By Doug Ward

Microsoft’s Office software has long been the standard in business and education.

Screenshot of Microsoft's Education Dashboard
The website for Microsoft’s Class Dashboard.

In a webinar this week, though, Microsoft showcased an online amalgamation of its software that looks very much like a learning management system.

Blackboard it isn’t, and that’s the point. Microsoft is drawing on the familiarity and ubiquity of its Office software to create an environment for class materials that is spare, visually appealing, and easy to use – all things that Blackboard isn’t.

The new software, called Class Dashboard, isn’t all that new to many school systems. It has been in beta testing for more than a year, along with data integration software called School Information Sync, but will be made available free to users of Office 365 Education.

Dashboard integrates the company’s Office 365 platform into a portal for displaying class materials, announcements and grades; integrating Office apps; giving feedback to students; managing class rosters and calendars; and integrating discussion boards into assignments.

Facebook's education dashboard
A screenshot of Facebook’s Personalized Learning Plan.

All of this is aimed at K-12 education, but it could easily fit into higher education. KU, for instance, has adopted Sharepoint (along with Office 365) for creating internal web portals, and Skype for Business for communication. It will eventually provide OneDrive access across the university.

Most universities aren’t likely to shift to Class Dashboard for a learning management system, but it could provide a useful alternative for many faculty members.

Facebook also joined the push toward education with an announcement last week about a school-oriented software project.

The company has been working with Summit Public Schools in California on technology it calls Personalized Learning Plan. Facebook was vague about the specifics of the technology, saying that “content and assessments are delivered online through teacher-created materials.” What it displayed on its blog, though, was a dashboard that allows students to visualize goals, create plans to reach those goals, provide a log of accomplishments, and provide a space for reflection.

The technology is independent of Facebook and doesn’t require a Facebook login. Facebook has been testing the software at Summit since last year, it said, and plans to make it freely available in the future.

Finding your “bliss zone” at the office

If you are feeling miserable at work, it could be that you’ve overshot your “bliss zone,” Arthur C. Brooks writes in The New York Times.

That often happens to ambitious professionals who, he says, keep taking on more responsibility until they suddenly realize that by chasing prestige and responsibility they have given up the work that inspired them in the first place.

Brooks points to academics as one group prone to this phenomenon.

Dan Bernstein, the former director of CTE, passed along a link to Brooks’s article and offered this interpretation from his brother:

“If you can, stay in positions that include activities you find satisfying and valuable. If you need to get into a less enjoyable position to get important things done, then use the mindset of service to get yourself through it.”

Excellent advice.

Strange fact of the week

This has little to do with education and everything to do with marketing and with blind adoption of technology. Fortune reports that in a recent survey, nearly half of Apple Watch owners said that they used their watches more than they expected to – are you ready for this? – check the time.

Briefly …

Most young adults age 18 to 34 reject the label “millennial,” Pew reports, though a large majority of those 51 to 69 embrace the term “baby boomers.” … Few teachers are using social media in their classrooms, The Journal reports, saying teachers worry about a lack of training, and problems that might arise with students’ use of social media. … The New York Times reports that companies are redesigning backpacks to better fit the lifestyle of today’s students, who carry more technology and fewer books than students of past decades. Research for the designs included students, yes, but also mountaineers and homeless people, many of whom have developed methods to keep their belongings portability and dry.

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.

By Doug Ward

Learning matters.

That may seem like a truism in the world of education – at least it should be – but it isn’t.

All too often, schools and teachers, colleges and professors worry more about covering the right material than helping students learn. They put information above application. They emphasize the what rather than the why and the how.

In an essay in Inside Higher Ed, Stephen Crew of Samford University makes an excellent case for the importance of learning. He does so with an anecdote about why instructors win teaching awards. For instance, the award-winners may have made sacrificed to pursue their teaching. They may have inspired students or made classes engaging. Perhaps their student evaluations were stellar.Education matters logo: Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education

Crew doesn’t dismiss those aspects of teaching. Rather, he says they are simply too shallow.

“The implication is that award-winning teachers are not any more effective at engendering student learning than the rest of us,” Crew writes. “Rather, they devote more time and attention to their teaching and students than we do, or they persevere through greater challenges.”

He asks – rightly – whether those instructors have really helped students learn.

Crew makes an important distinction between learning-driven teaching and information-driven teaching.

Learning-driven teachers help students challenge their thinking, including their metacognitive skills, and demonstrate the importance of deeper understanding. They provide meaningful opportunities for students to apply skills, and then assess students’ understanding and nudge them toward a goal.

Information-driven teaching, on the other hand, is a relatively straightforward affair than nearly anyone can do. It emphasizes accurate, up-to-date content; presentation style; and perhaps the newest technology. “In this approach, the teacher either cannot or should not influence learning beyond the method of delivering information,” Crew writes.

Instructors may be popular and passionate and engaging, Crew says, but if they simply deliver information to students, they haven’t really taught anything.

Angelique Kobler of the Lawrence Public Schools made much the same point last year, saying that if instructors don’t embrace the idea that today’s students learn differently from those even a few years ago, “we will become irrelevant.”

A question that Kobler asked when she spoke with the KU Task Force on Course Redesign still resonates:

Has teaching occurred if learning hasn’t?

Related: What does a learner-centered syllabus look like? (Via Faculty Focus.)

* * * * * * *

Follow-up: The ups and downs of Blackboard

It will be interesting to see how a sale of Blackboard might affect the positive changes I wrote about earlier this week.

Reuters reported on Tuesday that Providence Equity Partners, which owns Blackboard, is looking to sell the company for more than $3 billion. Blackboard, which was created in 1998, had been a public company until Providence bought it and took it private in 2011, paying $1.64 billion and assuming $130 million in debt.blackboard logo

To put the Blackboard price into perspective, here are a couple of comparisons: Forbes estimates the value of the New York Yankees at more than $3 billion. After an initial public offering, the online marketplace Etsy is worth more than $3 billion. So is Donald Trump.

A sale wouldn’t be surprising. Companies like Providence buy lagging companies, revamp them and try to sell them for a profit. Blackboard has become more responsive to customers since Providence took over and hired Jay Bhatt as president and CEO. And news of a possible sale comes just after the completion of Bb World, Blackboard’s annual conference, and the announcement of a slew of changes that would finally pull Blackboard’s design and functionality out of the dial-up web era.

My colleagues in IT say, though, that Blackboard’s promised design changes probably won’t be practical for most schools to adopt for two to three years. That’s because Blackboard is building a new platform for Learn, its learning management system. That new platform lacks many of the integration capabilities the current system has, including grading for discussion boards, integration with SafeAssign, and integration with university enrollment systems.

So adopting the new platform, called Ultra, may depend on how much schools are willing to give up in terms of integration to gain a system that looks and acts like the modern web. Adoption will become even trickier for schools as the company pursues a pricing strategy that resembles that of the automobile industry. A college or university pays one price for the basic Blackboard Learn platform, and then must decide on an array of add-ons that drive up expenses but that contain the most sought-after functions and tools.

For instance, a school has to pay extra for access to the new student app and for the updated instructor grading app. (I wrote on Tuesday that I couldn’t get those apps to work. That’s why.) Blackboard Collaborate requires an extra fee, as does the assessment tool and a host of other digital goodies.

So even as Blackboard promises many positive changes, it is still acting very much like the behemoth it is.

We interrupt this post to report on the teacher draft

That’s right. I said the teacher draft. The comedy team Key and Peele take an ESPN-like look at what the world of teaching might look like if it were elevated to the status of sports: the $80 million salaries, the No. 1 draft pick whose father “lived from paycheck to paycheck as a humble pro football player,” and the “teacher-of-the-year play” in the day’s highlights. If only.

Briefly …

A participant on the E-Learning Heroes discussion board set off a flurry of responses with this question: “Do learners really care about learning objectives?” Trina Rimmer offers a useful overview of the discussions that followed. … First-time smartphone users said their devices distracted from their learning even though they initially thought they would help, The Journal reports, citing a study from Rice University and the U.S. Air Force. … Personalized learning, which allows students to choose the direction and the pace of their learning, provides a critical means to engage at-risk students, Rebecca Wolfe tells The Hechinger Report. Wolfe is the director of the Students at the Center project, which is part of the nonprofit organization Jobs for the Future.

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.