Blackboard Conference Barcelona, April 2009


Having been packed off to Barcelona for the annual Blackboard conference I thought it useful to provide a brief report. I do have much more extensive notes if anyone wants them, but I have come to the conclusion that brevity is the soul of blogging so I am going to try and keep this down to no more than 1000 words. If you want more leave your e-mail address and your question as a comment!


Having had a few days to reflect I think I identified four themes to the discussions which were


1) National and international attitudes to education.

2) Content.

3) Community

4) Not Blackboard.


Firstly there was a remarkable degree of optimism from the keynote speakers, about the value that national governments were placing on higher education.  A very interesting statistic about the benefits of investment in education came from Dirk van Damme from the OECD who drew our attention to the fact that in the 1950s South Korea and Ghana were at the same level of economic development, which is patently not the case any more. Of course there may be more factors than simply investing in education at play here but the point is that it is possible for countries to change their prospects. He also pointed out that we in the west were nowhere near the participation levels of some countries which had managed to get 80% of their population into HE. What the consequences of this might be were still unforeseen. We don’t know what effect the tripling of the number of graduates might have on social indicators such as crime, health, and welfare.


He also suggested that the main threat to universities was not private providers, along the lines of Microsoft’s Hamburger University, but the direct assessment of skills by employers. How long would it be before they realised they did not need a separate institution to certify their abilities – which of course rather undermined his last point about the social implications of expanding the numbers of graduates.  For those who would like more information about this and about what the OECD are doing about it. have a look at


The second theme of the conference was what I have called Content – by which I mean new features of Blackboard, or interesting plug -ins. The first of these was something called Waypoint, which is a plug in for managing assessment and more accurately feedback. It is being used at Bournemouth University who had a policy on a 3 week turnaround for assignments (just like us!) Waypoint can either manage the

whole assessment process online or be adapted to work with paper submissions. Essentially academics create an online block of assessment criteria, sample comments etc that go to form the feedback. (sounds a bit like Turnitin’s Grademark feature to me). These criteria are then grouped together into assignments and can be shared between academics. However individual comments may be added to provide feedback

and it does allow double and blind marking. While it sounds impressive, it does require a bit of effort to learn the software, and it does cost $9000 p.a.


Waypoint is a plug in provided by a separate company, but Blackboard themselves have a few new products on the point of release. There is a communication system called “ConnectED” which will enable Blackboard users to send text messages to students, as well as offering a choice of other communication methods, although there are some regulatory hurdles to be overcome before they can release it in Europe. They’ve also entered into a strategic relationship with Wimba to make Wimba Pronto (an instant messaging service) available for free. I thought the most interesting announcement though was that they are planning to open up the content store so that users can make their content available to users in other institutions. Michael Chasen, Blackboard’s CEO claimed that Blackboard stored more content than Facebook, and that this was rather a waste of resources. (If true, I’m inclined to agree!) There is no suggestion of going “open access” rather that there will be an extra level to the content store which will be accessible by any Blackboard users, although of course the content creator would still need to have given permission for such access.


That of course leads us into the third theme – community. Blackboard see themselves very much as a community of users and spent a lot of time plugging the developer and “Behind the Blackboard” Communities. They’ve also developed an API for Blackboard 9 which allows other LMSs to be incorporated – e.g. Links to Moodle, Sakai etc. Directly from course list on BB home page. They are also thinking about pushing content out of Bb e,g to Facebook. (BB9 has an interface already.) The point is that the authentication problems go away because the Facebook user is told that there is a new item in their Blackboard course, but they still have to log into to find out what it is. Iphone and Ipod touch fans may also be interested to know that there is now a BB app available for these gadgets.


Finally I was struck in the various paper presentations that I attended by the number of presenters who were talking about things they were doing with social networks such as Elgg, and Ning (But not Facebook, Heaven Forfend!) rather than Blackboard per se. There was quite an encouraging “edupunk” feel to some of these papers, that is that there was very much a DIY attitude to educational technology.  As one presenter put it, we want to get away from the traditional lecture model, but that doesn’t mean we just give lectures in the pub. In other words we don’t just move over to Facebook, because the students don’t want us there, just as they don’t want us in the pub. But we do create useful spaces, and there was a very encouraging use of tools such as Ning and Elgg, to encourage students to contribute work in different formats and to collaborate with each other.


Clearly 1000 words isn’t enough to do full justice to the conference so I may return with posts on more specific topics at a later date.


Note: For some reason this post has attracted a torrent of automated spam. I’ve therefore turned commenting on te post off. Sorry about that, although in reality, I doubt any genuine commenter will want to say anything 3 years after the event.