Blackboard Seeks to Reconnect With Faculty

For many students, the era of submitting typed papers is gone. Students can now log in to their accounts on their school’s website, where they can engage each other and their instructors through discussion boards and submit their homework assignments directly through a sub-site. The site is constantly updated, as the instructor posts homework assignments, announcements and links to articles and videos. 

It sounds like online education, and it is, but this type of learning has evolved into what’s called hybrid learning, in which students attend class for lectures and exercises but do a large part of their work online. Many students who reap the advantages of this interactive online learning method are doing so using CourseSites by Blackboard software.

Blackboard, which was founded in 1999, is scheduled to launch its newest product, Next Generation CourseSites by Blackboard, by early winter. The new software will be free to instructors, who can have up to five “available,” or live, courses at once and a storage limit on each of 500 megabytes. The only stipulation for access is that the instructor cannot directly charge fees to students for using CourseSites by Blackboard.

The forthcoming product contains many enhancements from its predecessor, according to Jarl Jonas, senior product manager for Blackboard. Jonas says the product includes registration with open identification protocol through Web services such as Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Windows Live and Yahoo, as well as an instructor home page at a personalized URL that will contain the instructor’s course list. The product also can display blog feeds, enable expedited course development with course structure templates and theme choices to support a variety of teaching styles, and has a navigation ribbon to keep tools and support information easily available.

“CourseSites is now a complete solution,” says Lara Oerter, vice president of product strategy and product marketing for Blackboard. “It is fully hosted, includes end-user support (phone, virtual chat and Web), includes self-paced training for instructors and even includes instructor-relevant functionability from other Blackboard platforms, including from Blackboard Connect, Blackboard Mobile and Blackboard Collaborate.”

The product was tested by 70 instructors (60 percent K-12 instructors, 30 percent higher education instructors and 10 percent professional educators — people who provide professional training courses, for example) from Aug. 18 to Sept. 30.

Dr. Howard L. Freeman, an online biology professor at Bethel University in McKenzie, Tenn., was a participant in the pilot program and a recent user of Legacy CourseSites by Blackboard.

“I have been using Blackboard products for four years and find the software of great value,” says Freeman. “It allows me to do a lot of things, like set up courses well ahead of time, get feedback from students quickly and put links to articles I want students to read. It is a very time-efficient product for a professor to use. I’m looking forward to using the new version with students. My opinion so far is that it’s fantastic.”

Blackboard’s competitors in the commercial marketplace include Desire2learn, eCollege, Fronter and It’s Learning, all of which provide a course management or learning management system.

“We believe that with CourseSites we have pulled together the most comprehensive solution for individual instructors that includes partner solutions, hosting, end user support and training — all for free,” says Jonas. “We are not aware of an offering this comprehensive – and certainly not for free — coming from any of these competitors.”

Legacy CourseSites by Blackboard has approximately 90,000 users, according to Jonas. He says the Legacy version will continue to be available until June 11, 2011 so that instructors can finish out the school year. It is also free to instructors.

Why offer the products for free?

“Our decision to make them free was our way to reconnect with instructors,” says Jonas. “We understand there are a lot of choices out there to support teaching and learning. Blackboard wants to make it easier for instructors, give them an arsenal of tools in one place and have a way to disseminate information and communicate easier with students.”

The company generates its revenue when school systems license the full platform, “where there’s a lot more control over customization of technology,” Jonas says.

Social media have become more relevant in society as a means of disseminating information, which both Jonas and Oerter are keenly aware. They both believe the Blackboard products will thrive in the world of social media, even with an increasing amount of competition, particularly in the K-12 arena.

“Rather than having to use disparate technologies and send students to multiple places, such as one website for documents, then another to access a blog, and yet another for video content, instructors can easily build and offer dynamic online learning environments in one convenient place,” Jonas says.

“Next Generation CourseSites by Blackboard brings it all together in one place for them. We are putting the most complete set of tools in front of them to utilize so that they don’t have to go to a bunch of different technology providers. Our ultimate goal as a company is to help students have an enriching educational experience.”