Blackboard Education on Tour - Some thoughts

Yesterday the Blackboard Education on Tour rolled into Salford, bringing with them a tour bus full of senior directors, developers and training specialists. Of the two strands on offer, I opted to attend the Product Discussion track. This was a mixture of updates about the business, a look at the new features and tools they were concentrating on, but more importantly, a chance to feedback and guide the direction of the products in development and guide those that previously missed the mark.

Blackboard are taking the UK market seriously again having recently opened up an office in London, but also expressing the desire that they want to be seen as more 'local', and more responsive to the UK market. This is a very welcome shift and appreciated as sometimes the UK voice gets lost in the vast American user base. Next we hear, rather oddly, that the company is refocusing on teaching and learning on Blackboard. Isn’t this its modus operandi? Anyway, it is pleasing to hear that they have increased investment in support for Blackboard Learn with a recent increase in maintenance engineers, and an apparent slowing down of acquisition, in order to focus on bringing these multifarious parts of the company together as a unified, recognisable whole.

One of the key themes that emerged early on was the frequency of changes in Blackboard Learn over the past two years. A quick poll in the room highlighted that for the majority of institutions in attendance, they only upgrade to a newer version once a year. Blackboard tends to release four service packs a year, some of which are fixes (odd numbers) and new features (even numbered). There was broad agreement within the room that this rate of change has impacted on the quality of the product, but also is out of step with natural rhythm of how universities generally approach an upgrade.I understand that a technological company has to experiment and innovate, but that can't be at the cost of quality and stability. I really do hope they take this into consideration for their release schedule of service packs in 2014 and beyond. 

Presently, LJMU is on SP11 as a decision was made earlier this year that, even though SP13 was available, we wouldn’t have time to test it adequately before upgrading in the summer. This does leave us in the unenviable position of being ‘unsupported’, as we are three service packs behind (the latest, SP14, was released this week). So many of the issues raised in the discussion were not strictly relevant to our current position, they were very useful to be aware of.

Attendees were asked to register for the Blackboard Idea Exchange. Only two people in the room had actively done this. Sadly, I'm not one although I do plan to rectify this soon.  Although, there was a suggestion that the ideas had a very strong US emphasis and that it would be useful if a UK exchange set up. I would certainly sign up for this as I think this event demonstrated having the time to discuss ideas and guide where the focus for new development should go was invaluable. Thanks Blackboard for a very enjoyable, stimulating and I hope, very worthwhile event. It would be very useful to

Below I will mention some tools and features that are still in a development phase and therefore will subject to change

Blackboard Polls

Ryan Irwin @rynowin announced the release of the first creation from Blackboard Labs. Polls is a beta release that allows users to create, vote and view the real time results of a poll. Polls is supported on iOS as an app but is also available via mobile web.
Here is a very quick review:

  • Simple and clear interface
  • Free
  • App and Web access
  • Facebook log in (other authentication coming soon)
  • No Blackboard or Powerpoint integration
  • No UK SMS support
  • No extra features to make it stand out from other interactive apps like Socrative
Unfortunately, Ryan experienced some wifi issues that had plagued the room throughout the day. As Steve points out below, this was a timely reminder of one of the key problems in mobile learning activities.

However, kudos to Ryan for doing a live demo rather than a screenshot filled, power point presentation. I'm not sure whether it has enough features to take me away from using Socrative, but I look forward to seeing what comes with the promised Blackboard Learn integration. Blackboard Labs is looking to hear about your ideas. Get involved