promised I’d continue to blog about the issues around upgrading. One of the most significant issues that faces any on-line provision is whether it’s accessible, and I thought I’d have a look at what version 9.1 has to offer here.

Blackboard’s upgrade manual has this to say:-

“Most of what makes Blackboard Learn so easy to use for all users, including those with assistive technologies, in under the covers with a combination of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and semantic markup (That is, well formed HTML). Additional accessibility features include..

  • Keyboard Accessible re-ordering. (So you can drag and drop content without using a mouse).
  • Personal Styles accepted (So you can change font styles and other elements in their browser, regardless of a style sheet)

So I thought I’d try and test this. Well, you can certainly change personal styles (here’s a picture of the mess I made!)

Accessible version of Blackboard 9.1
Blackboard 9 with Browser Accessibility tools applied

But the point is, that all of this rather lurid colour scheme was done through the browser’s accessibility settings not through Blackboard itself. (There is an option to use Blackboard’s styles, but that didn’t appear to have any effect when I tried it. Do you have to add your own CSS to the local installation?)  I suppose it doesn’t override them, which is a good thing, but I certainly couldn’t get the keyboard accessible re-ordering to work. That may be due to my admittedly lamentable ignorance of using assistive technologies, but it didn’t seem all that intuitive to me. Nor could I work out how to get the context sensitive help to appear.

Having said that I was able to log in, and navigate to a course without using the mouse, so there is some progress there. But that was about all I could do. (For instance, I got hopelessly lost trying to upload stuff to a site)  I think the real challenge for us is to get somebody with more experience of using assistive technologies to give it a better road test than I am able to.

  • Embedded and optional help…”
  • Blackboard Midlands User Group report

    The other day, I braved the elements and took a trip to Birmingham University Medical School in order to attend the Midlands Blackboard User Group. This is quite a useful way of getting to find out what colleagues in other local universities are up to, and indeed to find out what Blackboard’s plans are. On this occasion, it seemed to be a little less well attended than usual, which was probably related to the weather. To make matters worse I wasn’t feeling at my best, so I probably didn’t get as much out of it as I usually do. Still, it wasn’t without interest.

    First up was Alistair Brook (Blackboard Collaborate) to talk about the incorporation of Wimba and Elluminate into the product – there’s a nice introduction here (needs Flash) which tells you what Wimba can do. Essentially it’s a way of adding relatively rich media to Blackboard, and providing online tutorial support to remote students. While it is expensive, we do have to consider how much, for example, the recent weather related snow closures cost the university. Of course, users need web cams and microphones to participate but the hardware costs are relatively low.

    Alistair argued that in fact there were very few universities not using any collaboration tool at all, and talking to colleagues, most of them do in fact appear to be making some limited use of these things.  Another quite interesting aspect, (which is something Blackboard, who have recently acquired Wimba, seem to be pushing is emphasising the potential for using these tools in a cross institutional role. That is, using it for what we might call administrative support, which we’ve always tended to use the Portal for. Reading between the lines, I wonder if Blackboard are going for the Sharepoint market, although I must be clear that nobody said anything along those lines. We’ve always said that Blackboard is a “teaching and learning” tool and have resisted adopting it as a more general portal. That might be more convenient for us, but from a student point of view, it certainly makes sense to have single points of contact for students and I am coming round to the view that Blackboard may be a rather more effective communication system than Sharepoint. Clearly, we’d need to do a lot of work, (and spend a lot of money) on thinking this through before making any decisions, and there’s no getting away from the fact that the problem with the Portal is less to do with the technology and more to do with weak information management (no version control, different departments putting different versions of the same story, in slightly different places). Blackboard are keen to push the technology as a tool for engaging with first years etc, and identifying those students that are at risk of dropping out. (But, in order to do that,  there had better be someone on the other end. I suppose that’s an example of technology changing working practices)

    As Alistair said, Blackboard are planning to create a more integrated product, which they are calling Project Gemini. (Which isn’t going to be the product name.) The reason is that they believe student experience & expectations are more diverse, students will be entering worst employment market in 30 years, there are increased business/industry expectations of university graduates. Students use technology every day, they’ll be leaving with huge debt. As a consequence they’ve been looking at the technology first year students bring with them and how they use it. Project Gemini is the result of this – they want a system that is much more mobile friendly, and multimedia oriented.

    One slightly more controversial point was that given that HE is likely to become price sensitive can we justify charging an extra tenner for technology access? I guess BB would quite like it if we did, although, to do that we’d have to become a genuinely private sector institution, rather than reliant on state subsidy through student loans.

    Getting back to the point, I raised the issue that collaborative seminars are a good idea in many ways,  but they can easily shut out the less articulate or confident. That’s not a reason not to find ways of doing them and reducing that of course, but I seemed to get a standard issue answer that universities needed to be more efficient, and that we had to find ways of linking strategy and technology. Which we do, but there was quite a lot of scepticism about the reliability of the technology.  Especially out in the field which raises further issues about what we  are doing about planning for poor infrastructure in the future? (e.g how can we provide advice for users to check their computer, or if it’s not up to standard, what alternatives can we provide?) That is our responsibility.

    It struck me that all this had a clear value for  the sort of curricula offered, for example, at Holbeach – but I’m a bit more sceptical about the value of these tools for on-campus use. The presenter’s answer to that was inevitably “snow” (and later, Icelandic volcanoes). And I guess closing the university did probably cost more than a subscription, although I’m also fairly sure, that there’d be a large proportion of staff and students who wouldn’t know how to use it – there’s probably an element of strategic incompetence in that. But, I’d have been prepared to run the PGCE session that was cancelled as a webinar if we’d had the technology. And there’s a lot of value in the ability to record lectures, Wimba video is not streamed but chunked into 2 minute segments. (Can be linked to slides, as in Echo 360 which I’ve blogged about before) Amusingly the presenter didn’t seem to understand why students would want to look at a portion of a lecture, rather than the whole thing. (Until we explained it to him)

    • Chat
    • Audio conferencing
    • Video conferencing
    • Desktop sharing
    • Whiteboard
    • Virtual Classroom

    There then followed a brief discussion of  other collaborative technologies that are out there. Northampton, for example, were informally supporting Skype, but there was an interesting point made that if you’re charging students for a free service (e.g. Second Life) (as we might have to do)  then you have no control over what you’re providing, and you won’t be able to fulfil your contract. Well, of course, Blackboard would say that wouldn’t they? But it doesn’t make it any less true.

    The afternoon session was devoted to the support that Blackboard offered. Frankly this was of more interest to technical support staff, than to user support staff, and was largely concerned with upgrading to version 9.1 (If you’re interested they provide a web site here: which offers Webinars, documentation, Upgrade kits which tell you what you need to look for. There’s also an on demand learning centre at  containing vver 90 resources which show you how to use different parts fo the system – and you can use them to introduce staff to BB9.1. Finally there’s “Behind the Blackboard”, which is more for technical support staff  If you have a question about Blackboard you can post it on Behind the Blackboard. It’s not just for problems but for any detailed question,  There’s also a knowledge base which may prevent you needing to ask the question in the first place. Questions are ticketed so you can follow the progress of your ticket. However, there are only two accounts per institution on Behind the Blackboard though.  An interesting sign of the times is that Blackboard moving their European Support team from Amsterdam to Sofia.  We don’t yet know what effect, if any, this will have on support.

    Finally, they admitted that there is no plan for a version 10  or even a 9.2. The implication is that users are expected to move to version 9.1. In fact they’ve now announced that previous versions, including our version 8, are only now supported “operationally”. This means that requests for new features will not be acted on. – Or rather the answer is that if you want a new feature, you should ask for a it from a base of being a 9.1 user. That means that we are going to have to bite the bullet and upgrade sooner or later. From a Lincoln point of view, this is going to be quite a large change, as the interface is visually quite different.

    Blackboard 9.1: The control panel

    Blackboard 9 control panel
    The new control panel

    For me, one of the most interesting, and potentially problematic, changes in release 9.1 is the way the control panel has been integrated into the course menu. Instead of a link to a new page, instructors have everything available to them on the same page, provided of course, that they’re in Edit Mode.  As in version 8, students still don’t get to see the control panel.

    What this means in practice is that most control panel tools are now accessible through sub menus.  (Note, in the illustration that all the menu options have a rather indistinct double chevron pointing down, to the left of each option). Some also have a rightward pointing double chevron. In both cases these open up further options, the ones on the left offering further sub menus, and those on the right taking the user to a page, (which opens up in the site “frame” where sub menus are inadequate for the tools’s functions).

    Some features that were accessed through the control panel in previous versions have been rendered more interactive. An example is the menu manager. If a user wants to add buttons to a site, they do so from a tab above the buttons. Moving buttons is now done through drag and drop, rather than the rather cumbersome numbering system used in previous versions.

    One feature of the new look menu that may have some potential to confuse users is that if an area is empty, then it won’t be visible to students. So if you create a button called “learning materials” and then don’t add anything to it, the button will not appear at all in display view. It will of course appear on the menu in Edit mode, along with a small grey square icon, which is presumably meant to represent emptiness.

    There’s not a lot more to say about the control panel at this stage, as many of its features are integrated into specific tools and also into specific course navigation and content tools. The architecture of the control panel does not appear to have been profoundly altered in that most of the functions are still there, and are accessed through it.  But I thought it was worth its own little post since it has been such an important way into the back end of Blackboard in previous versions, and we need to be aware of what is visually, if not conceptually a rather different way of controlling a site.

    More thoughts on Blackboard 9.1

    As I promised a couple of days ago, I said that I’d continue to review Blackboard 9.1 to help us make our decision on whether to upgrade.  I said in my last post on the subject that 9.1 was not all that different from 8 in terms of its underlying architecture, and while I broadly stick by that, there is one new development that may have considerable potential to enhance the student experience of using BB. This is the “page”. Basically the instructors in a site will have the ability to create a much more “designed” site. Each page is linked to by a menu button, so that every topic in a course can have its own page. Blackboard have also provide subheaders so that course menus can be structured much more like a menu on a web page. 

    We shouldn’t get too carried away about this – Apart from the subheaders you could do this in Blackboard 8, if you’re prepared to limit each content area to one or two items, but for people who are used to building web pages, it may be a little more intuitive. (although of course, it has nowhere the near the full flexibility of HTML coding)

    Another feature I quite like, is what Blackboard refer to (inaccurately) as “mashups”. What they mean is that you can search Flickr, Slideshare and Youtube from within the page (or content area) editor and link to material from those services – which are streamed directly from the appropriate service rather than stored on Blackboard. It also displays metadata from the hosting service. You might think this will be a licensing nightmare, but since you’re not actually copying the picture,  and you are displaying attribution, I suspect it might be less of a problem than downloading and re-uploading content.  Anyway here’s a picture with some examples

    A Blackboard 9 page
    A page in Blackboard 9

    One thing that did puzzle me a bit at first was how to add a button in BB9. If you’re used to 8 you know you have to go into the menu manager, accessible through the control panel. In 9 however, this is simplified because they’ve simply added an icon to the menu itself – which you only see if you’re in edit mode. 

    BB9 menu controls
    Note the plus sign above the button

    The other buttons across the top of the menu control the way in which the menu appears – It can appear as a site map in the position where the buttons are, or, much as in version 8, as a navigable map in a separate window. What the illustration doesn’t show is that they’ve also simplified the control panel somewhat, which now appears as a set of expandable menus below the main site buttons. Which is nice in one way, but you have to expand all of them, if you can’t remember where the particular tool you need is!

    I think the new look control panel may be the topic of my next post.

    Technology enhanced assessment for learning: Case studies and Best Practice. Seminar report

    Quite an interesting visit to Bradford University for an HEA seminar on using technology to enhance assessment. As is often the case with this sort of event, I came away with more questions than answers, and perhaps the biggest question we face is how can we devise forms of electronic assessment that encourage students to use the feedback we do give them? There appears to be something of a national consensus that, in general, the feedback we give to students could be improved upon. Students certainly feel that way, if the results of the National Student Survey are to be believed, but it is far from simple to come up with a definition of high quality feedback that everyone agrees on.

    Two academics from Bradford demonstrated their practice, both of which were around multiple choice style quizzes, although, the examples of feedback given in the first, in biological sciences, were I thought, quite impressive (We’ve been promised an e-mail link to the slides which, if they’re prepared to share them publicly,  I will post here when I get it, rather than write a long description of what was said.) A slight disappointment was that there was virtually no discussion of e-submission of written assignments and the nature of feedback on those, although I did raise this in the breakout group part of the day. However, I was interested to see that Bradford had bought Question Mark Perception, and incorporated it into Blackboard. According to the presenter, this is better able to handle question banks and personalisation than Blackboard’s native tools (In other words, if a student gives a particular answer to a multiple choice question, they can be directed to a specific next question.)

    There was some discussion of the role of formative assessment in the second presentation. Apparently Bradford’s engineering students have a bi-weekly formative multiple choice question, but the presenter, who had just inherited this course was finding that they seemed to lose interest after a couple of weeks, and raised the very valid point, that since this was a very low, (or no) stakes assessment, the students just clicked through the answers to show that they’d done it. As he pointed out, this was unlikely to promote much in the way of learning. He’d also had feedback to the effect that the students didn’t really like this kind of involvement, which contrasted with the biologist, who had found that stronger students tended to use it as a learning resource, (as you might expect) but even weaker students engaged with it as a revision tool. (Clearly, there are deep and surface approaches to learning going on there!)

    The event finished with a visit to the university’s e-assessment suite. This is a room with 100 computer terminals, which allows for invigilated examinations. Since all the computers are terminals, rather than PCs, there is not an issue with machines being inadvertently turned off, since the students’ work is all on the server. If a machine crashes, you just switch it back on and the student is returned to where they were. (although a few invigilators had not realised this in the past, and had given students paper copies of the exams! While these are always provided as back up, and have sometimes been used they have never actually been needed)  They had also provided a separate area for students with disabilities, who may need extra time. When the suite is not being used for assessment it serves as a basic computer lab, with office products and a cut down internet browser, and apparently it takes about half an hour to reboot all the terminals into assessment mode – where they just have a single icon with the assessment.

    All of which goes to show, that e-assessment is not simply a matter of giving students a test even if you do provide feedback. Bradford have clearly thought quite hard about their infrastructure as well, although we ran out of time, and unfortunately, I had to hurry off to catch my train, which was a shame, as I would have liked to ask them if they had any policy on giving feedback after exams.

    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.

    Educational Technology (Non) Adoption

    Oh dear, I have been lax haven’t I? My last blog post was September 21st. Tut tut.

    Anyway, as the University is closed for the day, and I’ve actually practiced what I preach for once and put today’s PGCE session on the VLE, and given the students some virtual discussion topics to get their teeth into, I find myself with a little free time again.  Anyway, what’s got me going is a post from Joss about a paper by one N.Selwyn (2010). Now, don’t get me wrong here. I like the paper, and broadly agree with the sentiments expressed in it – the argument is essentially that research into educational technology is too often uncritical, focussing on idealised cases. Rather it should focus on studies of what is actually happening in the world of ed. tech., and explaining why things are as they are. No argument from me there.

    Well, all right. Just a little one. I think there’s actually quite a lot of critical research into educational technology out there, and it has been quite helpful to me in preparing teaching sessions on technology. Just one example for now though, Masterman & Vogel’s chapter (Practices and processes for learning design)  in Beetham & Sharpe (eds) (2007 “Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age”  discusses the influence of the academic department on individual’s  choices about whether or not to adopt technology and goes on to show that there is quite a complex network of influences at work when academics design of digital learning activities. Admittedly it is largely theoretical, but that section of my session on technology in learning usually draws nods of recognition from PGCE colleagues.

    Which leads me to my point. It is sometimes argues that technology changes working practices. (e.g. Cornford & Pollock, Putting the University online (2003). I sort of agree, but one of the things that I’ve always found quite interesting in my role in supporting the university’s VLE (We use  Blackboard, but I don’t suppose any other VLE would be any different)  is how much effort some colleagues (a minority, but enough to be interesting) will put into making it work in a particular way that suits their existing practice. Where this can’t be done, they’ll abandon the VLE, complaining that “the university” shouldn’t have bought something that doesn’t work. They may then either not use the tool at all, continuing with a pre-technological practice or, much more rarely, use a different tool, such as one of the web 2.0 tools. (Or occasionally using something within Blackboard that wasn’t designed for what they want to do, but sort of fits their purpose.)   It wouldn’t be appropriate to give examples, here since to do so would identify individuals, and I am not suggesting that anyone is short changing students, or indeed that my impressions are anything other than subjective at this stage.   Nor should this be read as making any assumptions of the sort that academics are inherently resistant to adopting technology, or insufficiently skilled to adopt it. (Although those might be dimensions that could be considered in a potential research project). Other dimensions would include; –

    • Social pressures – if your head of department doesn’t show any interest, why should you?
    • Student pressures – “My mate’s got his course on this thing – why haven’t you?
    • Management pressure – We spent a lot of money on this. Why aren’t you using it?

    I’m sure there are plenty of other dimensions. And, from a crudely Marxist perspective can we see this as the proletariat resisting Capitalist exploitation?

    Hmm. Anyone got a research grant going spare?