Second Thoughts on Blackboard Conference

Now that I’ve had some time to think about the Blackboard World conference, I actually have some ideas. I was there partly by accident, since normally it’s for clients and not prospectives like myself. I didn’t manage to meet other K-12 independent school members there.

There are lots of great things going with Blackboard, including their number of clients now that the WebCT merger has gone through. They’re aiming to become a “standard” for elearning, and I’m in favor of some of this if it means that portfolios can become a meaningful part of the college applications process, for example. Or if it can be easier to have intercultural student exchanges, if they are worldwide. Blackboard shouldn’t be the “only” way to do these things, but it wouldn’t be bad for some standards were set for realistic change.

In terms of the product, not all stories were great. The story I heard about the grade book was that they’ve been working for a year on a new component called Caliper that will be an over-arching assessment and standards tool. They hope to have it out next year.
However, there were still a lot of complaints about the grade book, and they acknowledged the issues but noted that they couldn’t revamp the grade book before Caliper was at least over half done (since the two systems will intermesh). The “interim” action on their part was to increase communication with third party grade book vendors to create a building block for the system (meaning one could use the third party grade book and import/export/mesh with the building block).

Some issues with this– I don’t believe the Basic system supports building blocks, for example. Many seemed to feel there was too big of a difference between Basic and the Learning System (in features and cost), and one acknowledgement was that they were working on hosted, interim options between the two.

Other impressions– the majority of Blackboard’s clients are higher ed, and it appears that a majority of the K-12 clients are districts or even groups of districts. For an individual school, the product is available, but it’s not clear how the cost per user plays out when that is done (in annual licensing fees and the cost/complexity of building and maintaining the system). Additionally, it seems as if there were and are cross-platform issues for Mac users (Visual Editor just repaired for OS X if one uses Firefox, for example, but Safari still doesn’t work right).

There’s also a cool add-on called Backpack that allows students to download nearly all course data into a client and then use it off network, off Internet. This type of idea has great potential, but again this is a Windows-only tool for now. In my 50/50 cross platform school, we carefully avoid implementing tools that only serve one part of the population.

I was impressed by what the higher ed customers were doing, and some of the school districts. Their plans for increasing social networking tools and lifelong portfolios are not bad either. In the future, I could imagine a consortium plan for a Blackboard system through NAIS, but I’m not in the league needed to run such a large setup.

Additionally, in terms of actual use, even the “best” class page examples from K-12 weren’t significantly better than what we are currently doing with low to no cost SharePoint sites. (International connections, multimedia, course content, discussions, paperless exchanges, timed sequences, etc.) We don’t have an online grading system, content management system, or unified educational portal system yet (and we may not want all of them).

So, next week we’re watching a demo of the new FirstClass ED system, we might request a demo copy of the Microsoft Class Server 4.0, we’re toying with the idea of upgrading to our own SharePoint Portal system, and we’re not beyond exploring Moodle (further)and part-by-part solutions like Edline.

It’s a big issue…

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