Blackboard Learn: Built For You, By You


What may have been the worst kept secret at Blackboard is finally out. Today, we launched Blackboard Learn™ 9.1 Service Pack 10, which continues the evolution of our learning environment. Between our teaser video, Sneak Peak Webinars and my now famous “between SP9 and SP11” line at BbWorld12, we have communicated key themes and a vision for how the LMS is evolving.

Many of you have seen my Report Card at BbWorld and know that I’ve made a push to focus on the fundamentals since my first day as a member of Blackboard’s leadership team. This year at BbWorld, I introduced Innovation as the fifth fundamental to go along with client support, transparency, openness and quality. And what we are doing at Blackboard in terms of user experience is nothing short of innovative. We’ve designed new features that have made Blackboard more user-friendly, more focused on your needs and more modern -like the online experiences you’re used to outside of education.

The user interface and experience ultimately fosters more student engagement and helps educators become more efficient.  Consider what Mark Radcliffe of wrote in his guest blog post:

“My Blackboard is my favorite SP10 feature. The first time I logged into SP10 as a teacher and saw that little red “1” in the top right hand corner of the screen, my interest was piqued. I found that without even making a click, Bb 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.”

Those of you who have followed me on this blog and on Twitter know my passion for design and improving the user experience. It’s for this reason that I elevated Stephanie Weeks to the position of Vice President for User Experience this summer, reporting directly to me. A self-described design-perfectionist who finds inspiration where others don’t, Stephanie was critical to building this release.

I’ve asked her to give you a behind the scenes look at how and why we designed SP10 the way we did, and what the early feedback has been.

From Stephanie Weeks, Vice President of User Experience:

My obsession with the user experience in Blackboard Learn is nearly a decade old. In my time at Blackboard I’ve witnessed the transformation made by turning the concept of “user research” from an interesting idea to a fundamental element of the product strategy. I’m frequently asked how it is that we understand what users want or need in the software experience, and my answer is simple: we watch them. What you’ll see in Service Pack 10 is a reaction to years of understanding how millions of educators and learners get through their day. We spend time with our users – not just asking them what they want, but observing how they do things, what tools they use, what processes they create, what habits they form – so that we can envision a simple solution for them.

When designing solutions, one would be a fool not to consider the most popular experiences being used today – Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and the like. Jakob Nielsen insists upon it.

But that doesn’t mean that teachers and students want Blackboard to BE those other applications. It means we must understand what is relevant to the experience, and incorporate it appropriately and meaningfully for Blackboard Learn users.

The leading element of this release is a new, simple experience that restructures your teaching and learning information and activities to work for you; it’s called My Blackboard. My Blackboard is also the foundation for the new social elements being introduced this year throughout Learn. When we began discussions both internally and with customers about what this could be forstudents, the most common reference was to Facebook: “student expect Facebook,” “just make it like Facebook,” etc. But the reality is that Facebook serves a different purpose than what a teaching and learning system serves. We learned some great information by observing how people use Facebook, but we had to merge that with the habits, expectations and needs of students when they are faced with the demands of succeeding in their academic careers. This meant hundreds of research activities from focus groups to interviews to surveys to usability tests, and it meant being willing to iterate… a lot.

Our walls are plastered with ideas, and we had more designers involved in this project than any prior (even our CEO couldn’t help but be interested). We’ve obsessed about how to display the information and how the pages should feel. We’ve learned from the popular web experiences that people love and we’ve neither been afraid to reuse them nor afraid to deviate where it works well. Let me walk through just a few examples of how we designed a solution specifically for you.

One challenge students have is staying up to date with all of the information flying through multiple courses they are taking at once. Not only do they need to learn the concepts, but they have learn the behaviors of each of their instructors – where they post materials, how much online activity is expected, and more. Our challenge was clear: give students a “one stop shop” to help them stay in the know, but do so in a way that is organized for easy use, rather than information overload. And that’s what led us to the separation of the Posts and Updates pages in My Blackboard.

The Posts page aggregates the conversations across discussion boards, blogs, journals, and wikis across all of your courses.

The Updates page is different; this is a place where you can really see a difference between something like a Twitter feed or a News Feed on Facebook, and Blackboard. In Blackboard, there are certain updates to your course that a student absolutely cannot miss, so they stay on the page until you dismiss them, and they aren’t muddled with other information.

The most commonly mentioned piece of information needed by students from Blackboard is… you guessed it, grades! The Grades page in My Blackboard got a lot of love. Students can see their grades coming in from all of their courses, one by one or can see the summary for each course.

We know that students invest time in building the right relationships to help them succeed. There is an invisible network of relationships built right into Blackboard – now exposed and useful. Creating a profile gives students a way to really present themselves, and the People tool in My Blackboard shows the connections that already exist – who is at your school? In your class? Now you can jump start those relationships to help you succeed.

All of this and more is only one click away. This focus on accessing the right information easily led to a change in the global navigation so that everyone knows that information is ready for them to review, and it’s all only a click away. It’s right up there by the logout button (sort of cute, isn’t it?). Go ahead, explore My Blackboard  or just hit Ctrl-Alt-M anytime, and experience the new, simply better Blackboard Learn.