The following is a guest post from Mark Radcliffe, Director of Professional Development at the not-for-profit company blendedschools.net. Mark has worked in various K-20 education positions for the last 10 years including working directly with students and teachers on technology integration projects. At blendedschools.net Mark manages the teacher development program including onsite and online professional development for over 10,000 teachers. Mark is currently located in Norfolk, Virginia, USA but is originally from Manchester UK. He enjoys the city and loves music and the visual arts.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in beta testing the latest release of  Blackboard Learn . This came soon after I attended the Blackboard Calendar focus group in July as well as countless road map presentations.

The phrase that sums up my beta experience with the learning management system (LMS) is “improving can be greater than adding”. I’ve been using Blackboard for almost 10 years and I’ve seen a lot of changes in that time. I can hold up my hand and say that I was one of the Blackboard Learn version 9.1 whiners. I longed for the simplicity of Blackboard Learn version 8. However as Blackboard has changed, I too have changed [my mind].

Throughout the last several releases, Blackboard has added many new features. Don’t get me wrong I love new LMS features (big shout out to gradable rubrics), but throughout these upgrades many of us have been crying out “Just make the existing tools better”.

With the newest release, Blackboard Learn has certainly hit the sweet spot of balancing new features to improvements. I work with K12 teachers who often have lots of online courses they are balancing. They might have one  class on Blackboard that is fully online and one that they use just to collect papers from face-to-face students. There’s one major theme that comes out when you ask these teachers about Blackboard. Speed. They want to be able to get into Blackboard, see what they need to do, do it, and move on.

It’s easy to talk about building communities and fostering higher orderingthinking skills, but at the end of the day, a teacher is always looking to get one main thing done: grading. If you can get grading and reviewing done as quickly and painlessly as possible then the chance of starting to delve into new areas is astronomically higher.

The new release of Blackboard Learn has several new (and by new, I mean improved) features that achieve this speed increase. These include the item analysis tool, which allows instructors to quickly and easily get a full view of students aggregated test attempts, as well as the new My Blackboard area.

The My Blackboard area is accessible from everywhere in Blackboard Learn and it’s my favorite improved feature. It’s essentially the maturing of the notification dashboards. As I started playing with the new and improved Blackboard Learn, I went immediately to look at assessment submission and grading. I was interested to see if the workflow had changed. The first time I logged in as a teacher and saw that little red “1” in the top right hand corner of the screen my interest was peaked. I found that without even making a click, Blackboard had told me that one of my students had submitted something. Within two clicks I was grading that assessment. This same speed improvement affects students and is all achieved through a very contemporary look. When a student has a new grade posted from their teacher, it looks very similar to when they  have a new IM or message on their smart phone with patent protected curved corners.

The improved features are just the tip of the  iceberg for the latest release of Blackboard Learn. There are plenty of new tools for those of you that love a new gadget to play with, but for those of you that are looking to gain precious minutes of your day back,  Blackboard Learn Service Pack 10 is sure to please.

You can see more of Blackboard Learn here

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