Making the Switch to Blackboard 9.1

The Mississippi Virtual Community College is upgrading to Blackboard 9.1 from Blackboard 8 something-or-other presumably by the fall semester.  I say presumably because we were told the change would happen in time for summer sessions, and it didn’t quite work out.  I don’t know the details.  I just know there was a failed attempt.  We’re talking about a system large enough to serve 15 colleges at once.  I for one am willing to accept without questions that changes to a system like that are complicated.  I’ll leave it at that.

From the instructor side, though, this is all somewhat anti-climactic.  Instead of a dream deferred, we have a job deferred in figuring out how to reconfigure what we are doing for a version of our course management system that appears to include that biggest changes we’ve seen yet in switching from one iteration to another.

More time to grumble, in other words.

Everyone I know complains about Blackboard.  It’s almost a hobby, maybe a sport.  We have this massive corporate tool that dictates our lives as teachers.  What’s not to complain about?

Some complain every time there is a change in versions because they don’t like having to relearn what they are doing or redo what they’ve been delivering.  Others complain because once again Blackboard has disappointed by not bringing the most sophisticated possible technologies to the table.

The discussion board is the part that drives me nuts.  We’ve seen changes from time to time in the Bb discussion board, but no matter how many times it is updated, it is still a more primitive tool than those that were available for free ten years ago.

But that’s neither here nor there.  Blackboard is what it is, and we are driven by a need to use a uniform system for all students across all of the 15 two-year colleges in our state.  Thus, when Blackboard changes, we change.

In that spirit, I’ve been trying to get a handle on what the changes actually are without yet having access to the new version.  It’s a little like my attempts to guess what the iPad would be like before it came out, only without the daily articles from Mashable to pump my excitement levels up.

There are changes in the functionality.  You access the controls in a different way.  You toggle back and forth between edit modes and student views in a different way.  It looks like you can also structure your classes a little differently, layering content areas in ways that didn’t exist before.

Bb 9.1 also offers more social media tools–blogs, journals, and wikis, as well as easy ways to pull in content from sites like YouTube, Flickr, and Slideshare.

The functional changes I’m not worried about.  Blackboard isn’t designed for computer programmers.  It’s designed for averages students and teachers.  It’s designed for intuitive navigation.

There isn’t anything in the way the new version operates that will be difficult to figure out.  It might require memorizing some different paths to the same information, but those paths won’t be difficult to locate or follow.

I’m more interested in the concepts represented in all these changes.

Blackboard assumes social media is reinventing the way online classes are delivered.  As well they should.

Social media has reinvented the way people communicate in general.  Online classes have to reflect this if they want to keep up, if they want to continue to attract students.

I’ll write more in other posts about using blogs and wikis with students.  I want to talk now about pulling in content from social sharing sites like YouTube and Flickr.  In truth, you could do this all along.  All you ever had to do to embed a YouTube video in a Blackboard course was to copy the embed code from YouTube and switch to html mode on the Blackboard editor to copy it in.  This is what you might continue to do in order to embed content from sites that aren’t included in Blackboard’s “mashup” menu.  Prezi, for example, isn’t included, but you could still embed a Prezi by copying and pasting the html.

So in 9.1, Blackboard has taken a way of sharing outside content that was always possible and created a prompt for it along with a menu of popular options.  They call these mashups.  Again, more about that in a later post.  For now, the point is that 9.1 assumes online courses are integrating materials from social sharing sites and assigning social networking activities.  It assumes students are working on group projects, that they are expressing opinions and commenting on one another’s opinions.  It assumes the classes are highly interactive and that content is delivered in a variety of mediums–audio, video, graphic, as well as text.

Thus, making the switch to Blackboard 9.1 mainly requires that we ask ourselves what we aren’t doing now with multimedia that we could be doing, what we aren’t doing now with social networking activities that we could be doing, and how any of these changes might benefit our students.

That’s a lot to ponder, but it’s well worth pondering.  It’s all about making the students feel more involved in the class and more involved with the subject.  That’s what teaching is always about no matter what the classroom happens to look like.

It’s time to quit worrying and learn to love the Blackboard.  These changes are going to be good.

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