This is the first in a series of posts drawn from a conversation with K-12 administrators that took part in the Beta program for Blackboard Learn, Release 9.1.(See the Higher Ed conversation here). Over the next few weeks, they’ll share their impressions of Release 9.1, their ideas for how it can enhance teaching and learning within their districts, and where they think online learning is headed.
Roundtable participants include:
Robert Leo, Model Schools Coordinator at Onondaga-Cortland-Madison Counties Board of Cooperative Educational Services (OCM BOCES) in Syracuse, NY, a Blackboard client since 2000,currently on Release 8.
Pam Willingham, Teacher on Assignment at Management Information Services in Volusia County Schools, Florida, a Blackboard client since 2005, currently on Release 9.
Blackboard Blogs: How many students/teachers are enrolled in your school district?
Jed: BlendedSchools.Net is a consortium that serves 162 school districts. Within our network, there are 75,000 students taking online courses and there are a wide variety of implementations and adoptions of Blackboard, including offering online courses for advanced placement, alternative education, credit recovery, summer school, homebound students, and students that travel, as well as blended and hybrid environments. We also serve about 13,000 teachers and are currently training about 3,000 new teachers a year on how to use the technology and how to be online teachers.
Pam: We're a public K-12 school district with about 77 schools and a student population of 65,000. We provide applications training for the district and we just recently rolled out Blackboard Learn for Community Engagement across all 150 district and school websites. We have many teacher user groups that are using Blackboard to collaborate.
Rob: We provide professional development for districts that are affiliated with our BOCES. So we have a cooperative service where we serve 23 schools and provide professional development, as it relates to instructional technology. We have about 25 districts that are affiliated with our Blackboard service from all over New York State.
Bb blogs: What are some of your first impressions of Release 9.1 since you’ve joined the Beta program?
Jed: Well, I’ve been part of the Blackboard product advisory teams for many years, so I’ve seen a lot. Some of my first impressions of 9.1 were, “Wow, Blackboard’s finally starting to listen to us;” some of the tools are designed for the K-12 teacher – grading from the wiki, journals and blogs – teachers needed those tools to make it functional. Another thing that I like, but might take time to adopt are the instructional design templates which will ease some of the stress and anxiety involved in the online course preparation since only a small percent of high school teachers in the United States have actually taught an online course or feel prepared to teach an online course.
Pam: I am very pleased that the Beta of 9.1 seems quite stable and that there are some features that are working better now than they did before. So we're really happy about that.
Rob: It's still Blackboard, it's still you know content, tools and communications, but it's just easier to use. I think one of the great things you’ve done is eliminate the control panel allowing you to do a lot more from the main interface. I love how you can just add a button by clicking and typing in the name of the button you want, and I love how you can move stuff around with drag and drop. But I think the most significant feature that our teachers are going to be impressed with is the new file management area, where you can just drag and drop folders worth of files into your Blackboard course. One of the complaints we’ve heard is that there’s too much clicking and I think a lot of that has gone away.
Jed: And one more thing, I think that social network integration is going to make the learning environment richer and more inviting for the students. I also think the Wikis will be the glamour float in the parade. It will be great for teachers to be able to grade wikis in a meaningful and usable way. So I’m excited for 9.1.
Bb blogs: Pam, you mentioned stability – how do you define that?
Pam: When we talk about stability, we mean the web apps being up and running. But beyond that, it has to be consistent – we have to know what the platform is going to do every time. If we type in text we have to know that the next time we type it in, it’s going to react the same way, so, consistency and reliability; maybe those words are just important as stability.
Bb blogs: And what are your plans for migration?
Jed: The weekend of June 19 and 20, our production servers will be upgraded to Release 9.1
Rob: We have a general plan – hoping for early July.
Pam: We also have a general plan – it will be sometime in the summer if all of the results of the testing go well.
Bb blogs: How do you see students responding to some of the new tools and features in Release 9.1 once it is live at your schools?
Rob: I think that the kids are already there. I think it’s time that the teachers engage the kids where they already are. Some of the comments I’ve gotten from the teachers I’m working right now are, “You know, I’m kind of hoping my Blackboard becomes my students new Facebook page, so they set Blackboard as their homepage and go there before going anywhere else.”
Pam: We already have great participation in the discussion boards, but I believe the same thing will happen with the Wikis. I’ve had a lot of teachers request them, so I know that they’re going to be excited about using them. And, anything that makes learning more interactive for the students is going to be better.
Q: How do you think the recent launch of Blackboard Mobile Learn will impact student engagement, now that students will have access to their Blackboard wherever they go? Editor’s Note: See press release for details on Mobile Learn; availability for K12 to be announced in June.
Pam: Right now, we’re writing a grant for some EETT (Enhancing Education Through Technology) funding. And part of the grant is the use of student-owned mobile devices in the classroom and outside of the classroom. So having a product like Blackboard available to students on their own mobile devices is really going to just help the appeal of it for our kids. And, in Florida, it’s a state law that students be allowed to carry their cell phones on campus so since we have tons of cell phones on campus and other devices too, we're really trying to make use of them because they're there.
Rob: Very useful; I mean, the kids are mobile and if you have access to your files and all that other stuff, I think it's going to be one more bonus feature.
Bb blogs: So what would you tell other schools who are considering upgrading to 9.1?
Jed: Today’s students are knowledge seekers, and information seekers, and users of social networking technology. And in order for those kids to be successful in our global economy, and in order for them to be global citizens, they need to learn how to use social networking tools and globalization tools. Blackboard 9.1 is the closest available to providing that functionality in a learning management system today. So use the best technology if you want to have the brightest students when they graduate.
There’s no learning management system that does everything in your dreams, and if you’re looking for the perfect system, you can’t find one. But, you can find one that has hundreds of great Building Blocks that can make it closer to your dreams. And, you know, that’s independent justification for licensing Blackboard.
Pam: Learning managements systems are the future. When looking into an LMS, you need one that’s fully functional – one that is constantly being improved, like Blackboard’s new release.