Friday, October 14, 2005

Converting Instructors: BlackBoard & WebCT Announce Merger

Two leading providers of e-learning software, BlackBoard and WebCT, have announced their merger in a press release. Stripping away the usual positive PR noise, this merger is a recognition that the real challenge in this space is not market share, but expanding the market and usage of their software platforms. These are two technology based companies, but adapting teaching styles and coursework has been the challenge for over twenty-five years since the PC was first introduced into the classroom. Just because a software platform is available within an institution does not mean widespread adoption by instructors; instead that comes department by department, instructor by instructor, course by course.

I use BlackBoard in teaching an online searching class at the library school at San Jose State University, and appreciate its capabilities, though like all software packages, there is a learning curve. There are online tutorials, and an effective technology support team to answer my questions, all of those elements of a well implemented system. And BlackBoard certainly simplifies the administrative aspects of student enrollment, testing, and grade posting , making the instructor's life much, much easier. However, my major challenge was adapting my teaching style and materials to the totally online distance education format. My previous teaching experience had been face to face in classrooms, in both academic and corporate environments. The step of adapting the "lecture" material into Word documents, getting rights and permissions for class materials, and structuring the format of the class online is basically the same structure as long established correspondence courses. BlackBoard is being effective in simplifying that with its new agreement with the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC).

The real challenge is figuring out effective interaction with students, getting the type of feedback I enjoyed in the actual classroom. I have found the Discussion Board aspect of BlackBoard works well for soliciting that feedback, the equivalent of "class participation". But my students have to be encouraged to use it as a way of communicating with each other, and to post questions and comments to me. So my incentive is a 20% weighting of their grade that comes from their postings--and this works for my class! There are also features I choose not to utilize, though they may work for other instructors in other courses. "Instant chat" is one of them since most of my students have jobs, so can't be online at the same time, plus my personal preference for online communication is in complete sentences, not snippets.

BlackBoard is already used on 40% of American universities, so like it or not, instructors have to deal with at least submitting grades through the software. The addition of WebCT will bring more customers. The real opportunity is to use its capabilities for more effective instruction, and that comes with developing an effective Community of Practice to model successful courses and master instructors, which is not a matter of just technology!
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