For some of you reading this post, this isn’t your first Blackboard World rodeo. For those new to the fold, users annually get together in what I call a cross between a conference, celebration, college homecoming, and alumni event which focuses on the many ways we use, maintain, and upgrade Blackboard products. I thought over the past few days about what my expectations are for the event, what attendees need to hear from Blackboard, and some don’t miss events during the week as well.
While Blackboard World (and the Client Appreciation Party) will clearly miss Blackboard’s former CEO and co-founder Michael Chasen, attendees welcome a new leader to the event as Jay Bhatt takes the reins. I know very little about Mr. Bhatt except from what is available in his biography. (and some googling) While we have come to learn the thoughts and ideals of CTO and President of Academic Platforms, Ray Henderson, I hope and expect that Mr. Bhatt will give attendees a clear understanding of what his vision is for the company and what it means to us.
Last year’s event in New Orleans contained many announcements, most were about the increasing acceptance of industry standards and tightening integration with publishers. I would believe that this continues to be a main focus during this year’s Blackboard World. The company’s wide variety of products and services require this type of integration. We should also get a preview of what new tools, technologies, and advancements the company is making in its different product lines.
Over the past few weeks my blog posts and listserv conversations voiced major concerns regarding the quality, improvement, and issues found in new versions in the Blackboard Learn product. Blackboard, with all due respect, can sometime have a hard time being innovative while ensuring a quality product. They aren’t alone in this struggle which includes most major software companies, however I have overheard admins look at releases and state “There’s more flash than substance.” (or just banging their heads into the table saying “They – missed – the -point -again.”) I’m not sure how, but the company needs to address these issues and concerns that seem to be growing to become the “gorilla in the room” before it turns from whispers into institutions walking away.
Blackboard Mobile Learn was introduced at Blackboard World 2009 and was welcomed by many as how Blackboard would bring its flagship product to the young mobile market. Smartphones and tablets have skyrocketed over the past few years, but Blackboard Learn’s Mobile Learn app has languished. Over the past four years, the application added many new options, but it doesn’t offer the ability to leverage all the product’s tools within Blackboard Learn. The company shows little interest in improving the web experience within the product if users don’t purchase the app (and the app doesn’t seem to be working to represent the complexity and flexibility of the product). I would love to see a mobile roadmap announcement with a projection to bring full functionality with every tool within Blackboard Learn either within the app or using a mobile browser. This is a challenge worthy of the company and the millions of mobile students and increasing numbers of mobile instructors.
2. Issues that must be addressed
While these expectations address what many users expect (or hope) to hear during the conference, there are some glaring issues that the company needs to face and address for its customers. First address the current product roadmap. Some in the Blackboard community have spoken out about issues and concerns with the current service pack / release program for Blackboard Learn. Some institutions can fall six or eight service packs behind the current release between upgrades. While Blackboard recommends upgrading to the latest and greatest version of their software, institutions state the lack of quality and stability in recent releases gives them reason to stay back and accept known issues and bugs within the application. Blackboard should use the conference to announce a major listening program made up of webex, surveys, along with face-to-face meetings to discuss how the company should support and address these concerns with measurable and attainable goals that will allow them to be held accountable.
The current patch, building block, and service pack programs can be a nightmare to understand. When an issue develops within the application, it is hard to know if the issue will be resolved in a patch, building block, or service pack, and the issues could be resolved in different ways for different versions. Blackboard must create a structure that will flag each bug, allow for investigation, then notify and post how each issue will be fixed for what versions. This could be something as simple as a matrix of versions and fix options. Developing a clear picture on how each issue will be addressed helps administrators and support staff at institutions quelch the pitchforks and torches. This process should then be publicized and feedback collected for continual improvement.
As the Blackboard Learn product line moves into the modularization of its tools, administrators need to see a consistent plan for these tool building blocks. If the company plans to continue to use them, they should fall into similar patterns and expected releases like service packs and cumulative patches. When an issue is a bug and the company has no plans to fix it, Blackboard Support personnel should give this information and state that if the institution feels this issue should be patched, they can create a comment in the case supporting their view with examples, if possible. This type of information provides support and product development the input to understand how tools within Blackboard Learn are used “in the field” while showing that the company is listening.
Ray Henderson, during his annual report at Blackboard World, measures and grades the successes of the company on many aspects, however the user community has little tangible evidence to the claims. Last year the company announced major purchases to improve product quality. During the year, administrators have heard from numerous company representatives stating that product quality continues to improve. It would be a welcome addition to Ray’s report card to have measurable analytical data that will back up these facts. A good example would be a table showing the number of known bugs (externally and internally reported) in all supported versions of Blackboard Learn. This information could be collected and kept within the Behind The Blackboard, but this can show how the company is improving the quality as newer versions come out. Even sharing estimates of how much programming work is being done to fix bugs in comparison to new product development would be great. No matter what happens, the vail that many see around the product’s quality needs to be lifted for those supporting the product.
3. Things I don’t want to miss…
My Blackboard World schedule of events has already started to become packed, but there are a few things that I wouldn’t want to miss. First are the three presentations I am participating in during DevCon and Blackboard World. Our SIS programmer, Jeremy Wiebold and I will be presenting twice about how we moved from using Blackboard Snapshot to the new SIS Frameworks at the University of Missouri. I am also co-presenting with Melissa Stange and Francesca Goneconti about Blackboard’s Social Tools feature. So please feel free to come to our presentations, but don’t miss out on many of the other great presentations during both events.
I also recommend that if you have questions, issues, or just need to talk about something that is going on with the Blackboard product you use, either reach out to someone within the Blackboard community or stop and ask one of the many employees at the Blackboard booths or during events and ask them if you can schedule some one-on-one time with them during the conference. I’ve found that Blackboard welcomes constructive feedback to improve the products and services they offer and you never know if your conversation will get the issue resolved. This type of interaction along with the discussions at feedback and user experience sessions really allow us as users give constructive feedback on how the product may work in future releases.
I’m leading a Birds of the Feather session on Thursday, that are great chances to talk with people about different topics many wonder about. These conversations help each user to network and gain insight into what did work and what might go wrong which greatly helps increase the knowledge of the user community as a whole. In general, I find myself spending a large amount of time during the conference discussing issues, scheduling one-on-ones with other attendees to really learn what other institutions are doing. Sometimes these conversations can form partnerships with institutions to create building blocks or share other data. In the end, it’s a win-win.
Lastly, who would want to miss the parties. I’m looking forward to racing some of my admin cohorts during the DevCon party. Then dancing and hanging out with all the folks at the Client Appreciation Party (or as I call it, my birthday party since it’s on the 15th).
I hope to use this post to help me digest and review how Blackboard World went. During the conference, I will work to post a daily recap of each day, which (I hope) highlights the important aspects that you may have missed. Two or three weeks later, I hope to have my review posted here as well.