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Blackboard Learn 9.1 'Ocho' Update Gets Workflow Optimizations, New Looks

Blackboard has gone into general release with a new service pack for Blackboard Learn version 9.1. Service pack 8, or "Ocho," as it's nicknamed by the company, delivers changes to the user interface of the learning management system, as well as updates to workflow functionality, intended to help instructors and administrators use the application more efficiently and effectively.

In an online meeting with members of the media last week, Blackboard Learn President and CTO Ray Henderson explained that SP8 "will significantly improve the client experience we're delivering," without a major version upgrade.

But more importantly, he said, "It's time to adjust the balances. After paying some dues, it's time to address some of the other areas in the market. The tone we're sounding as we kick off 2012 is one that's much more about innovation." In spite of the fact that it's just a service pack, Henderson seemed to imply, this release doesn't simply look in the rearview mirror at newer competitors for its feature set.

Henderson said that 600 institutions have contributed to the development of SP8, one of four service packs the company promises to deliver this year. Blackboard said that 30 colleges and universities are running "extensive" beta programs with "live users." Ten of those clients have gone into production with SP8.

Many New Looks
According to Director of Product Management Brad Koch, "This new UI hasn't drastically changed things; it's made existing things easier to use."

    New looks in Blackboard Learn 9.1 SP8
  New looks in Blackboard Learn 9.1 SP8
New looks in Blackboard Learn 9.1 SP8


A "course welcome wizard" pops up to help instructors work through the "on-boarding" process of getting new courses added to the program.

The first step is to choose a course structure, which can be by type of course or type of LMS. For example, the user can choose Blackboard Classic, Blackboard Learn Default, or even Angel to retain the appearance he or she is accustomed to working in. The wizard provides multiple structures for learning activities, each based on a different pedagogical and content model, such as "experiential learning," "lab format," or "case study." The user can click on each to learn a little about the type of structure and to see an example of what the structure would look like in a course. A small checkbox at the bottom of the page, when selected, allows the structure to be pre-populated with sample content items from Blackboard to show the faculty member why that structure would be used and how to set it up.

   A course structure can be by type of course or type of LMS.
A course structure can be by type of course or type of LMS.


Next, the wizard allows the instructor to choose from 50 pre-built course themes. "There's an extra layer of obsession going on here," Koch noted. "As I change themes in the course, somewhere on this page HTML links will change color too. You don't have to go back and hand-code the desired link color. We've taken care of that for you."

The final component of the wizard shows options for help from both the company and the institution.

The application now consistently displays actions being taken by the system, confirmations, and error messages in the same place on the screen.

Workflow Efficiencies
In the area of workflow, SP8 retains context. Koch gave the example of an instructor grading assignments. The program will remain in the grading center as the teacher moves from course to course. "This context will work between courses for any page or element that's common to both--enrollment screen, user screen, management, or the main parts of site," Koch said.

The new service pack also includes enhanced links to standards, whether those are for K-12 state standards or higher ed-based desired learning outcomes. Koch demonstrated how an instructor or administrator can pick a standard to measure again, specify a target performance level, and then run a report showing how many students are performing against the aligned standards. The user can drill down in the report to obtain a greater level of detail and identify which students are having trouble with the objective.

Once a learning gap is identified, Koch said, the instructor can go back to the course material and add extra work into the workflow for those specific students. He demonstrated a Blackboard search feature that lets the user search for relevant materials by standard in the areas maintained by the instructor, the department, or the institution.

   New enhancements have been made to learning outcomes management in SP8.
New enhancements have been made to learning outcomes management in SP8.


The search capability works with Blackboard Drive, a desktop application that allows for direct editing of files in Blackboard Learn Content Collection located on a network drive. That allows the instructor to edit course materials locally and have those changes reflected anywhere those materials are being used.

   Discoving learning objects
Discoving learning objects


Integration with other Blackboard programs shows up in others ways too. Teachers can embed a welcome audio to their students using a Wimba voice authoring tool that's now part of the HTML editor. Or they can communicate with students en masse using functionality from the Blackboard Connect product line. A message can be sent out via e-mail, SMS, or phone with text-to-voice conversion to everybody enrolled in a course.

   New notifications in 9.1 SP8
New notifications in 9.1 SP8


In the area of system integration, Blackboard is pushing for features that will enable "a significant percentage" of its client base to be able to create, manage, and maintain student information system integrations "without incurring the expense of getting a consulting engagement to get that work done," Koch said.

Among the updates, the ability to set up an integration in test mode. That allows the user to test the exchange of data between systems and have log files updated, but without any impact on the data in either programs. "As an administrator you can test and refine your integration points without impacting the system in any kind of dangerous way," Koch explained. Other updates, such as field mapping enhancements, "get our administrators out of having to do things at a command line prompt level and really meet the needs of their institutions."

   Integration in test mode allows the user to test the exchange of data between systems and have log files updated.
Integration in test mode allows the user to test the exchange of data between systems and have log files updated.


Openness and Standards
Blackboard also emphasized its adherence to openness and open standards. "Blackboard is the only major LMS certified for Common Cartridge export," Koch said. "Potentially, that makes it easier to leave us and head to a competitor. We believe that content belongs to the institution, not to us, and it should be as portable and as easily portable as possible."

Common Cartridge is a standard being developed by the IMS Global Learning Consortium to enable institutional users to compile learning objects and digital resources from multiple vendors and other sources and use them in their courses.

Blackboard representatives noted that the refinements in the latest service pack haven't come at the expense of accessibility. "We're still National Federation of Blind Gold Certified. All of this polish on look and feel has done nothing to change that," said Koch.

The company said that it was encouraging clients to sign up for "cohort" programs. Those include one specifically for clients already on Learn version 9.1 that can join a service pack-specific cohort and another for clients upgrading from an earlier release of Learn. "That's a great way for them to connect with peers going through the same process as them," said Julie Kelleher, a director of product marketing for Blackboard.

Blackboard also said that CourseSites, its free cloud-based learning management solution for instructors, will be updated to include features from Release 9.1, Service Pack 8 later this month.

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