Blackboard gets committee’s recommendation

Starting this summer, students may begin using an updated version of WebCT to do their online coursework.

Starting this summer, students may begin using an updated version of WebCT to do their online coursework.

The faculty and staff Advisory Committee on Academic Information Technologies has recommended that the university use Blackboard 6, the most recent version of WebCT, starting this summer. Blackboard was a competing company before it merged with WebCT last year.

The final decision will be made in the next month or so by Provost Roy Koch, Lindsay Desrochers, the vice president of administration and finance, and Mark Gregory, the associate vice president for strategic planning, partnerships and technology, Gregory said.

Students will notice the change, according to Bart Massey, an associate professor in engineering and computer science.

“This was a real, thoughtful process,” said Gregory, “with little division of opinion.”

Gregory said that the current cost for WebCT is $40,000 per year. He said he could not disclose the upcoming costs for Blackboard because the contract is still being negotiated.

A seven-person subcommittee considered whether the school was ready to transition completely to Samla, an open-source tool that allows on-going modifications to be made by the university’s own Information Technology staff.

Choosing Blackboard, Gregory said, would ensure a smooth transition, since Blackboard 6 will look and feel familiar to users of WebCT.

Blackboard is, however, a more expensive commercial route, Gregory said. “This is the high-service, high-cost route, I’d say.”

Candyce Reynolds, director of mentor programs, said that she was the only person in the subcommittee to cast a dissenting vote-a “no” vote for Blackboard.

“We recommended a process rather than a product at this point,” Reynolds said. “I am afraid that this vote will be taken as a recommendation of Blackboard.”

Reynolds said that the subcommittee was hesitant to endorse Blackboard because the Samla experiment had not been a failure. The group recommended continuing to fund ePortfolios and devote further funding to exploring open-source options over the next three years, keeping options open.

“No one’s very happy with Blackboard,” said Massey, “but it buys us functionality in the meantime. We need to get a stopgap in place.”

Technical support for the current version of WebCT will not be available next year, so a timely decision was especially important, Gregory said.

Members of the subcommittee said that while Portland State might choose an open-source, self-administered tool in the future, endorsing Blackboard was the right thing to do with the time frame they were given.

Mark Jenkins, the director of extended studies, was the chair of the subcommittee that drafted the recommendation that the full committee considered.

“If this is going to be an OS [open-source] campus,” Jenkins said, “then that has to be part of the strategy overall.”

Gregory said that Portland State may yet become an open-source campus, and that both committees were asking questions about the university’s future that remain unanswered.

“Do we want to take the risk of being cutting-edge but have a user experience that is flaky?” Gregory said. “The path we’ve chosen is the tested one. But it costs more and won’t be super innovative.”

Pilot courses have been taught using Samla for three years, allowing students and staff to give the committee feedback about its effectiveness.

Massey, who called himself the “techie guy” of the subcommittee, said that the decision was particularly complex.

“The university has such big plans,” Massey said. “We just don’t have the resources to make them happen right now.”

Reynolds is concerned that after students and faculty have assimilated themselves into Blackboard, they will be less likely to want to try other, open-source options.

Having used Samla for the classes she teaches, Reynolds said that faculty, like herself, might be hesitant to change again once Blackboard has been implemented.

“You get used to how things work,” Reynolds said. “I know I don’t want to change.”