Despite the snow, the team at Durham put on another great Blackboard Users conference this year. My main reason for attending was to meet some of the brave souls who made the jump to Blackboard 9.0 in the summer. Leicester was considering a move from 7.3 to 9.0 but pulled out in August 2009. I work during school term times only, so last June and July I was busy blogging in preparation for the move. I don’t think much about who reads the School of Biological Sciences blog, as I mainly use it as a tool for me to keep instructions that I send people and a list of FAQs that save me typing out the same responses to the same emails every week. I was therefore rather surprised when Natalie Lafferty told me that she found the site really useful to gain information about Blackboard 9 in preparation for University of Dundee’s impending upgrade.
The panel discussion session was one of the most interesting sessions during the conference.
The cat that had 9 lives: Blackboard Release 9 upgrade experiences
Jake Gannon, University of Liverpool
Hannah Whaley, University of Dundee
Rachel Fitzgerald, University of Northampton
Russell Smeaton, University of Teesside
Malcolm Murray, University of Durham
The five universities represented had certainly had a pretty tough time with 9.0. The main messages were:
- All had a well laid out procedure for making the decision to upgrade. Most had either asked their users (staff and students) directly about Blackboard 9 or used feedback from annual surveys to inform their decision. Northampton carried out user testing with their staff and students on 9.0 and the response was very positive.
- All had periods of downtime in the first weeks of the academic year (2009/10) which caused problems severe enough to have senior management seriously question the decision to upgrade. This has prompted strategic reviews of eLearning in several institutions and much soul searching about why we use VLEs.
- All now have a stable product, though with some minor bugs still outstanding.
- Everyone agreed that the now stable system affords a much better user experience, especially in the area of group work tools but that the damage done by serious performance issues at the start of term had overwhelmed the potential of new features to impress.
- Browser issues provide serious cause for concern. Now running in Java, one of the difficulties faced was a lack of java memory once the system was hit with a significant number of users at the beginning of term. Test servers did not replicate the real-world loads placed on the system. The main advice here was to make sure that the hardware was up to the job and to get the java settings checked by as many people in Blackboard as possible before launch.
- Another browser problem is the requirement for IE 7. In particular, Dundee med school had problems with their staff working in the NHS who are limited to using IE 6 only (this is common across the NHS as far as I know). Without IE 7 staff cannot use the drop down menus that drive most of the editing facilities in Bb 9.
- Final browser problem was the intolerance of the system to old browsers and slow internet connections. Rather than just take ages to load, the system dumps the connection and will not load at all. Could be a real problem for distance learners on dial up or ropey connections.
- The most worrying point for me was that none of the Universities felt that they had blazed the trail for the rest of us to follow. It is common for us at Leicester to wait for the first service to be applied to a ‘.0’ release before upgrading. Those that had made the upgrade had all had individual patches or fixes made for them that were specific not only to their systems, but to the legacy of use of Bb they brought with them (particular combinations of adaptive release settings, recycling methods, previous upgrade paths etc). As far as I could understand this meant that a 9.0 SP1 would not be guaranteed to be a stable product.
Finally, it is worth noting that of all the Universities involved, Northampton ran on a service hosted by Blackboard. They seemed to have had less downtime than the other HEIs (though an unacceptable amount for a hosted system) and had a less negative experience overall. This seemed to be down to a large amount of preparation on their part, starting in December 2008 for a Sept 2009 launch with training, testing and information for staff and students very widely and thoroughly disseminated. Perhaps the fact that they were hosted meant that the blame for any downtime was deflected to Blackboard themselves, rather directed at the ITS team which helped them to maintain a good relationship with their users and encourage them to try the new 9 features.