Blackboard announces new 9.0 platform

By Mary Versaci

Blackboard Inc., which powers Illinois Compass, has released a new learning platform for students and educators nationwide.

The platform, titled Release 9.0 of Blackboard Learn, includes a newly redesigned and customizable user interface and social networking tools, such as blogs, journals and notifications via Facebook.

“It more effectively engages learners at all levels,” said Matthew Maurer, Blackboard’s director of public relations.

Release 9.0 is part of the company’s ongoing effort to improve itself. Blackboard Inc. updates its software every year, he said.

The University uses Blackboard’s Vista Enterprise software, version 8.0, for Illinois Compass, but there is not a direct upgrade path to the new Blackboard Learn at this time, said Tracy Tolliver, Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services manager of production applications.

“Several of the new features it touts are actually already present in our Vista product,” she said. “The new features that are presented to us in Blackboard Learn 9.0 include a new grading center, more integration opportunities and some mobile applications that I think will be very appealing to the students and instructors.”

While the University does not plan to make the switch to the new software, it will give the platform a test-drive.

“We have the opportunity to install the Blackboard Learn 9.0 product in-house for evaluation, and we hope to pilot it on a limited basis during the fall 2009 semester,” Tolliver said.

The University will be evaluating the technical requirements that the new software poses. Using input from these projects and guidance from other campus groups, the University will develop a path from there, she said.

“One possibility is that it coexists with our existing Vista installation, allowing instructors to adopt it at their own pace,” Tolliver added.

Release 9.0 of Blackboard Learn is available today to any institution that works with Blackboard, and users can upgrade to Release 9.0 at no extra costs, Maurer said.

Before the software was launched this month, more than 50 institutions participated in a Beta program, which gave the schools a chance to test the software.

“The Beta program is part of Blackboard’s effort to engage the community in the development process,” he said.

The transition from one platform to another is significant, and most schools will navigate that type of change during a semester break or summer, Maurer said.

“We expect a significant number to move to the new platform over the course of the year,” he said. “Institutions will make the decision based on what’s best for them.”

Katy Schaus, freshman in ACES, said she thinks the new software, with its social networking tools, is a good idea.

“Everyone pretty much has a Facebook and is constantly on it,” she said.

While Schaus said Compass is accessible and a fast way to do her homework, it is not always reliable.

“Sometimes, it’s slow connecting because a lot of people are on at the same time,” she said.

Alexandria Powell, freshman in Engineering, said the only problem she has with Compass is when teachers are slow to post grades, but the program itself is fine. She was unsure, however, of including social networking as part of Compass.

“A lot of people do use Facebook, and it would open windows to meet other people,” she said. “But I think we should still be cautious about opening school into something that is social.”