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06/21/2015 - Terry Patterson

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.

Terry Patterson Terry Patterson (29 Posts)

Terry has over 10+ years of experience as a Blackboard Learn administrator. In 2013, he authored the first book on Blackboard Learn Administration published by Packt Publishing. He has also been given a Catalyst Award from Blackboard and named a Blackboard MVP for his work within the Blackboard community.

Blackboard Mobile / Chalk It Up To Experience / Guru Advice / In My Humble Opinion... / Products / Reviews


  • Guy Wilson says:

    Terry, I think your conclusions about Bb Student point to some larger issues that need addressing, not just by Blackboard, but by all LMS vendors (and all of the other major publishers and edtech vendors as well). Twenty years ago, when web pages, MUDs, and MOOs were the rage and delivery platforms were the delivery platforms, we spent little time worrying about the sorts of issues we have today. We had free-form platforms that placed few constraints on teaching and learning, other than ones of imagination or the need for a coder to implement ideas instructors had. Even when I began to look at LMS’s seventeen years ago, and our campus adopted WebCT, there seemed little baked into the software that forced a particular way of teaching that seemed much different from methods most faculty had been using. The software at that time, and for several years after seemed to be an extension of the classroom.

    That has changed. When someone looks at an app like Bb Student today, they have to look at it far differently than we would have back then. We have to inquire, as you do, what the company behind the app is doing and why they are doing it. It may be, as you suggest, that they are trying to force institutions to upgrade quickly to their new interface and to abandon self-hosting. That seems innocuous at first glance, self-serving but innocuous, but it is more troubling when we take a second look. I am not accusing Bb of something dark and devious here, though that is not an assumption we should always make with edtech companies, but the way they are approaching their software and customers has implications.

    The simpler issue is the move away from self-hosting. Clearly that is the direction that Bb and its competitors have been moving for some time, so what you observe about using Ultra and the Student app to move campuses in that direction is hardly surprising. What happens when we do? We know that we will lose some of the independence we now possess with regard to configuring, maintaining, and monitoring Bb. That much is obvious. What changes down the road will be imposed on us? Will we find changes imposed on us by the company with little or no notice with tools appearing or disappearing in a matter of weeks? That has not been the practice of the company in the past, but we they struggle to keep up with competitors, we might wake up one morning to find that this is our new reality. Given the complexity of the software, I am afraid SaaS-hosting is going to become inevitable for all institutions, but the vendors have to be absolutely transparent about their agendas and directions regarding if they are to be trusted at all.

    That brings us to the second part of your critique of Student – Ultra. The current Bb interface is clunky and some would say old fashioned. Having spent a fair amount of time this past year with the interfaces of the company’s chief competitors, I cannot say that it is more inconsistent or opaque than theirs. As to being old fashioned, I will not deny that, but would argue that it allows teachers a much higher degree of freedom in structuring their classes than more contemporary ones. It also lacks the aggressive ugliness of some of the more “contemporary” ones.

    Ultra is not a bad looking interface, but it makes a different series of assumptions about how an instructor should organize a class and how students will (and wish to) interact with the software. It seems to me that we are moving farther away from the experience of the classroom and more into the realm of the efficiency expert. As with a lot of the adaptive learning technologies we see from content vendors, or automated essay grading that is appearing, students and faculty are being forced into a particular way of doing things, a particular workflow, that may be alien and disruptive to the ways they teach and learn and which may have cognitive and other implications we have yet to discover. Even more so than with the question of SaaS hosting, we need to ask what the company is up to, what its public and its hidden agendas might be, and what its vision of the future implies.

    Even assuming that the agenda and vision of Bb is in full accord with the agenda and vision of every campus, we need to consider the software itself, be it the interface or the deepest, most hidden levels of the system. A few years ago, Kevin Kelly wrote a book with the title, What Technology Wants. He approached technology as if it were another kind of life that evolves with its own directions and its own agendas. It is not a bad heuristic when trying to understand complex software and its implications. A lot of unintended consequences can arise in something like Bb. Some of them are bugs, some of them allow us to do things in new and creative ways, but some of them restrict us from doing things we need to do, or limit us in how we do them. Technology forces us to do things in certain ways and it moulds us, shaping our behaviors and our cognitive abilities. From Kelly’s point of view, it lives in a symbiotic relationship with us, co-evolving.

    A couple of decades ago, Sandy Stone wrote The War of Technology and Desire at the End of the Machine Age, a series of essays that serve as a meditation on how technology and identity. Our technologies shape our actions and who we are (and may become). The needs of the companies that design and produce them also affect our identities, profiling us to fit their business plans (Google and Facebook are the most obvious). If we allow ourselves to be forced into a particular kind of human-computer interaction, one more restrictive than we have previously been used to, what does that do to us? When that interaction is about something as fundamental as how we learn and how we teach, what does that do to us? How does it change us?

    I do not think something like Student is going to transform who we are or what we are all by itself, but we need to be more vigilant and aware of the little changes that software creates in us, and in the ways companies design it to meet their own needs. We think we do this already, but too often we end up entranced by the shiny new interface or shrugging our shoulders and saying, “privacy is dead anyway.”

    Your blog post coincided with my reading of the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si’. It is not the sort of thing I would normally read, but given the political reaction to it, and the bits and the comments on technology that I had seen quoted, I decided to read it al the way through. I was struck by the following:

    “We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.” (Francis, Laudato Si’, para. 107)

    It may seem pretentious to drag this into a discussion of Bb Student, but I suggest that it is pertinent to larger discussions we should be having about edtech, the companies that produce it, how it affects the institutions that employ us, and about the students and instructors who rely on us and trust our judgments.

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