Project_ng Project NG is about bringing the best of Blackboard and WebCT together—in products and in service—and about making the experience better than ever.  As we work through multiple application packs to bring NG to life, we must consider the diversity of the features across the existing versions of Blackboard Learning System software.  In some cases, one or two versions have a feature that the others do not have.  In other cases, all of the products offer a feature, but the experience of using it and the overall set of solutions that are provided vary.  How do we bring all of this together?

One approach is to just keep everything, smash it together and cover it in a unified look and feel.  Another approach is to consider each of the similar features, pick the most loved variety and just add them to new releases under NG.  These approaches are, in a word, unappealing.  A better approach is to work with users across all product lines to discover answers to these questions:

What is working well?  What is missing?  What are the related problems?  What other ideas are out there about this feature?  And, most interestingly, what is the user trying to accomplish?

When we look at product features in this light, we get innovation.  We have already started this type of work in many areas of the product.  One result is already available to see: the Grade Center of Release 8.

A Quick Look Back: Grading in Release 8

In looking at grading, we worked with higher education instructors, K-12 teachers, instructional designers, trainers and system administrators to understand their ideal solution.  Taking this approach, we started considering the potential that a fantastic grading solution could provide.

One example of truly evaluating real-world grade book use is what was known as the "free form calculated column."  This was a highly used feature, but also quite complex.  So we analyzed the usage patterns across more than 100,000 columns (without looking at any private information, of course), to determine just what this feature was being used for.

We discovered that some combination of only four formulas were in use!  So we designed columns that targeted those four calculations so that instructors no longer had to create the formula themselves.  And, on top of that, you can combine the usage of the columns in a straight-forward way in the new Grade Center.  With a bit of analysis, we were able to provide the same solution with a simplified workflow.

This example, along with others, is how we were able to provide a next-generation grading solution that includes an improved user experience, increased instructor/grader efficiency and maximum flexibility for people who use it.  Here is what some people are saying about this innovative new offering:

"The new Grade Center is a huge step forward.  It gives instructors ownership of the grade book.  They can personalize it to determine what they want to see and how they want to see it.  The Grade Center is no longer just a place to enter grades."  –Donna Wicks, Kettering University

"Blackboard’s new Grade Center is a revolution in grade management . . . ."  –Paul Vitagliano, Centenary University

In the Works: Controls Become Simple and What’s New Comes Alive

Many clients have seen a demonstration of a conceptual mock-up of a course experience in Project NG.   The Control Panel presented in the mock-up is familiar for users of CE8 and Vista 4, but new to users of Bb Classic and CE4, and an improvement for everyone.

For this mock-up, we took a close look at how designers and instructors use the Control Panel, and reorganized the features in a highly usable way, and made them more readily available by placing them in a location similar to CE8.  User testing has proven that the controls are easy to find and more desirable in this location.

Another example of taking a concept that exists today and making it even more user-focused is What’s New.  In CE8/Vista 4, areas in the course with new content are indicated with a star icon; in Bb Classic there is a module that provides a list of content that is new in each course.  With Project NG, we aren’t just looking at new content, but about how to include an entire Instructor or Student Dashboard of notifications ranging from what’s new in my course to what homework is due tomorrow, to which tests are ready for me to grade!

Down the Road: Project NG

Clearly not every feature can be approached and reviewed with the same vigor, but for those features where we see potential, we are working with clients to not just bring them into NG, but rather to consider the capability or the overall solution that it provides in the one, two or three shapes available in our products, and then reconsider how to deliver it and how to increase the benefit of the solution for you.

Examples of other features currently receiving this kind of attention and discussion include Blogs, Grading Forms and Assignments.

Getting Involved

Note my mention above of how we are working to accomplish this—we have been working with our users! 

Working with Blackboard users is the only way we can really understand how Blackboard products and other tools involved in teaching and learning are used, and that is what enables us to move beyond parity towards innovation.  So here is my shameless plug for the BIE—the Blackboard Idea Exchange.

If you are a Blackboard user, you can help by working with us in development, responding to surveys or even finding the right people for us to user-test.  Get involved and help us innovate in a way that delivers the best solutions for you!

We may make statements regarding our product development and service offering initiatives, including the content of future product upgrades, updates or functionality in development.  While such statements represent our current intentions, they may be modified, delayed or abandoned without prior notice and there is no assurance that such offering, upgrades, updates or functionality will become available unless and until they have been made generally available to our customers.

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