Back to the drawing board for Blackboard


After public demonstrations of two online learning management systems—Desire2Learn and Remote-Learner—in January, the Office of Information Technologies has elected to replace Blackboard with Desire2Learn.

The switch to Desire2Learn is not yet official. OIT is working on a contract to establish the amount of support they can expect from Desire2Learn, when to begin implementation of the product on campus and the price—OIT Chief Information Officer Sharon Blanton estimated $200,000.

 “We spent nearly a year working on this, so it was very thorough…and I think people are going to enjoy the new product,” Blanton said.

She said Desire2Learn is a Canadian company and their software is “a really stellar product…a really polished, very professional looking product.”

According to Blanton, “faculty and students overwhelmingly preferred [Desire2Learn]” at the company’s demonstration last month. Desire2Learn “seemed really intuitive.”

Blanton said that before coming to a decision on which learning management system to use at PSU, OIT conducted a survey to determine which features matter most to students and faculty.

According to Blanton, OIT used the data collected from the surveys to develop a list of over 500 specifications to look for in a new product and “Desire2Learn met the majority.”

Blanton could not provide the Vanguard with a copy of the survey used or a list of the specifications developed from them.

When asked what prompted the search for a new system, Blanton said, “We’re switching for a couple of reasons.”

According to Blanton, WebCT will no longer support the version of Blackboard PSU uses and the new version “just didn’t meet nearly as many specifications as others.”

While some faculty members and students use and appreciate learning management systems in general, others have mixed feelings about the value and ideal use of such programs.

Jared Sund, a junior majoring in computer science who transferred from Portland Community College, likes Blackboard, but has found the inconsistent use of it at PSU frustrating.

“It’s a great single location where I can find all the information pertaining to my classes. I don’t have to remember or bookmark several different sites to find information about my classes,” Sund said about Blackboard.

With a few exceptions, Sund said his classes at PSU rely on the Web sites of individual professors and, occasionally, those of their teaching assistants.

“Since all the pages are different and accessible at different locations, it takes a far greater amount of knowledge and time to understand the basic course requirements,” he said.

Asked about the new system, Sund said, “My experience is only with Blackboard, but I’m sure that the common use of any LMS would make for a better student experience at PSU.”

According to Candace Cobb, a junior in biology, most of her classes require students to use Blackboard.

“It’s cool, it’s convenient,” Cobb said.

Neither Cobb nor Sund participated in the product demonstrations in January or OIT’s survey.

Dr. Albert Spencer, professor of philosophy, uses Blackboard in all of his courses.
“[Blackboard] helps you to make group announcements if there are any modifications to the schedule or class [and helps] to increase student participation in and outside of the classroom,” Spencer said.

He began using Blackboard as a graduate student in 2002. According to Spencer, most of his students like Blackboard, which “gives them a lot of tools to succeed in the class.”

Spencer said he is “optimistic that [Desire2Learn] will have some better features than Blackboard” and that the new program will aid hybrid courses, classes with both traditional class meetings and an online component.

According to OIT, PSU may offer 1,500 distance-learning courses, such as hybrid courses, by 2015.

Dr. Thomas Fisher, an assistant professor in the English department, also commented on the use of an LMS in hybrid courses, the need for which he understands.

However, Fisher said, “I worry about what is lost in that sort of transaction.”

Fisher does not use Blackboard and, while he plans to look at Desire2Learn, he is only “minimally curious.”

“I would be interested in it as a very marginal or supplemental [tool],” he said, particularly as a “site for discussion.”

Dr. Cynthia Brown, professor of computer science, uses Blackboard in her course, which consists of approximately 300 students every term.

Brown said, “I do find that some students take advantage of the amount of material I post online to reduce their attendance at class. Personally, I think they would be much better off coming but I understand the pressures that students are under.”

Brown, a member of the committee that ultimately chose Desire2Learn, said, “I hope Desire2Learn will be more user friendly [than Blackboard] for both students and faculty…I really enjoy having an online component to my class and would not want to teach without it.”

Spencer, Brown and Fisher all appreciate the potential for an LMS to cut down on waste by allowing them to print fewer materials for their classes.

Once PSU and Desire2Learn sign a contract, full use should begin in fall term 2010, if not by summer term.

“It all depends on how fast we can write the contract,” Blanton said.


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