Blackboard 9.1 Blogs and Journals

The blog feature has, according to Blackboard  been upgraded in version 9.1, and a new feature, journals, added. It’s not immediately clear what the difference between them is. Blackboard’s own documentation says this

A journal is an on-going reflection or record of events by an individual or set of individuals. A blog is a commentary by an individual or set of individuals that is for public consumption and comment

It seems to me though that “reflection” and “commentary” are subjective terms and it would be perfectly possible to use a blog to comment, and journal for reflection. It appears that it is possible, despite the above to make a blog “public” in the sense that other course users can see it, and it is also possible to make a journal “private”.

“Public” and “private” are also slightly loose terms, since neither a blog or journal can be made available from within Blackboard to the outside world.

More seriously, on the test server, it doesn’t appear to be possible to create an individual blog, that is  a blog which is only visible to the student and his or her instructor. In their documentation, Blackboard do claim that it is possible to do this, so it will be important to confirm that this feature is actually available on the live version should we decide to go ahead.  Journals, it is implied, are semi-public in that they are always visible to all course members, but again the documentation contradicts itself by claiming

Individual journals allow students to record their Course experiences and what they are learning. These thoughts can be a private communication between a student and the instructor, or shared with everyone in the course. Journal entries can be commented on by the author and the instructor. Others are able to read public journals, but they cannot comment on them.

That doesn’t really make a lot of sense since if everyone’s able to read them, I don’t quite how see how the thoughts can be a private communication!

A blog entry
a blog entry

Looking at what I can actually see, the main difference between blogs and journal seems to be one of formatting.  The journal entry has a sort of “torn page” look, which is nice, but as far as I can see, largely pointless. Blackboard also claim that students can decorate their individual blogs with an avatar, which, if they used a photo of themselves might help tutors to recognise their students more quickly. That’s actually something whose value should not be underestimated since I think it is important for tutors to be able to match names to faces quickly.  However, since I couldn’t set up an individual student blog, I couldn’t test this claim either.

A journal entry
A journal entry

So in conclusion, I’m not really in a position to say much about this aspect of the upgrade. It’s nice that Blackboard have seen the importance of reflective spaces for students, and that they are apparently committed to providing them. While this has sounded quite negative it is the case that the version of Blackboard we have on test is (evidently) not fully functional. Furthermore, I haven’t seen noticed any complaints about the blogs/journals on cross sector mailing lists, so my worries here may be unfounded. Of course, that may be because there are better blogging tools, such as WordPress, out there, and no-one is using the Blackboard versions.

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!

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 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.

    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.