Blackboard Mobile Apps – Lots of Polish, But Not Much Promise (Part 1 – Bb Student)

Last year marked the fifth anniversary of Blackboard’s step into the mobile realm with it’s purchase of TerriblyClever in 2009. Over the past five years the company has grown in the marketplace with several products. The first was a the creation of a semi-customizable mobile app for organizations using the Blackboard Mobile Central platform later renamed Mosaic. Then the company also released the Blackboard Mobile Learn app billed as the mobile equivalent to the Blackboard Learn web platform. The app received critical reviews (see the review of the Blackboard Mobile Learn app here) from faculty and students over several issues, including charging a fee for the app. Blackboard hopes to break that streak with two new mobile apps, Blackboard Grader and Blackboard Student. While both apps make improvements over their predecessors, they still fail to fulfill all the needs of a mobile app. In this blog post, let’s go over the Bb Student app.

Bb Student is the mobile application made by Blackboard Labs. Based on the information from their website, Bb Student appears to be the replacement for Mobile Learn. Here’s how the company describes the app.

Bb Student will help you react quickly to your changing course needs, while learning to plan for the future. With Bb Student, you can view quick updates to your courses and course content, access a course outline for each of your courses, view the Word, Excel, Powerpoint and .PDF content from your courses, and experience a rich aesthetic that is easy to use and simple to learn.

However based on the FAQs section on the site, it’s not clear what requirements are needed for the Bb Student app to work. Does the institution need to purchase the Mobile Learn product from Blackboard? Or does the Mobile Learn Building Block only need to be installed? The lack of clarification creates the first concern for the app’s success.

The Good Points

The new mobile app really does show improvement in the look and feel when compared to its clunky older version. This new version gets the user to three main needs for a student: Streams, Courses, and Grades. It provides rather clear navigation to each with simple back and forth movement. The app also shows thoughtfulness developers towards its use on a mobile device. The interface puts all the company’s chips in the new “Ultra” user experience (or UX). The polished interface really looks great, but that’s where things start to fall apart.

Here is a quick slideshow of the good points within the Bb Student app.

The Bad Points

The issues with the app really start when you launch it. When you open the Bb Student app, the user has to find their institution by searching for it. This is the same process as the current Mobile Learn app. I found myself asking why doesn’t this newer version use the device’s location services as an option to search for an institution? A thought that might not have been brought to developers. Once finding your institution and logging in, the app must load the information from the server which can take some time when using a busy environment and if the user has numerous courses.

Once you access the server the dependence on the “Ultra” user experience requires the students to try to figure out where content items reside when looking in a course. Accessing assignments and assessments are clunky. Sending classic users of Blackboard 9.1 into web pages with small text and a bad user experience. The same issue happens when looking at grades. Items are presented in the classic interface again leaving little improvement from Blackboard Mobile Learn. The dependency on a new product that hasn’t been put out yet and an expectation that users will quickly adopt the new look and feel really adds more pain to a student using this app.

Here is a quick slideshow of the bad points within the Bb Student app.

Bb Student Conclusion

In the end, the Bb Student app has an impressive look and feel, but lacks any substance or slick integration to the current version of Blackboard. Institutions who don’t plan to quickly move to Blackboard Learn’s new 2015 release, aka “Ultra”, will find the mobile applications more of a nuisance than a help. Even with that, the faculty and support person in me questions did the developers really look to the needs of the user. They have provided the student the ability to submit assignments and take assessments from a mobile device. In my daily email, I find issues where students can’t successfully submit assignments and tests in the web application. The app adds more complexity and additional places for failure and these issues will land in the email boxes of faculty and support staff. I gather to believe that most institutional Blackboard Support teams would turn off the app just for this reason alone. It makes me wonder if company asked instructors or support teams about the interface or their expectations as to what they want to provide users.

This application also seems to expect institutions to rapidly move to the new interface which has only been debuted and spoken about as a SaaS (Software as a Service). Which leaves many self-hosted clients out in the cold when it comes to this app. The slick new interface doesn’t make the transition to the old 9.1 interface and shows the main point about this app review. It shows a lot of polish, but also little promise based on the lack of insight from faculty, support personnel, and others who will be affected by rolling it out.
Coming up in a future post will be the review of the Bb Grader application.

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