I had the pleasure of meeting Steve Kaufman of Ashland University for the first time this past July at BbWorld in Las Vegas.  It was an exciting conference with a positive vibe and many great announcements from Blackboard executives.  As I continued to communicate with Steve and get feedback from him on some of the tools and resources we are building for ANGEL clients, I asked if he’d be willing to share his thoughts with the larger community.  So, I’m happy to be able to post today Steve’s perspective on what’s happening at Blackboard.  Please share your thoughts as well!

Guest post by Steve Kaufman, Associate Director of Learning Management, Ashland University

It’s been an interesting two years since the acquisition of ANGEL Learning by Blackboard. I attended the ANGEL User Conference in Chicago where Blackboard announced the purchase and I’ll be honest, I was surprised, a bit angry and fearful for what this would mean for my institution. Like many other universities out there, we wanted to bring in a learning management system that really covered all the bases. We needed amazing assessment tools; grading options, flexibility in course design, standards and objectives tracking, course automation, and most of all, a system that was easy to use. ANGEL has all of these things, and so our logical choice was to go with them.

It is important to mention that we performed due diligence when making our decision. We looked at Blackboard, Moodle, Sakai, and ANGEL, and we compared features side-by-side. ANGEL is where we wound up. So, when I heard about Blackboard purchasing ANGEL, I thought my world was going to get much more complicated and difficult.

When Michael Chasen announced that Ray Henderson would be coming over from ANGEL to head up Blackboard Learn, I knew things were being set in motion, and I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of changes that Blackboard has implemented in just two short years. Not only do I feel that ANGEL has benefitted Blackboard from a technology standpoint, but I feel that Blackboard is a completely different company in terms of vision, direction, and corporate culture.

Last year, Ray Henderson announced that Blackboard was going to focus on four key areas: support, transparency, openness, and quality. Those are major themes for any company to tackle, and I think that they had set the bar pretty high. What I have found is that every step the company has taken in these past two years has been in the right direction to surpass our expectations in all four areas. My experience with customer support has been positive, and I appreciate my ANGEL support team through this transition. They have been prompt, helpful, and courteous with every question / ticket we have had.

Blackboard’s commitment to transparency has greatly improved; it was front and center during the BbWorld conference. We received road maps on where ANGEL was going, the types of support that would be offered, and ideas for how to transition our university to a new system.

If you were able to walk around the expo floor at BbWorld, you would have seen an amazing display of vendors all eager to develop building blocks and apps for Blackboard. The culture of openness has allowed for innovation in so many wonderful areas.  The ideas for how we could utilize many of the partnerships Blackboard has forged are very enticing.

Of course, the most important thing to my institution is quality. We deliver quality education in our classrooms, and we need the ability to offer the same quality online. It has been great to see that service packs are released with regular frequency, bugs are being fixed, and the community can decide what areas need to be addressed first. The support for ANGEL users has remained constant and unwavering, something that I appreciate sincerely as an administrator.

One of the exciting things that I heard mentioned at BbWorld was a partnership with Quality Matters (QM). My institution has been working with QM for 3 years and it is revolutionizing how we move courses online. I think that Blackboard’s commitment to strengthening not only its technology offerings, but its pedagogical support is going to greatly assist my faculty in thinking through the complexities and nuances of teaching a quality online course.

After hearing all of these things, my eyes grew large. My ideas for how we move forward with our learning management system are not a source of stress, but more a source of inspiration. I was pleased to see that Blackboard has partnered with many digital learning content providers as well. These resources will greatly benefit my faculty members as they develop and redesign their courses.

As an ANGEL user, I was also excited to hear that Blackboard has invested in a new area, Blackboard Analytics. When I saw this at BbWorld, my jaw dropped. This was one of the biggest things I could have asked for. I am constantly asked about tracking learning objectives and assessments. Faculty members, Department Chairs, Deans, and the Provost, all want to know one thing: “Are students learning?”

Blackboard Analytics will be my answer. The ability to track student progress from a college, department, course, down to each section will be huge for us. Our accrediting bodies want this data, and it has been painstaking to put it all together. It is my hope that this service will change everything.

Another great moment at BbWorld was when Kayvon Beykpour showed us how easy it was to build an App to for our institution using Bb Mobile. The speed and ease of use of this product is stellar. I can’t wait to start developing apps for my university. I think that mobile learning will overtake the traditional “sit in front of your computer screen for hours.” Learning is a constant, it’s flexible, and shouldn’t be confined to just a computer monitor.

To sum things up, all I can say is that BbWorld this year did a great job of making ANGEL users feel included and supported. I have a clear idea of what my institution needs to do to be ready, and I was able to have all of my questions and concerns addressed.

After two years, I think Blackboard has developed a game plan that brings everything together. Sir Ken Robinson said it best during his keynote, “We’re born creative and we are born imaginative. We need to invest in this. This should be the function of education.” Take the best of WebCT, ANGEL, and Blackboard; combine it with collaborative synchronous tools, an amazing mobile interface, deep analytical capabilities, helpful student support services, and surround it all with a culture of openness and innovation… that’s how you reshape education.

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