Last Updated: Mar 28th, 2013 - 15:54:01
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University leadership approves new Blackboard learning management system

By Cliff Foster

MSU Denver leadership has approved the implementation of a new Blackboard learning management system (LMS), a decision that starts a timeline of training, content migration, tests and other tasks leading to a spring 2014 launch.

The final review came last week when James Lyall, chief information officer, briefed the President’s Cabinet on the decision to migrate to Blackboard Learn 9.1, capping more than eight months of studies, surveys and campus forums overseen by a Learning Management System Migration Task Force.

The new learning management system (LMS) contains many innovations, including the ability to access course content from mobile devices, integration with the e-mail system, flexibility for faculty to set start and end dates for their classes and an improved grade center.

“The faculty-driven task force, which was comprised of 16 members from across campus, believes the new system will provide vast improvements by addressing the questions and concerns raised by faculty and students through the surveys,” says Ben Zastrocky, director of the Educational Technology Center and co-chair of the task force.

The University currently uses a version of Blackboard called Vista to deliver and support online courses as well as provide tools for face-to-face classes that use e-learning functions such as assessments, discussion forums and interactive multi-media components.

“Staying with Blackboard Vista is not an option, because Blackboard will not continue development and support for Vista after 2013,” Zastrocky says. “However, to help with the transition to the new system, faculty will continue to have access to their content stored within Blackboard Vista for a year after the launch of Blackboard 9.1.”

The task force began meeting in January 2012 to weigh the pros and cons of moving to the new version of Blackboard versus going out to bid and possibly awarding a contract to another vendor. Faculty, students and others were asked in surveys and meetings about their experience with Blackboard and what features they would like to have in a new LMS.

The committee viewed demonstrations from the top three LMS vendors. “The clear preference of the committee was Blackboard 9.1,” says Virginia Cruz, director of the Master of Social Work program and a member of the LMS committee.

“I think it has a lot of added features that will make the process more intuitive,” she says. “You simply get to what you need faster.”

Committee member Lisa Altemueller, chair of elementary, linguistically diverse, K-12 and secondary education, noted that Blackboard is a known quantity. “Even though it’s a different format because it’s an upgraded version, it’s still a product we have some familiarity with,” she says. The company’s experience, its tech support and cost of the upgrade also played into the committee’s recommendation.

“They worked with us to give a fair price. That’s a huge thing for us,” she says.

The next steps are extensive. A college-wide implementation team will be formed to oversee the migration. The project “will once again be faculty-driven and student-involved to help with the migration,” Zastrocky says. The ETC staff will attend administrative training in early September and will handle the bulk of the work associated with the migration of 500 or so online courses into the new system as well as helping faculty who use the LMS in their regular classes. Several pilot tests will be conducted during 2013 with a small number of courses.

Most important, the ETC will provide a broad range of online, face-to-face and department-specific training opportunities and tutorials for faculty and students who use the LMS.

“A lot of what we heard [from faculty and students] is ‘please give us plenty of time and the training and tool sets we’re going to need to be able to make this transition,’” Zastrocky says. “Our goal is to minimize the impact as much as possible.”

But Zastrocky acknowledges the challenge ahead.

“We don’t want to candy-coat it, [by saying] ‘It’s just an upgrade over the weekend,” he says. “It’s going to be a substantial change, but the task force felt like the migration to Blackboard Learn 9.1 is definitely much more manageable than other options and provides the solution we need long term.”

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