To many staff members, it’s just a number change. But when Blackboard was upgraded from version 8.0 to 9.1 this January, it changed the navigation and improved the speed of access for thousands of TU students and teachers who use the online learning management system. The upgrade is also enabling classes to interact on new levels both in and outside of the classroom.
In addition to reducing upload times and decreasing the number of clicks necessary to perform routine tasks, version 9.1 of Blackboard incorporates a wide variety of Web 2.0 features. Blogs, wikis, and journals are now available on all Blackboard course sites, providing new platforms for classes to discuss and debate course material, share information, and get answers to questions outside of the classroom. According to Director of Information Technology Support Centers Matt Wynd, faculty members have requested the features in version 9.1 for years.
“Faculty have over the past five years found useful ways to add blogs, wikis and other Web 2.0 features in their courses,” Matt said. Some faculty have found these tools to increase interactive participation in their courses’ content. Blackboard has recognized this trend and provided these and other Web 2.0 functionalities in the 9.1 version of Blackboard Learn.”
Matt worked with Senior Blackboard Administrator Patricia Halstead and a team of nearly 10 OTS and Blackboard engineers to complete the upgrade over the recent winter break. The switch to 9.1 marks the largest upgrade to Towson’s learning management system in 3 years, and implementing it required nearly a year of planning and testing on behalf of the team. The process started last spring when Patricia convened a workgroup of faculty members from across campus to assess the university’s current learning management system needs. The workgroup met regularly to evaluate the products and features in the LMS product space and provide recommendations on which features best met the teaching and learning needs of campus. One of the recommendations was to upgrade the TU Blackboard environment to the newest version. Patricia says this resulted in a more inclusive upgrade process than ever before.
“It was a very collaborative process with the workgroup,” Patricia said. “We even developed a dedicated upgrade website to keep the faculty and students aware of the process and sent out updates on how the process was going.”
As part of the upgrade process, this fall OTS launched a Blackboard 9.1 development environment that mirrored the upgraded system. Members of the faculty work group were given access to a preview environment and encouraged to work in it and share feedback on any problems or glitches they encountered. The environment was tested and improved throughout the fall until the work group was confident that all significant issues were resolved. During implementation, the development environment went live, replacing version 9.1. As a result of the extensive testing of the environment, the switch between versions went relatively smoothly.
“In the past, once the upgrade was underway the environment was unavailable for up to a week,” Matt said. “We would launch the new version with fingers crossed and iron out any problems from there. Now because of a new virtual hosting environment behind Blackboard, we were able to create a duplicate environment and resolve those initial problems in the development stage. This resulted in a much smaller window when faculty didn’t have access to their course sites.”
Having the option to upgrade by creating a new installation of Blackboard allowed OTS to maintain access to version 8 of Blackboard for minimester courses that were underway during the transition. This provided a continuity of instruction that wasn’t possible during past upgrades.
“Blackboard has become a critical resource for many courses at TU. Growing the environment to allow for ongoing teaching during an upgrade and increasing up-time within the system through infrastructure choices were high-level goals of the project,” Matt said.
Despite a successful upgrade, the team’s work is still not done. Now, Patricia and her colleagues are in the process of developing specialized training components to help faculty adapt to the new system. These components will add to the wealth of materials—ranging from demonstrations to movie tutorials to self-help documents—already available on OTS’s website.