Posted by: Ellie Kutz | January 15, 2013

Learning from the Blackboard Learn Pilot Fall 2012


Fall 2012 marked the beginning of UMass Boston’s  transition from the  Blackboard Vista to the Blackboard Learn learning management system (a process that will continue through Fall 2013, with support for Vista ending in January 2014).  The pilot semester included 170 courses, either fully online or web-enhanced courses.  Faculty who had been using Blackboard Vista could choose whether to become part of this pilot effort.  New faculty for Fall 2013 started right in with Blackboard Learn.  The transition was made difficult for Fall 2012 Pilot faculty (and for their edtech support partners) by the campus’s late access to the new platform, and there were a number of complaints on the survey about not having enough time with new system before start of classes.  But others, including a number of brand-new faculty, said they had little difficulty setting up their classes.

What did pilot faculty think of the new platform, and the support they received for using it?  And what advice would they give to other faculty who will begin using Bb Learn over the next two semesters?  Here’s what we learned from their responses to a survey we asked them to complete and from follow-up focus group meetings.

Faculty experience of the new platform and support

In general, it seemed that faculty who were more comfortable with using online platforms, and perhaps those who focused first on using a few basic features, had the most successful start-ups with the new system.   Most pilot faculty meeting said that they learned to use Bb Learn through online tutorials (from Blackboard or Atomic Learning), and one-on-one consultations with  staff (in person or through emails).  Fewer attended face-to-face workshops.  Most were very positive about the help they received from instructional support staff.

Most users found Bb Learn more flexible, with more user control, but thus potentially more confusing.  Comments ranged from finding Bb Learn totally overdesigned. Lots of bells and whistles, but not easy to do very simple things,” to  “I prefer Bb Learn to the old Bb and think many of the new features (ability to design online quizzes, etc.) will be really useful.”

The focus group echoed a concern about there being too many different ways to do the same thing and some participants suggested starting with a streamlined site and streamlined information about how to use it (understanding that the system offers different ways to do the same thing). Heather Zaykowski from Sociology shared a the simpler interface she had created for her site and others felt that it would offer an easier starting point for web-enhanced courses.  (A new template to be used for web-enhanced courses has been created in response.  See the next article for more information.)

Other things faculty wanted to tell others about the new platform.

  • Unlike Bb Vista, the new system offers many different ways to do the same thing.
  • Template elements can be renamed, deleted, added to.
  • Faculty need to be given a demo student account for each of their courses in order to see what students see, since there is no longer a student view.    “When one of my students sent me a screenshot of her ‘My Grades’  screen, it was a revelation!”
  • Hyperlinks are hard to see and find, and students need to be warned about this.
  • Course icons aren’t clickable, just the text.
  • Discussion threads are harder to follow.

Some people have also run into problems of compatibility with different browsers, particularly with Macs (something to trouble-shoot with your edtech liaison).   

A more general concern was providing support for students.  Pilot faculty felt that the Atomic Learning links in Bb Learn were not targeted enough to address students’ specific needs.  (More targeted links have now been included in course sites), and that students didn’t have a vocabulary for looking up what they needed. Faculty used different strategies to support students, such as walking through a demonstration, using handouts, assigning items to retrieve and upload, and having practice assignment submissions.

Faculty advice to new users

Representative comments included the following:  “Start early.”  “Use workshops, tutorials, staff support.” “Be patient.”    Also “think more about altering class design to make the best use of new Bb Learn functionality.”

But much advice focused on helping students learn the new system.

“Begin class by walking students through where to find the new system – I used a hand out and still had students fumbling through the old Bb interface trying to find my class.  To ensure that the entire class was familiar with the new Learn module, I assigned a number of class items for them to retrieve and upload to the new site to force them to interact early on in the semester.  By roughly 4 weeks in the class was navigating most elements fairly easily.

“Students who have not used Bb Learn will be very confused as where to find it no matter what you do, say or write. Have a practice assignment submission before a high stakes grade – many students have errors or get confused where to find things (again, no matter how many times you show them, tell them etc).”

Focus group participants also suggested that the staff create further opportunities for faculty to share their experiences and to demonstrate what they were doing with their course sites.   Other suggestions included “’tune up’” workshops where faculty could come in with their pretty complete courses  and share ideas for improving them in a collaborative environment, and other opportunities to learn and share the “creative aspects” of working with Bb Learn, and having an online space  where faculty could ask questions and share strategies: “It would be great to have a page where other faculty questions can be viewed and reviewed to see what they have encountered along the way with the new system.  Sometimes, we don’t know what we don’t know. “

In response to this latter suggestion, we’ve created Bb Learn Faculty Exchange Blog and we encourage users to post to it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: