By Doug Ward

I’ll be blunt: Blackboard Learn has all the visual appeal of a 1950s warehouse.

In terms of usability, it’s like trying to navigate an aircraft carrier when you really need a speedboat.

To Blackboard’s credit, it’s not that different from other learning management systems, which emphasize security and consistency from class to class as selling points. The company has been listening to user complaints, though, as upstarts like Canvas, Desire2Learn, and Moodle (in which Blackboard owns a stake) have chipped away at its dominant market share over the last few years.

screenshot from blackboard student app
Screenshots, above and below, of pages that Blackboard supplied of its new Bb Student app.

Last week at BbWorld, the company’s annual conference, officials said that Blackboard Learn would get a much-needed facelift. It also announced changes in its Collaborate service and in its mobile apps.

Jim Chalex, a senior director for product management, said the changes in Blackboard Learn would focus not just on visual appeal but on ease of use both on PCs and mobile devices. (You can watch a recording of the session, as I did, but you’ll need to register. It’s free.)

Chalex said the company wanted Blackboard Learn to look more like social media sites and other websites that students and faculty used regularly.

“Those are modern designs that are constantly unfolding and evolving and staying on the bleeding edge,” he said. “We want to be right there and to stay on that edge and to actually drive it, to innovate along with those. We think that leads to a more engaged learner.”

Within the next year, it plans to offer layered navigation (think of the site breaking into several vertical strips for you to choose from), the ability to drag and drop material from a computer’s desktop, easier access to analytics, and easier access to often-used tools. Keep in mind that access to those features will depend on each university’s adoption time.

In the future, it plans redesigned discussion boards and rubrics, better integration of audio and video, easier organization and use of groups, ability to create customized pages, improved integration of plagiarism detection, and better integration of material from outside publishers.

The company is calling these changes the “Blackboard Learn Ultra Experience.” (I’d call it “Blackboard: Beyond the Warehouse,” but no one asked me.)

The company has devoted a section of its website to the design changes it plans, along with the philosophy behind them. It also has a page to sign up to try the technical preview of the coming changes.

Blackboard Collaborate

Blackboard says it has overhauled Collaborate, the software for interacting with students remotely, in both the look and technical framework.

The changes, it said, will allow for easier creation of virtual office hours, student study groups, and webinars. It will also allow for high-definition video and an ability to record sessions and publish them in .mp4 format for download.screenshot from blackboard student app

Rather than opening stand-alone software, the new version of Collaborate “starts in the browser and stays in the browser,” said David Hastie, senior director for product management for Collaborate.

The new version of Collaborate is also responsive, meaning it will adapt easily to any type of device. It also adapts to the type of content being displayed and will allow for real-time closed captioning of live sessions. (This requires someone to listen and type the content.)

In future iterations, Collaborate plans better integration with Blackboard Learn, an ability to zoom in on content, revamped polling and breakout rooms, integration of teleconferencing, and an ability for instructors to load content in one session and have it remain for future sessions. Blackboard has also established a partnership with VoiceThread to allow for easier integration of that tool.

Mobile apps for Blackboard

In June, Blackboard announced the availability of a new mobile app called Bb Student.

Dan Loury, senior project manager for mobile, said at BbWorld that the student app was one of three apps that Blackboard was creating or updating. (The other two are for instructors and parents.)

The student app, available for iOS, Android or Windows Phone, creates a streamlined view of critical information for students, he said. This includes an “activity stream,” which is a bit like a to-do list of assignments and due dates, along with updates on comments and announcements. The app also provides an outline and timeline for all courses, access to the gradebook, and an ability to create assignments and take tests on mobile,

Blackboard says that future versions of the app will provide integration with Dropbox, OneDrive and Google Drive; an ability to activate push notifications; an ability to search within courses; and group collaboration with mobile devices, including virtual meetings with instructors or other students.

A faculty app, called Bb Grader, has been available on iOS for some time. The last time I tried it, it lacked the ability to do the tasks I needed it to do. That has been some time, though. I downloaded it again this week but have not been able to get it or the student app to connect. Mobile versions of Blackboard Learn are also available, but I’ve found them dreadful, at least from an instructor standpoint.

All of the changes that Blackboard announced last week sound good, and I look forward to seeing them in action.

When I talk with faculty members about Blackboard Learn, I hear two common refrains: Make it easier to use, and make it more visually appealing. So despite my harsh comments about Blackboard, I applaud the company’s willingness to listen to faculty members and students, and to start modernizing the system. I just wish the changes hadn’t taken so long.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

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