Blackboard: the road ahead?

Edinburgh UniversityI returned to my home city (Edinburgh) on Tuesday, to an invitation-only meeting of Blackboard clients. The purpose of the meeting was twofold – first to listen to our complaints about the stability and performance of release 9.0 (assuring us that they have heard and quality is their focus today) and secondly to explore new directions – features that might be available in future versions: 9.1, 9.2, 9.3 and finally 10.0.

Staff from Blackboard were keen to stress that the company had been restructured with named individuals now given control over individual areas of the product – e.g. the content system, the learning system, the community system and so on. These individuals see all the support tickets and the enhancement requests and have the budget and the authority to decide which to resolve first. It was a good opportunity to talk to these people and make them aware of the issues that UK users feel are most important. They also stressed how there has been a drive to ensure that the voice of users is heard in the decision-making process. They stressed how they use feedback from bodies such as the Blackboard Ideas Exchange (a client group set up about 3 years ago, which Durham is a member of) and product development partnerships (e.g the beta testing of 9.0 and 9.1 that we are involved in from a developer’s perspective) to inform their decision making.

They then moved onto the roadmap presentation. This was prefaced by the usual slide of legalese - essentially boiling down to “don’t buy shares in Blackboard based on this information as it may never happen”. That aside, they talked about developments that should be available in later versions of 9, and others that are still in the planning stage.

They mentioned plans to support anonymous marking for staff (though sadly not moderated/multiple markers). Next they demonstrated easy ways for lecturers to search and then add content from other sites (mash-ups)  – e.g. flickr, YouTube and SlideShare. You simply typed in a search term, saw a list of matches in Blackboard and then ticked the items you wanted to add. This worked as a custom content type, in tests, blogs, and the new kid on the block – wikis. What was particularly nice is that there is also the option to import metadata about these items automatically, including details of the license. The wiki tool demonstrated was still under development and did not match the sophistication of third party tools e.g. the Learning Objects Campus Pack tools we currently use with duo.

For people who create a lot of tests, there are better ways to search for and share individual questions, assessment criteria, etc. without having to import entire pools.  The Learning Module has also been updated (this allows you to create structured content items which students can work through in a linear way, or dip in and out, depending on how you set these up). These are heavily used by many clients using the WebCT products, and the new versions planned for Blackboard have a much better navigation interface, including indications of progress (a student’s completion) within individual modules.

There are also a lot of changes planned for the content system. The underlying code in new versions (planned for 9.1 and beyond) will be updated to use a much newer version of the Xythos code (including a new WebDAV engine – hurray!). This will mean a much better link between courses and the content system, so if you add a PowerPoint to a course using the normal Browse for files on your Computer method, when it is added to Blackboard, the file is actually added automatically to the appropriate folder in the Content System. This has two benefits. Firstly, by hosting it in the Content System, students and staff can easily search for phrases in Word Documents, PowerPoints, PDFs, etc. as the files and their content are all indexed. Secondly staff can look at a special Course Files area and see all the documents that are used in the course in one place. It also supports versioning, comments, etc. just like any other part of the Content System.

The new version will also support image thumbnails, so if you upload any of the common image formats (e.g. gif, jpeg) then you can choose to see a small version of the picture displayed on the page, helping you to select the right file.  There is also a much improved file upload facility, which uses a java applet to allow you to drag and drop files and folders from your computer directly into the content system (without the need to first map a drive).

More exciting for developers, there are plans to expose the database schema. This would allow developers to add custom tables to Blackboard in a way that is supported and will work on everybody’s system. One way that would help is that the Sign-up Tool which currently stores data as an XML file, could switch to a database model, which should make it faster and provide new opportunities – e.g. the possibility of restricting students to signing up to only one or two lists.

They also said that they plan to allow people to add new custom course roles. I’m in two minds about this – as an end user it is great news (we could create special roles with “see everything but change nothing” access for reviewers, external examiners, etc.) but as a developer I think it might add a lot of behind the scenes complications…

In the longer term, they are also looking at social learning spaces – how could Blackboard be extended to allow students to create their own areas for societies, sports clubs, informal learning groups, etc. The present organisation tool (basically a Blackboard course with another name) requires a lot of administration to set up and manage, and the layout of the page may not be ideal for this new purpose. Would it replace flickr or FaceBook? No, but it might provide a useful, secure alternative that some users may want to use.

They also plan to allow many more people to test beta versions of the new releases. Whilst they have always had a beta program, this tends to be restricted to a few technical staff in institutions, as it often requires installing your own version of the code. Now Blackboard are hosting their own test server – the Project NG Playground)  and anyone can apply for an account to play with. Details how to apply will be posted at http://www.blackboard.com/projectngplayground.

All in all, there are some exciting developments, we just hope that the renewed emphasis on quality and rigorous testing delivers the stable, intuitive, stable, extendable, stable, stable product we all want.

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