Bye Bye Blackboard! Chapman is about to replace its familiar learning management system

 

Educational Technology offers Sandbox Events for students and teachers to try out all three potential LMS. Photo by Sydnee Valdez.

After 15 years of service at Chapman, Blackboard – the familiar online system used for grading, class content and collaboration – will likely be erased, according to Director of Educational Technology Services (ETS) Jana Remy.

“It’s time to get rid of the old slippers. Even though they’re comfortable, they’re not attractive anymore,” Remy said.  

The switchover could occur as early as this summer, though it is likely the college will keep the “old school” Blackboard system functional for a while as faculty learn to use its replacement, Remy said.

The university issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) in fall 2018, that will remain open for two more months, Remy said. The RFP lists Chapman’s needs and requirements and vendors in turn submit bids. Information Systems & Technology (IS&T) requires a minimum of three bids to ensure that the university is making the best decision, according to Remy.

The future of Blackboard was discussed at a Town Hall Meeting late February in which three Learning Management System (LMS) alternatives were discussed: Blackboard Ultra, Canvas and  Brightspace.

Approximately 42 people attended the Town Hall “Future of Blackboard” meeting. Photo by Claire Treu.

The university is changing the current system because administrators want a system that allows for more student-teacher engagement and modernity, Remy explained. Approximately 42 people, including a handful of students, attended the meeting.

An LMS is a software program that assists the organization of educational courses.

“Just like Word helps you write documents and Gmail helps you manage your emails, an LMS is a software program that helps you create, manage and deliver eLearning courses,” according to TalentLMS.

Professor of political science Fred Smoller said Blackboard has helped him to communicate more easily with his students, to become better organized and to incorporate multimedia use in the classroom.

Using an online learning system “is the single best thing that has happened to me as an instructor in my career,” Smoller said.

But, he added, it’s time for an update.

“I’ve been told I’m a ‘power user,’ which is somebody who uses it a lot. My feeling is that it’s not kept up, that it can be frustrating, has some difficulties and it’s time to move on,” he added.

Data from the 180 students and 110 faculty who completed the LMS Faculty and Student Survey shows dissatisfaction with the current Blackboard system, Remy said.

Canvas is much cleaner, more organized and easier to navigate, said junior strategic and corporate communication major Casey Corbin at the Town Hall meeting.

“I’ve always hated the Blackboard interface, so I’m really happy it might be going away,” Corbin said.

The new platform will be chosen based on the RFP results and a rubric of four factors, according to Remy. These factors include: price, important features specific to Chapman’s needs, faculty and student surveys and upper level administration input. When these factors are totaled up, a grade will be assigned to each LMS that bids. Remy hopes that this grade will be very clear in showing which platform is best.

“We are not going to go into one for three months and then back out,” she said.

A decision should be made by early summer, Remy said. If not, ETS will wait another semester and keep working on it, Remy added.

“We need to make sure we are ready for the right decision, which is why there is a little bit of fuzziness in the timeline,” she said.

IS&T is in contact with other universities such as Loyola Marymount and the University of San Diego who have gone through a similar re-evaluation of their LMS platforms, Remy said.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. In the last five years, most campuses are doing this because they also want a modern LMS experience. It’s normal within IT to evaluate whether a product is meeting our needs,” Remy said.

“While we want institutions to continue with us, we understand that a school must do its due diligence,” said Senior Director of Product Management for Blackboard Learn, Brent Mundy. “In many of these cases, the client is evaluating an older version of Blackboard Learn against the competition’s newest version. For this reason, we want to ensure that clients are using our cloud version to make sure they are experiencing our latest and greatest innovations.”

Blackboard is one of the older LMS programs, according to Helen Norris, Vice President and Chief Information Officer. Though they have been in the game since 1997, according to Mundy,  Smoller said they have done a poor job keeping up with glitches.

“I do not think we should reward Blackboard’s poor performance with another contract. Who is to say they will do a better job keeping their latest product – Blackboard Ultra – current?” Smoller said.

Remy confirmed that the university has a budget for the new LMS program, but declined to share specifics regarding price.

“It would be ample for any of the LMS options. Cost is not the main driver for the platform, it’s a factor,” she said.

When asked how much Chapman spends on Blackboard, Remy responded, “I probably can’t share that… A lot. You know, it’s expensive software.”

A university may pay a mix of per course, per use and per learner fees, along with a licensing and setup fee for a cloud-based system, according to a 2019 review from FinancesOnline.

Blackboard did not provide concrete numbers for LMS pricing. “It’s not our practice to share this information,” wrote Blackboard representative, D’Anthony White, in an email to Prowl.

While there are several factors involved in pricing an LMS, we believe the price point for Blackboard Ultra is competitive and is not the leading factor for an institution when deciding about what technology solution to best meet the needs of their students and faculty,” Mundy said.

Canvas’ basic pricing model is a one-time implementation fee and an annual subscription fee based on the institution’s total number of users, according to Canvas.

Prowl contacted Canvas and Brightspace for specific price inquiries, but did not receive responses by deadline.

When Chapman does take the leap to a new LMS program, the costs will likely be similar to what it is now, according to Remy. However, there will be a dual platform period where the university will be paying for two platforms at the same time in order to ease faculty in, Remy said.

“Starting fall semester we will have dual platforms available. We’re still going to have the current Blackboard available. We’re not just going to flip that switch in August,” Remy said.

The length of the dual platform period will depend on what LMS program is chosen and how much faculty training will be needed, Remy said.

During the meeting, some faculty expressed their desire for an easier grading feature.

“The Grade Center in Blackboard is a problem. I want to have a platform that is easier and more robust in providing written feedback on essays. It is essential to Chapman that we provide written feedback. That’s the essence of a personalized education,” Smoller said.

The new LMS will allow students to respond to teacher’s comments, upload content of their own and collaborate with other students, Remy said. She also mentioned that teachers can upload video and audio feedback.

“My students told me that they find it easier to hear directly from me instead of reading comments on the page. It’s almost as if I’m doing a little interview to talk them through everything,” said Remy, who is also a professor in the Department of History.

The number of steps needed to upload links or attach files was another problem some faculty members brought up.

“It takes 4-5 clicks to make a hyperlink. It feels like it takes forever. I’m used to Facebook where all I have to do is share a link. I’m looking forward to spending more time teaching and less on clicking,” Remy said.

With the new LMS, integration of outside tools—such as Google Drive and Turnitin—will cause less trouble, Remy said.

In upgrading or choosing a different LMS platform, faculty and staff can look forward to more mobile accessibility, according to Remy. About 30 percent of students who took the LMS Student Survey reported using the Blackboard cell phone app, Remy said.

“I downloaded the app because Blackboard is hard to access when you’re on the internet browser on your phone,” said freshman art major Sophia Montgomery.

The Blackboard Student app is praised for its easy navigation, accessibility, and modernity, according to Blackboard Inc. Once opening the app, users are greeted by an Activity Stream that priorities events and assignments according to urgency of completion. A drop-down menu on the left side of the app also organizes courses, grades and due dates into clearly labeled categories. With a tap of a finger, users can view their assignments and course progress.

However, students can’t complete online quizzes or tests, and it can be difficult to view course material, said Remy, who wants an LMS that will offer a better mobile experience.

The new LMS software will also be transferred to the Cloud, instead of relying on physical servers like the one Chapman currently has stationed in Virginia, according to Remy. That should provide more reliability and easier updates.

“When we do annual upgrades we need to bring the system down, sometimes 12-16 hours. With the Cloud we don’t need to do that,” Remy said.

When a new platform is integrated, there are workshops and ample faculty support, Remy said. Chapman has a full-time staff of instructional technologists that train faculty in the use of teaching software. Faculty have self-paced tutorials as well.

“It’s not just about ‘how do I use this system,’ but about faculty development, making us better professors,” said Dr. Ronald Steiner, Vice President of Faculty Senate and Director of Law Graduate Programs.

Steiner said that this upgrade would address “small board stuff”—such as logistical ease in things like navigation of the new LMS—but the bigger picture is collaboration in learning.

“A good LMS system will help us [to collaborate and learn]. If we get that right, it’s an investment that is going to pay off in many many, many, many ways,” Steiner said.

“Hundreds of millions of people buy things from Amazon everyday, and it works really smoothly, right? Well I hope that the new learning management software is as smooth as Amazon,” Smoller said.

To try out all three LMS platforms and contribute to the decision process, you can attend ETS’s events or take their survey.

After 15 years, Chapman and Blackboard are no longer in sync. Gif from Giphy.com.

These statistics are survey results from 180 students who had taken Chapman’s LMS Student Survey as of fall 2018. Graphic courtesy of Jana Remy.

Claire Treu and Sydnee Valdez

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