Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Blackboard going Web 2.0?

Blackboard, 9.0 :: Inside Higher Ed :: Higher Education's Source for News, Views and Jobs

IHE describes the launch of the new version of Blackboard as including Web 2.0 and social learning tools. I've only seen the company video showcasing the new Blackboard.  So, it may not be fair to comment at this point, but I'm going to anyway.  The interface definitely looks better, incorporating drag and drop customization and context menus that eliminate much of the clicking that annoyed so many people.  It seems to have absorbed the blog and wiki tools that were previously provided by a third party.  However, the look of the blogs (and the rest of Blackboard) still appears to be bland compared to "blogs in the wild".  Also, Blackboard is still course-based with content contained within individual courses and unable to be shared outside or even across courses within the institution (I do know that course content can be share if you buy Bb's Content System). 

Although I prefer an open platform that allows students to present their work to the world, this semester working with WordPress Mu as my class platform for the first has made me appreciate why someone would gravitate to Blackboard.  The main issue is getting people into the system.  Although it's tied to our central login system, the steps to get people logged in are clumsy.  Also, managing the work of 40 or more students gets somewhat overwhelming.  I do have a plugin that shows me how many posts people have made and we're doing some work to organize their papers when that time comes, but it's still required some significant work to make all that work.  Partly, of course, this is because WP Mu wasn't built to do this, but that's what happens to most Web 2.0 apps.  They start life as one thing and become something else entirely because of the way people really use it.

I think a few minor improvements to a Course Management system might make it something that those of us on the bleeding edge rethink using it.  Here's what I propose.
  1. Make it possible to share content across courses easily.  Allow, for example, two courses to link together.  They might be courses being taught this semester by different instructors centered on the same theme but in different disciplines.  Imagine the conversations that could take place!  Or they might be courses from previous semesters.
  2. Make it possible for "real" customization of a course.  Let instructors be able to design the front page not just by changing the menu items across the left nav, but change where that navigation is.  Allow widgets to be added that pull in content from outside sites right onto the front page.  Allow the instructor to minimize the institutional branding so that they can feel more ownership over their course. 
  3. Allow students to customize their area too.  They might be able to customize their blogs within a course, but they might also be able to build a portfolio by pulling in work from their courses that they're proud of.
  4. Make it possible to make the course public.  Make it possible for faculty to allow the public in if they want.  You can still make copyrighted materials private and obviously, grades, but allow the outside world to see the course and see the blogs and other student work.
There's probably more that could be done here, and it does seem that Blackboard is moving in the right direction to a large extent, but they are driven in their design in part by the assumptions of institutions who are still very course and discipline-based.  Until they get beyond the idea that learning is closed off from the world and contained within courses and disciplines, course management systems aren't going to change.