This review is by Guy Wilson, Educational Technology Specialist at the University of Missouri. Many thanks for his work on reviewing this application. – Terry
Like many apps, the newest version of Blackboard Mobile Learn (BBML) is a mix. In this case with one well done new feature (integration), bug fixes, and some disappointing omissions. The most noticeable (and infamous) difference, though, is not a software feature, but the change in its financing model.
Previous to version 3.1, Blackboard had partially financed the app through an agreement with Sprint. While this kept the app free to end users, it placed limitations on Blackboard Mobile Learn’s connectivity options. Earlier Android versions could only connect through the 3G data plan if they were Sprint subscribers, while iOS devices could only connect through WiFi. (The agreement predated the Sprint-Apple iPhone deal.) This had always been an Achilles heel, limiting Android use to a fraction of iOS use on our campus.
The new BBML 3.1 no longer has ties to any carrier. Users can access it over WiFi or any cell network, so long as they are on Android or iOS. The trade-off is that they now have to make an in-app purchase before using the app ($1.99 for one year or $5.99 for “unlimited” access). Complaints have been numerous, some of them bitter, and not without foundation. Blackboard might have gained a better reputation by pursuing a freemium model, allowing users to unlock advanced features with in-app payments, while using the basic functionality.
The best feature of 3.1, and one that probably makes the price worthwhile for faculty on the go, is Dropbox integration. Blackboard has executed this almost flawlessly. Assuming that Dropbox is already set up on the device, users only have to click the settings icon, choose Link Dropbox, and grant the app permission to access the user’s Dropbox account. Once setup, using Dropbox is straightforward, in those tools that can make attachments, one need only click the Attachments button. Three icons, one for the camera, one for Photos, and one for Dropbox appear on iOS. On Android, the choices are Dropbox, Local File System, and Other (which allows opening files from various apps and online sources). Click Dropbox, and a file browser opens, choose one or more files, and then click Add.
Instructors can use this feature to create items and add attachments, which has been a major problem for iPad and iPhone faculty for some time. Students and faculty can also use this feature to add attachments to discussion, blog, and journal postings. (Why this was not extended to wikis, assignments, and SafeAssignments is a perplexing mystery.) Anywhere attachments appear, users can save them to their Dropbox accounts.
As good as this feature is, comparison between the iOS version and the Android version reveals a major conceptual problem in the app. Basically, this is a feature that would have made sense in iOS in 2010, but not in late 2012. Most iOS apps that can open and close files can now exchange files with other apps. Consider this scenario. A student creates a long attachment in a productivity app that needs to be uploaded to a blog post. To get it into Blackboard without resorting to a desktop or laptop, she has to first send it Dropbox, then use the attachment procedure described above in BBML. If BBML could exchange files with other apps, she could use an iOS “Open In” command to send it to BBML, which could store it in a cache until it is wanted. This approach has been implemented in other apps (e.g., iThoughts HD) and would be a welcome improvement. Until something along these lines is implemented in the iOS version, Android users have a real advantage.
Another surprising omission in some ways, reflecting the app’s student orientation and missing advanced functionality for instructors, is the lack of access to Blackboard’s file system and content collections. Instructors who need access to the files have to use a browser. If they want to upload or download content on an iOS device, they are limited to using WebDAV, which requires a separate app, like GoodReader or one of Apple’s iWorks apps. (This is also the only way to upload a document larger than 10MB to Blackboard on iOS.)
While Dropbox integration is a welcome addition to the BBML app, it does little to improve the functionality needed by students and instructors alike. The past two years since the app’s introduction have seen some stylized changes and the addition of a mobile test creation tool, leaving many of the major tools with Blackboard Learn unintegrated. A great example for students would be the lack of an option to submit an assignment. While integration between tools like Dropbox might put developers closer to making this option a reality. Students already utilize iPads and Android devices to create and edit assignments. Instructors lack the ability to access the Grade Center using the BBML, an issue that our institution would like to see resolved soon. Too many features are missing from the app, and too many employ the standard Blackboard interface without modification.
Blackboard needs to focus on making its web interface mobile friendly, by applying responsive design elements to its flagship product. At this time, instructors and students who want or need to use Blackboard on a mobile device must use a mixture of apps and a web browser to get access to the product’s major features, while some tools remain inaccessible. There are curious inconsistencies in the web interface. For instance, an instructor using Mobile Safari can edit SafeAssignments, but not regular Assignments.
Worse, the number of apps needed to use Blackboard is increasing. Over the summer, Blackboard released a new app to allow students to access Blackboard Collaborate sessions. Why couldn’t this have been integrated into the main Blackboard Mobile Learn app? At this point, to access class materials in Blackboard or integrated into Blackboard, a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia would theoretically need:
- Blackboard Mobile Learn
- A web browser
- The Blackboard Collaborate app – not yet available on Android
- The Tegrity app
- The Dropbox app
While Blackboard develops improvements and changes to their Mobile Learn application, there is little communication to institutions about where BBML will be and what it will look like in the coming two, three, or five years. Most of the communication about the app from the company in the past has solely focused on marketing and trying to sell institutional licenses to customers. Blackboard needs to develop and publicize a plan which gives customers a roadmap on how it will integrate the web application into the app over the coming years. That lack of forethought might be hurting adopting and institutional purchases of BBML.
In the end, those student and instructor users who want to keep up-to-date on the activity in their courses and can afford the cost of the app will find it worthwhile. Those who hope that Mobile Learn will be a replacement to using Blackboard on a web browser will be disappointed. The product has found some use, but it’s lack of integration with its own tools and file structures make many in higher education wonder where the company plans to take the mobile app.