Dancing with the devil: a view from Blackboard’s European conference

In the heart of downtown post-industrial Manchester, currently basking in sweltering Mediterranean temperatures, Blackboard is hosting its European Conference, BbWorld Europe ‘08.

Michael Feldstein has described the attack on Blackboard’s market share from Moodle. Whether this has anything to do with the negative publicity surrounding Blackboard’s patents, reported on extensively by Stephen Downes and Jim Farmer it’s impossible to say. What’s clear though is that Blackboard is striking back with some very interesting innovations – and my feeling is it may achieve many of them faster than the Moodle community can.

Michael L Chasen, Blackboard’s CEO, described the three principles of Project NG (Next Generation) which is bringing WebCT and Blackboard together into one platform: Student achievement, Openness and Web 2.0. So what does that actually mean?

There is an excellent instructor dashboard, something Moodle is crying out for (and the sort of thing recommended by our Student Support Review at the OU). It informs tutors about what’s new, what needs attention, which students have handed in work late, which haven’t logged in for a week etc.

The authoring facilities are also getting increasingly sophisticated. A course management block allows you to drag and drop blocks of content around the page, building new items and adding assessments, communication tools etc from drop-down menus. One of these menus is for mashups allowing you to integrate Google Earth maps, Flickr, YouTube and other resources easily into courses.

Accessibility appears to be being taken seriously with keyboard friendly interfaces for every feature.

An adaptive release feature enables the release of different items of content to be sequenced and scheduled.

The AJAX interface appears to flow through the whole suite of applications from students customising their home pages by dragging blocks around – to instructors reordering questions in a test just by dragging them (moving away from the increasingly outdated HTML forms interface).

Support for languages is enhanced and students can select one of 14 languages for the Blackboard interface (Moodle wins on that score).

Probably the most interesting way Blackboard is developing is to open itself up. I’ve been arguing that this is what has to happen to VLEs/LMSs if they are to survive. It is a particularly good strategy for Blackboard anyway – by sucking in information from other applications and exporting useful information to other systems it keeps the LMS firmly at the centre of the various educational systems. Courses from Moodle or SAKAI for example can be delivered with single sign-on, and events from those courses aggregated into the Bb interface.

“Communities” can be set up by students to create their own social learning spaces if the institution wants to make this possible.

The student profile has been redesigned and looks good – something you could imagine would give a greater sense of ownership to the student.

There’ll be enhanced SMS facilities so that announcements, updates etc can be sent by text message in whatever ways students wish to receive them.

And finally there’s Bb Sync which is supposedly going to be announced officially tomorrow but kind of has been already. It’s a Facebook application which allows aspects of Bb to be accessed through Facebook. For example students can see course announcements, whether new grades are available or the headers of new forum posts. Click these headers and they are transferred to the forum in Blackboard – again that strategy of drawing everyone back to the mother application. It provides lists of those who are both on your course and have a Facebook profile and allows you to communicate directly with others via Facebook.

So have I gone over to the darkside and am I going to recommend the Open University switches from Moodle to Blackboard? Hmmm…not right now I haven’t. For one thing, talking to some of the delegates, they want their hands on this stuff now and are going to have to wait a year or so for some of it. Meanwhile the Moodle community has lots of innovations up its sleeves too. Rivalry between these two worlds (and preferably some others as well) is a very healthy thing and is precisely what learners and teachers need.

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