I've used Blackboard at several institutions and never been overly excited about it. I've developed and taught in a Blackboard environment I don't know how many times, but I always got the impression that it was designed by IT folks instead of educators. That being said, there are some new things that Blackboard has come out with that have impressed me so far. Here are three things that I've liked.
During the first part of this year, one of the institutions I worked at upgraded to a newer version of Blackboard Learn. It was a nice change - both aesthetically and practically. There were some great new features, including a redesign of how discussion boards are done, a persistent profile so that communication can now include a picture of the person (and a link to contact info, which is optional for the user), and new collaboration features, which allows for improved grouping of students and web-based projects that students can work on together and the professor can track who is doing what. Along with those, we had several new apps added. These are third party add-ons to Blackboard. The main one I'd like to mention is the Civitas Student Engagement App. This app allows you to see a visual representation of all of your students. They are color-coded based on the participation in the class. If they log-in multiple days, participate in online discussions, etc. they are ranked higher. While there is no grade attached to one's participation score, it does allow the professor to see if someone is not logging in or perhaps having issues that are preventing them from completing coursework. The professor can then contact the students using the app. There are many factors that you can select from to target specific groups of students. All in all, it has been surprisingly helpful.
Blackboard Learn is the main product put out by the company. When most people talk about Blackboard, that is what they're referencing - the online course system. However, Blackboard has several other products. One that I'm excited about is Blackboard Collaborate. Perhaps you've used WebEx or Adobe Connect as an online collaboration tool or perhaps to stream a lecture or communicate with multiple students at once. Well, Collaborate is Blackboard's entry into this market and has some features that make it attractive. For one, Collaborate has a nice set of features. It can do web conferencing, recording of lectures for later playback, instant messaging (which I don't myself ever using), screen sharing capabilities, and a design that allows mobile devices to be fully utilized. Check out Blackboard's Collaborate website for a demo.
Free MOOC Creator
I was at a demo recently of Blackboard's new MOOC creator. It is called Course Sites and allows the creation and implementation of open enrollment courses. If your institution has Blackboard Learn, it can create several free courses without having to buy the full product. From my understanding, anyone can create up to five courses free and run them through Course Sites too, which I'm sure will be appealing for those that would like to tinker in this arena. If you're interested at all in using or creating open courses, definitely give Course Sites a try.
Mark Stevens is a former seminary student himself and currently researches and teaches in the area of theological studies.