BbWorld was different this year, the second with Jay Bhatt at the helm. This was most obvious during the main keynote/road map presentation. Gone was the rapid pace, regular clapping, the “cult of Chasen”, Bhatt was noticeably lower key, with some of the audience left waiting for some “killer” new announcement that never came. Indeed, some people who should have known better tweeted that the keynote was simply announcing a repackaging of nothing new. Bhatt undersold himself.
The keynote hid several major changes amongst a wide-ranging discussion about modern society, it’s ills and why the current education system won’t fix it. Needless to say this was delivered though the spectacles of technological-determinism and left me and many other members of the audience feeling a little edgy.
Moving on to the hidden changes, the first was a rebuilding of Blackboard’s wide range of products into a series of bundles. These will differ slightly for the K12, Higher Education and possibly the professional education markets. From my hurried notes during the conference these are:
- Learning Core – essentially Learn plus the Community System, Content System (including xpLor and portfolios) the social/cloud tools and some form of mobile access.
- Learning Essentials – adds Collaborate and possibly some more features from Outcomes
- Learning Insight – adds Analytics for Learn and also Outcomes for Assessment
- Learning Insight and Student Retention – not the most imaginative name, nor the clearest definition, this seems to add some extra student retention features to complete the bundle.
More details are available Blackboard’s website.
Why is this important? Well Blackboard has just raised the base offering, essentially when this is rolled out, everyone will have at least the traditional academic suite (the ‘deathly hallows’ of learn, community and content). This should make it easier for the company to support the product (effectively by giving the product catalogue a long overdue haircut) but also much easier for users – the help documentation will finally apply to all users and we can get rid of questions such as ‘do I need the community/portal part for this to work?‘ It should also make user experiences more shareable and transferable. Anything that removes divisions between the user community is a good thing.
Secondly, a new user interface was demonstrated. This was a working prototype, accessing a standard learn database (if such a thing truly exists!) but using node.js to render much of the page content client-side. This makes the interface appear much more responsive and allows Blackboard to match the end-user rendering speed of other solutions such as Canvas. By shifting much of the processing work onto the client side, it also helps the core Blackboard product to become more scalable. The use of client-side just in time rendering also offers the possibility for much better reporting/learning analytics. A problem with building web pages in server memory and then sending them out to the end user is that you never know whether they saw the bottom of the page (or even the middle of a long page). If it is rendered on demand – e.g. in response to the user scrolling down – then we can record the fact that the information was at least actually displayed on screen to a person! In conversations I had with Stephanie Weeks she confirmed that this fact had not been lost on Blackboard either.
This is one of several signs that Blackboard may finally be able to lever their market dominance and vast range of products for the better. Hidden in the programme was a ‘State of the Union’ address by SVP Gary Laing. He began by sharing rather too much of his life story and desire to work with Blackboard to reimagine (re-engineer?) education, but then thankfully he talked about key changes that are occurring behind the scenes. Coming in to the company with fresh eyes he has seen the results of Blackboard’s aggressive takeover and merger approach: multiple product lines, often with a degree of overlap, running on different hardware, often based in different parts of the world, written in different languages by individuals in different teams, often with their own definitions of what should be common terms defined (and hopefully stored) only once – users, departments/schools, institutional roles, term dates, etc. Laing showed us how these teams and products should be rearranged so that features like analytics and mobile feel built in rather than bolted on. He challenged us to think about SMAC – social, mobile, analytics and cloud (note this could be re-arranged as SCAM). These are ideas he wants us all to bring back to our home institutions.
Then, a third Blackboard hosting was offered – as well as self-hosted and Blackboard’s current managed-hosting, there is to be a third multi-tenant option currently referred to as a public cloud solution. This looks like an attempt to play catch-up and stem the loss of clients with limited budgets to cheaper cloud-only solutions (particularly Canvas). It is unclear how building blocks will fit into this model and how much freedom individual clients will have to select or write their own.
Indeed there is much still to work out. What will the new pricing structure look like? How will building blocks be able to exploit the new Ajax user interface? How many clouds can Blackboard manage? There were also some noticeable omissions – both the community and content systems were effectively ignored during the conference. Have they a place on the roadmap?
I think there are many reasons for hope from BbWorld14 and much for both Blackboard and the staff and student users to learn. It was great to see so many students present at the sessions and as ever, their choice of external keynote speakers was excellent. As for number 15, to be held in Washington DC, if they can reintroduce the client voice back into the programme selection, to allow it to become more critical (in a constructive way) then I am cautiously optimistic for the future. At least they late realised that dropping the developer conference was a mistake 🙂
I’d like to end this review with a challenge for Jay Bhatt and his colleagues at Blackboard. If he really wants to reimagine education and believes that the way to do this is through data-based decisions, then is he willing to move Analytics for Learn into the entry level Learning Core bundle? Giving every Blackboard user across the world access to powerful, integrated learning analytical tools would be a very strong message. Creating a common platform and millions of users would give the field of learning analytics a real boost, by allowing staff and students to easily exchange interesting questions and patterns. That might just get the slogan off the t-shirts and into our daily teaching and learning…