For the last few days I’ve been in Swansea for the first Blackboard Teaching & Learning Conference, a 3 day event hosted by Swansea University. Focused on innovation and looking forward, the conference had almost 50 presentations from institutions around the world and from Blackboard themselves, in this post I’ll be writing about some of the presentations I saw during the conference.
I drove down on Monday, checked into the hotel and walked straight across to the university for registration and the opening keynote session by Richard Gerver. Richard’s keynote titled “Leading into the future” looked at issues education will come across as we move into an ever increasing technology driven world. From there we moved on to the National Waterfront Museum for the Welcome Reception.
Tuesday started with a keynote from Ray Henderson, President of Blackboard’s Learn platform. Ray’s keynote covered the current status of Blackboard Learn and gave an insight into new developments and innovations. He was very candid about the experience many users had moving to version 9.0 of the software and acknowledged that institutions were forced to take risks that they shouldn’t have had to take.
Ray shared information on how responsive support were in dealing with tickets submitted to them. The stats show that in January 2008 30% of tickets we’re closed within 7 days, rising to 50% in January 2010, the 30 day close rate went from 55% to 85% respectively. However in our experience some tickets we submitted to support were often closed without actually being resolved, perhaps to help increase these figures. Having said that more recently, under the direction of Ray, support have been more attentive and tickets generally get dealt with properly. I was given the opportunity to talk with Christian Lochner, Director of Client Support at Blackboard who offered to have a look at any ticket we felt had been prematurely closed
Ray also informed us that Blackboard have tripled resources to deal with support tickets and they have staff dedicated to supporting institutions upgrading to 9.1 on hand.
Also worth mentioning is the Maintenance Experience Blog and the Blackboard 2010 Maintenance Strategy which both contain helpful information for any Blackboard administrator wanting to know more about how Blackboard manage software maintenance (Behind the Blackboard access is required). Blackboard have also made available tutorial videos, information sheets and email templates which are customisable for your own institution.
The introduction of Blackboard 9.0 brought with it greater compatibility with screen readers, 9.1 takes accessibility a step further and it is the first eLearning environment to be awarded gold status by the National Federation for the Blind in the USA for nonvisual accessibility.
Ray then gave us a demo of some of the new features in 9.1, this release adds support for mashups, the ability to bring data into Blackboard from other sources on the Internet. 9.1 will support YouTube, SlideShare and Flickr out of the box with the ability to extend these through an API. Ray demonstrated embedding a video from YouTube into a content item without having to leave Blackboard, you can search YouTube from within Blackboard, avoiding the usual process of having to copy and paste the embed HTML code from YouTube. Another good feature of this is the introduction of screen reader compliant controls next to embedded videos, making it possible to control playback and volume when using accessibility software.
Blackboard Mobile Learn
Later on in the day Aaron Wasserman talked about Blackboard Mobile Learn, due to be launched in June 2010 Mobile Learn finally brings integrated interactivity with Blackboard on mobile devices. Students are able to open documents, take part in discussion forums and access all other teaching and learning content in a course, staff are also able to add announcements from the application.
I was lucky enough to talk to Aaron after the presentation and got to try out Mobile Learn on the iPad. The interface is fluid and even at this early stage polished, use of Apple’s multi touch finger gestures made it easy to organise content around the screen.
Aaron’s enthusiasm for the project was very obvious as he discussed plans for the future. I asked him about possible integration with Apple’s iWork suite of applications for the iPad so that students could complete assignments and submit them electronically to Blackboard all from one device. This was exactly the kind of thing he wanted for the platform and told me to watch this space. Aaron’s passion for what he does is certainly a great asset to Blackboard and I can’t wait to see how Mobile Learn progresses, versions of Mobile Learn are also planned for Symbian, Blackberry and Android devices but no release date for these was given.
However, Blackboard would not confirm or deny if Mobile Learn would be a separately licensed product, given the current financial situation with Higher Education in the UK this could be key to the success of the product here.
The KU Leuven Association upgraded their Blackboard 7.2 installation to 9.0 in February this year, they manage Blackboard for 14 institutions covering 100,000 active users, 35,000 daily users and 20,000 active courses.
The upgrade took 9 months of planning and was completed in 3 days over a weekend, key to this was a large amount of automation, scripts were used at a database level for a large number of tasks including the creation of a unified layout for portal modules users were given access to instead of doing this through the administration interface.
As many other institutions found, performance of the system was initially sluggish and tweaks had to be made, many of them trial and error, for the first few weeks high usage caused by users wanting to explore the new interface contributed to these problems. During testing they discovered that Tomcat was getting a huge amount of HTTP requests caused by the increase in page sizes in the 9.0, the portal page users we’re presented after login had grown from 175kB to 1.4MB!
3 months before the upgrade they made users aware of it by placing a countdown timer on the login page and they also created a teaser campaign to get users interested in what was happening and to raise awareness. Schools were encouraged to take the opportunity to update their branding and the new CSS allowed them to have more control over this, however as we also found a lack of proper documentation made the process harder than it should have.
Feedback from users has been encouraging and the upgrade deemed a success!
TU Delft goes mobile
Willem van Valkenburg opened his presentation with the video above, showing how mobile devices have changed since 1985. TU Delft was the first institution in Benelux to implement Blackboard Mobile and it had become a popular tool for students at the university.
A report by Morgan Stanley suggests that the mobile Internet market will be twice the size of desktop Internet within 5 years. Delft ran a survey for a week at the end of 2009, 2351 students replied, 61% owned a smart phone, 38% a regular mobile phone and 1% did not own a mobile device. Of the smart phones that students owned, 36.5% had an Apple device, 22% HTC and 20.9% Nokia.
80.8% of smart phone owners had a data subscription, key to driving the use of mobile applications and 96.9% of them indicated that they wanted access to Blackboard from their device. In fact Delft have seen as many as 1000 hits per day coming from mobile devices to their regular Blackboard website.
Delft’s introduction of Blackboard mobile was a success, in the first release Campus Maps, News, Events, Library and Videos were included. Plans to include access to iTunesU, Timetables and Blackboard integration are in the pipeline as well as introducing an elective course for students from September 2010 titled Mobile Service Innovation: Design & Engineering.
Using the VLE to conduct SMS polls
Stephen Vickers from The University of Edinburgh talked about the use of SMS polls where students use their own mobile devices instead of voting devices (clickers) to take part. Edinburgh used to use JANET txt but recently moved to edutxt for their SMS services, because of this Stephen was able to create a PowerLink to integrate SMS polls into their WebCT Vista 8 installation.
Students add their mobile phone details to their profile within WebCT, for privacy and security the phone number they enter is also hidden from staff. Staff can create polls from within their course and students send an SMS to a regular phone number to take part, for the majority of students this is free as it comes out of a bundle.
Edinburgh has traditionally used clickers and they are issued to students by the library at the start of each academic year, there is a high capital outlay for these devices whereas the cost to provide SMS services is relatively small in comparison, there is no setup cost and outgoing SMS messages are bought in bundles.
SMS polls can also be configured to be available for virtually any duration, making gathering responses easier than using clickers and SMS allows remote users to be involved in the poll even if it’s happening outside of the classroom.
The PowerLink can be used to send announcements, Edinburgh’s central support unit use the system to send information to students, recipients can be selected by role, group, name or combination of these categories. If a student has not registered their mobile phone details on the system an email is sent to their registered email address instead.
The PowerLink is available to edutxt users and a version for Blackboard is also available.