BlackBoard Training Day

So yesterday was our all-day training session on BlackBoard 9.1 for those of us who are piloting classes in the system for this semester.  I’ve had a couple questions via Facebook, so I’ll answer them here.

What is the roll-out schedule for BlackBoard 9.1?

The schedule, as far as I know, has not been set yet.  In fact, the decision to switch to BB 9.1 hasn’t been made yet.  We originally were going to pilot two or three systems but the FerrisConnect Advisory Board and Academic Affairs decided to pilot BB first, since it exists with our current software provider.  My feeling is if it’s not a disaster, we’ll probably switch.  Information about the decision-making process is here:

Will we have to start over with this new software like we did with the switch from WebCT to FerrisConnect?

There are several issues wrapped up in this question.  First, FerrisConnect was our name for the next WebCT product.  We had WebCT Campus Edition, and then we switched to WebCT Vista, because Campus Edition was going away.  In the middle of this transition, BlackBoard bought WebCT and stuck its name everywhere, so WebCT Vista suddenly became BlackBoard Vista (and Microsoft Vista came out at the same time.  Oy!) We called it FerrisConnect.

So what we know now as FerrisConnect is the last remnant of WebCT, which is also going away.  What we’re moving to is what used to be the BlackBoard line.  There are important differences between the two (see a comparison at the link above) but also a lot of very familiar things.

Another issue is that we did not have to “start over” with FerrisConnect.  It was a newer and different system (though not as different as we initially thought: all that stuff about courses vs. sections and templates proved to be mostly irrelevant), but we were able to migrate a lot of courses and content.

With BB 9.1, some people in the pilot had their courses migrated from FerrisConnect, but I chose not to.  I like to rebuild courses every semester to make them fresh and make sure no old stuff gets moved without me reviewing it.  So I do know that courses were migrated, and I did not hear about a lot of problems at the training.

What is your impression after the training?

It is a lot more efficient and runs more quickly, but we are running on BlackBoard’s server right now and are not integrated with our system (Mary Holmes is managing student accounts manually).  There are a lot of little things that are better, like moving things by drag and drop rather than with menus.  I’ve started building my course, so here’s an old vs. new screenshot:

Keep in mind that the “new” layout is much more flexible: you can put whatever you want in the menus, change the course entry page, easily mix html and content links on the pages, etc.   In fact, the training emphasized up front that instructors have to make decisions about how to organize courses using the menus:  you could organize it by tool, the way FerrisConnect is, or by unit (one folder per week), or by content, or some mixture.  (This also opens the door for disorganization, so it’s something to be emphasized f0r training).  I think this flexibility is a great asset, though.

Also something which is much better is the GradeBook (called Grade Center in BB 9.1).  It is very easy to navigate and contains lots of tools for looking selectively at data (categories, filters, smart views).

One thing that is nearly impossible to do in FerrisConnect is weighted averages.  It is very easy to do that in BB 9.1.  Say, for example, you had a class with quizzes, tests, and assignments, and you wanted to make quizzes worth 20%, assignments worth 30%, and tests worth 50%.  All you do is assign each column a category tell it how to weight each category and then there is a tool that adds all that up for you and figures out the math.  And, if you added more quizzes in partway through the term, as long as you assigned them to the quizzes category, the system readjusts automatically.

There are lots of little things in the Grade Center that are neat too.  You can quickly change one cell, without waiting for three different screens to load.  You can quickly show one row on the screen and hide the rest, so if you were working with a student, you could show only that student’s grade on the screen.

Another good thing is that the’re no prohibition on using the back button in the browser.

A couple of negative things came up.  First, there are not popup announcements in BB 9.1–but it does have a sophisticated “alert” system.  Also, as it stands, there is no mechanism built in to enforce time limits on tests (there is a time limit, apparently, but once it counts down to zero, nothing happens; it does notify the instructor that the student went over the time limit, but doesn’t show what the student did after the time limit).  We found out that Princeton developed a “building block” that we can install to fix this problem.  As I mentioned before, Grading Forms are not implemented, but are in the works for this summer.

Also, there is no centralized Assignments page, which seemed odd at first, but it turns out it is just different: you manage assignments in the Grade Center instead, and it uses the Alerts system to notify students.

All in all I am pretty excited about trying out this system—but I’m in “new toy” phase right now.


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