Thursday, October 29, 2009

Blackboard 9.0

Having spent in access of 9 hours (webinar included) on the new Bb 9 platform the impression I got is not very compelling.

It’s apparent after logging into the new platform that Bb has done some work around user interface. Unlike the old platforms the system is not so click heavy. The claim on Bb website a “Web 2.0 look-and-feel” is to an extent justified; they have made the interface customizable, engaging with a drag and drop mechanism. The problem for me here is that users can only customise the front page once logged into the system.

If I understand Web 2 correctly then web 2 is about empowering the users in as many ways possible. The latest release of Bb 9 fails to provide users with the ability to personalize any page at a course level. Unlike Moodle, users have the choice of giving course page a colour and feel to their liking. The concept of having a Web 2 feel (drag and drop interface) is not new and is something that has come to light in the past few years. Good website designers have been using this successfully for quite sometime, what surprises me is it took Bb this long to release such a feature.

The new release has tagging and bookmarking functionality. Also added in this release is the ability to feed updates from Bb to individual user Facebook profile. There are issues related to using Facebook which students may unknowingly fall victims to. Accounts on Facebook maybe be “deleted” upon request, these accounts are actually not deleted but are “deactivated” meaning all user content/information is still stored on the server for an unknown period (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_Facebook). Use of Facebook in education is still arguable. Would students want course notifications published onto their profile?

Discussion Boards in Bb has been a tool that I think needed some work and it is a shame to see it remain the same. The discussion board by default misses the “social element”. Emails from a discussion board won’t be sent out to the students unless they subscribe to it. It is arguable, to have emails sent out to student inbox or not. Students enrolled in a class by default form a social community and for it to function properly the teacher is responsible of finding ways to make it engaging and a functioning community. Going by social constructivist pedagogy then emails from a discussion board would be a must, RSS feeds would makes things easier. Bb 9 doesn’t even have RSS capability at a forum level. The lack of use of basic social networking tools again highlights the flaw in design and platform pedagogy (Is there a pedagogy which was kept in mind while designing Bb, I still sometimes struggle to answer this question). I can see an effort on going towards a social environment but again not enough evidence to classify it as one. The lack of student-teacher, student-student co-construction is also missing. If we look at the way glossaries work in the latest version on Bb, it can only be edited and updated by the teacher (unlike in Moodle, it could be students or teacher or both).

For me Bb has always been and still is more inclined towards being a teacher-centred platform.

Blog tools V8 vs V9. David Hopkins in this blog does a direct comparison of the blogging tools in Bb 9 and Bb 8 with the Learning Objects plug-in installed. He concludes that he would rather stick with the Learning Object blogging tool (V8) due to some design issues in Bb 9 (http://www.dontwasteyourtime.co.uk/camtasia/BB9-blog/BB9-blog.html). Bb also made this comment on the V9 website “… working in course/unit groups just became more powerful: now students can really take ownership of their group work. Students can customise the look-and-feel of their Groups within a course/unit, assign tasks to individual members, collaborate through blogs and create group assignments”. What’s new here, we have had blogs and wikis in V7 & V8 for quite sometime now. I think what they meant to say was “it is available for use for free now”. It comes pre-installed in V 9!

Bb 9 on iPhone. My question is why on iPhone only while some LMS’s are able to function smoothly on any phone as long as it is connected to the net and has a compatible browser. You’ll need to download a plug-in to your iPhone/iPod to be able to use this feature. Some comments left on David’s twitter page about this tool ““students can’t find stuff in BB on a 17? monitor - let alone an Itouch screen”. People who have tried this tool say that the Bb server needs to be configured correctly in order to use the iPhone/iPod plug-in otherwise it is blocked.

Gradebook in V 9 is mostly unchanged, contrary to the comments made on the site “… from a single place educators can view tasks to be completed, assignments to grade, and new discussion board postings to review. They can monitor ‘at risk’ students and receive course/unit notifications”. Tools referred to in this claim have been on Bb for quite sometime now. They are referring to the Early warning system and the overall Gradebook function. Bb 9 has given these tools a common place hence is centralised and is more visible unlike before.

On a positive note Bb 9 and even the older versions have a more flexible Gradebook when compared with other systems. The ability to create individual reports for students would be handy for teachers (Bb 9). The Gradebook tools in Bb 9 remains the same with a bit of streamlining and polishing.

The virtual collaboration tools (Virtual classrooms) in V9 appears to the same as V8 that were unstable.

The news is not all bad, according to the readings I have done; Bb V 9 upgrade is free (now I am not sure, maybe it is only if you are moving from V8 to V9). It comes with some useful tools like “conditional activities” – students can only progress to the next stage having successfully met the criteria set by the teacher (this feature should also be available in Moodle 2.0 to be released soon). The level of notification and the ability for a student to monitor their own progress has been taken to another level. The Dashboard in V9 is apparently a one-stop-shop for students looking for deadlines, test assignment schedules, and other task. Bb 9 has a built-in feature that can support student portfolios (there are issues around portability and the degree of integration with other portfolio systems). The mash-up feature in Bb 9 is said to be a good addition. It allows for easy integration (import and export) with other systems namely, Sakai and Moodle. Bb V9 comes with an enhanced group tool that now offers (1) ability for students to form own groups or (2) system can randomly assign students to a group. The group tool also offers more collaborative tools for example blogs, journals, tasks and ability for a group to personalise the group space (ability to add extra modules if needed). I am however disappointed to see that there is only one type of Group possible, separate group, meaning groups can’t collaborate or see what the other has done. Group in Bb is still viewed as a separate unit with its own space, and not an intricate part of the wider group (class).

Blackboard has done some work around central storage. Teaching staff can now upload files and contents and these are accessible through “My content” menu that is available across the platform.

I also noticed that Bb 9 has done considerable amount of work in developing an interface that cares for the disabled students. All pictures upload now can have Alt tags; sadly this field is not mandatory unlike in Moodle (it kind of defeats the purpose).

To sum it up briefly: They have done some good work around usability and in including Web 2 tools but the lack of cohesion and consideration of any pedagogy in particular lets it down. The lack of creative ideas seems to have limited Bb to deliver almost the same product (almost the same as V7 and V8) with lots of hype around it.

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