Blackboard 5.5: The Platform Adds Planks

With more than a thousand higher education clients, Blackboard is one of the largest players in the campus software platform market. The company's latest release, version 5.5, signifies enhancement of several of Blackboard's core features as well as new developments in integration, customization, and compatibility with other vendors.

Blackboard sells an ascending product line, each offering more features than the previous model. Blackboard.com is a free product running version 2 of its course management software. This basic tool is most appropriate for instructors wanting to try Blackboard on an individual, rather than campus-wide, basis. Blackboard's for-sale products include Levels One, Two, and Three. Level One is a more recent version of its course management tool. Level Two adds the Blackboard portal and online communities, and Level Three adds to that list API or application program interface capabilities—a set of routines, protocols, and tools for building software applications. API allows administrators to ensure that all of the software running on a system shares an interface, making its use easier for the end user.

The Blackboard portal offers seven role-defined views, which customize the content based on the user's profile, whether that person is a student, prospective student, or professor. Users also get customized links and bookmarks drawn from a list of available modules. Other nifty tools on the platform are the electric blackboard—a notebook that all participants can use in class—and sortable discussion boards. In addition, TutorNet and HorizonLive have partnered with Blackboard to create the Virtual Classroom, which looks and behaves very much like an electronic whiteboard. Also available through the portal are Blackboard Resources—Web-based resources for further study, organized into 15 primary categories and 239 sub-disciplines, or topics.

Improvements in the pedagogical functionality of version 5.5 include timed release of content, which allows instructors to set content availability rules and specify dates upon which content becomes live or no longer available. This is handy for distance-learning courses in which the instructor wants to limit the amount of time an online student has to complete an assignment. It's also useful for pre-populating content areas, including assessments.

Version 5.5 also allows instructors to build learning units within a course. This feature could be used to build a sequential or non-sequential learning path around a particular lesson or chapter, including within-the-unit graphics and assessments. This feature gives instructors the flexibility to make the course either linear or modular.

Finally, Blackboard 5.5 offers a number of gradebook and assessment enhancements. These include new sorting options, improved calculation and grade weighting abilities, improved reporting for mid-semester and final grades, and more options for placement and timing of assessments. Student users also have advanced sorting options when viewing their grades.

Along with teaching and learning enhancements, Blackboard 5.5 has expanded its enterprise functionality. This fall, Blackboard customers will be able to plug in third-party tools developed independently of the Blackboard platform. This “Blackboard-enabled” open architecture provides access to thousands of tools, interfaces, applications, and system services. Blackboard claims to be the only course management software that has successfully integrated with all of the major SIS and administrative systems, including DataTel Colleague, SCT Plus, SCT Banner, and PeopleSoft. In addition to administrative possibilities, these architectural improvements provide new options for instructors, who now can, for instance, use digital course cartridges from publishers as part of the Blackboard-enabled course. Also, beginning this fall, this integration will include applications such as assessments and scientific notation.

Other enterprise-level Blackboard enhancements include increased scalability, allowing a single-site implementation to support thousands of courses and ten times that many users, as well as new management tools for resource monitoring, data archiving, and controlled information purging. Blackboard has also added some snapshot tool improvements that automate user data and allow total control by the institution.

Blackboard's goal is to be the only enterprise solution that offers unified course and learning management, portals, communities, institutional services, and commerce and access services. The company hopes its customers will make the upgrade to 5.5, and to facilitate that, it is offering a seamless upgrade from any version of Blackboard 5. It also encourages campuses to switch to Blackboard by offering conversion services for other legacy Web course tools. www.blackboard.com.

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