PSU tests Blackboard replacement

Blackboard’s days are numbered. By the end of this academic year, Portland State’s online learning management system will be replaced by the new Desire2Learn [D2L] system. 

Blackboard’s days are numbered. By the end of this academic year, Portland State’s online learning management system will be replaced by the new Desire2Learn [D2L] system.  

According to Mark Jenkins, associate vice provost of Online Learning Services, Blackboard has become an obsolete system and will be phased out term-by-term as D2L is phased in.

For fall term, the implementation team, led by Jenkins, is currently holding a “pilot program.” This consists of 60 to 70 of PSU’s partially or fully online courses being taught by faculty who volunteered to experiment with D2L and offer feedback on the system. The rest of PSU’s online courses, however, are still using Blackboard.

Come winter term, all university courses that are either partially or fully online will be taught through D2L, while in-class courses for which professors use learning management systems only as a supplementary tool—by posting assignments and syllabi, for instance—will continue to use Blackboard.

However, by spring term, PSU’s transition to D2L is expected to be complete. Blackboard, as well as Course Studio, will officially be taken offline, and all courses that require a learning management system will be hosted by D2L.

“Spring is the target term to have everybody onto the new system,” said Ellen Weeks, PSU’s project manager

for D2L.

The need to replace Blackboard with a superior system has been evident almost since PSU adopted Blackboard in spring 2008. The regularity of complaints against Blackboard’s user-unfriendliness has made the system rather unpopular among PSU faculty, student users and Office of Information Technologies staff, according to Weeks.

“Blackboard has been an increasingly unstable product,” she said. “It is pretty universally not well-received.”

Weeks said that when students log into Blackboard, whether it is to work on course assignments or to upload files, they often discover that the “system just quits” and “has to be reset by our developers here at Portland State.” Even more problematic, these sudden shutdowns have occurred while entire classrooms are taking online quizzes.

Karla Fant, senior instructor of the computer science department, said that Blackboard tends to frustrate students.

“It is difficult at times to log in; strange pop-up menus arrive at the desktop periodically, and only one window can be open, [which] is a problem when working with multiple courses in Blackboard,” Fant said. “On the other hand…Blackboard was an improvement over WebCT, which was what we were using before.”

After the institutional decision to dispose of Blackboard, the process of acquiring a learning management system that best fit PSU took nearly a whole academic year, Jenkins said.

The PSU provost delegated the major legwork to the Advisory Committee on Academic and Instructional Technology [ACAIT]. According to Jenkins, members of that committee included a variety of representatives from key university stakeholders, including the faculty, the Office of Information Technologies, Student Services, Extended Studies and the PSU Library. An external consulting group helped to manage the process.

“The process included an ACAIT evaluation of an initial round of proposals that resulted in a selection of three finalists,” Jenkins said. “At that point, open sessions were held for faculty and students, and evaluations were conducted and analyzed.” An updated version of Blackboard was a candidate in the proposal process, but it did not score well enough in the preliminary evaluations to be a finalist.

In the end, D2L emerged as the clear choice at every level of the evaluation, Jenkins said. Fant, who chose to switch her courses to D2L, said that students who were familiar with Blackboard and who participated in this summer’s “pre-pilot program” were comparatively pleased with D2L’s performance.

“Students in the pre-pilot found that it was fast and easy to use,” Fant said. This was particularly true of D2L’s course content, discussion board, grade book and assignment drop box.

“The power that D2L far exceeds [that of] Blackboard,” Fant said. “D2L has a wonderful ability to integrate objectives and outcomes into all that the student is responsible for.”

According to Weeks, “The reports that we got from other institutions that use D2L are solid. The system is easier to navigate, is more intuitive and there are more features. D2L is much more stable than Blackboard.”

Additionally, Portland Community College is currently switching to D2L at the same rate as PSU, so that students who transfer between the schools will already be experienced with the system, Weeks said.

“Like with any learning management system, it’s the small differences that either attract or annoy instructors and students,” Jenkins said. “People are going to be nostalgic for the thing they know and suspicious of the new thing that they don’t quite understand yet. But this is an important change to make, and we very much believe that it represents a significant upgrade for all campus users.” ?