A few weeks back I blogged about our software beta programs for Blackboard Learn Release 9.1, Service Pack 8. Since then we wrapped up this program and made SP8 generally available to Blackboard clients. From that blog post, I received a number of inquiries about the Beta program from clients. Instead of just giving my perspective on the program I thought having one of our clients provide their experience would be helpful to any client thinking about joining future programs. I asked David Barrett from the University of York to provide his perspective on the SP8 Beta program and he kindly agreed. Thank you David!
Time well Spent for University of York.
Guest Blog post by David Barrett, Virtual Learning Environment Application Manager, University of York
I first learned about the SP8 beta evaluation program from a colleague who attended a Blackboard Roadshow event in the UK. It was a very smooth experience, after signing up for the BIE I was all set and was promptly given joining instructions for the webinar series that accompanied the program.
There were five webinars in all, delivered by Blackboard staff involved in product management and development. The webinars were hosted in Collaborate which provided an easy way to ask questions to the presenter and to other beta program participants.
On the whole, I found the experience to be a very positive one. During each webinar there was an opportunity to review any installation problems, or issues tester institutions had uncovered. The open nature of the webinar facilitated some interesting discussions and it was beneficial to hear other people’s thoughts on new features. Having one webinar per week (either side of the Christmas break) was useful in focusing my attention on the beta program and testing features in advance of the webinar.
The most useful thing about attending the webinar series was the direct contact with Blackboard staff. I linked up with Mark O’Neil from Blackboard who presented on the new authentication framework. As a follow up to some specific questions regarding Shibboleth I was able to email Mark and access further guidance and documentation on this topic.
As part of the beta program, Blackboard provided access to a course site where participating institutions could download the service pack builds and access documentation. The site also contained a discussion forum which could be used for posting questions to Klaire’s team. The forum provided a useful way to review the questions other institutions were asking.
In order to test SP8 I put together a light-weight test plan that covered new features and University of York developed building blocks and tools. Two beta builds were released during the program and we installed both, treating the second as an installation dry run, a test which we will perform several times before installing anything in our production environment. Various issues cropped up during installation and we raised these issues with Blackboard Client Support with a special ‘sp8beta’ tag.
Our overall impression of SP8 is very positive. We are particularly pleased to see support for Shibboleth authentication and the new hierarchy for delegating tabs/module administration, as we have made significant use of the Community System. The new 2012 theme will also be a great improvement from our users’ perspective. At York we are upgrading from 9.1 SP5 and based on my experience and looking at the new features in SP8, I anticipate a relatively smooth upgrade from a user’s perspective as new features integrate well into the core product.
Getting early access to SP8 has allowed me to get a head start on building our test scripts, and in planning what new features York might want to deploy this summer. I joined the program to gather information to help with our planned upgrade to SP8 this summer – which it certainly did. It was also nice to get a sneak peek at an upcoming release. I will certainly consider joining other BIE programs in the future.
If you would like to be active in any of the Bb Learn Community Programs, such as Betas, a great way to start is by signing up for the Blackboard Idea Exchange. You can also check out our new Client Impact Report to see how clients like David impacted SP8.