Blackboard 2012 theme problems

This wasn’t originally going to be a blog post, but an attempt to share this via email with a Bb UI designer somehow failed, so I thought perhaps posting it here might generate some broader useful input anyway.

We installed Blackboard 9.1 service pack 8 on our production system on June 1st and the early-early feedback from faculty was, hey, the new look and feel is cool! But as our earliest summer classes got going, it was clear that there were some usability issues with the 2012 theme. Once we started peeling the onion, we found enough problematic issues that we decided to roll back to the 2008 theme.

The immediate issue has to do with how apparent (or not) hyperlinks are:

  1. The problem most bothersome to people: Links in content area titles (links, folders, pages, assignments, tests, etc) are not apparent as links. Doing away with underlining for hyperlinks is a fine and modern choice, but to do so, there should be consistency in the way links are represented. Users should not be asked to set a color for these titles anymore if underlining is gone. They should default to hyperlink color style.
  2. Many of the color schemes available within the 2012 theme for users to select provide little or no contrast between link colors and the text color. This simply should not be an option for course designers to select.
  3. Links everywhere should highlight upon rollover in the way that the course menu links do. At present they do not.

Our super Blackboard faculty support person, Karen Korstad, tells me that there is a good deal of traffic about these issues on the ASU listserv right now, but Blackboard thus far has not been responsive to the issue.

If you want to see what I mean in #1, go into CourseSites (if you have access). Look at the Student Orientation: Your Path to Success course. Notice that the titles of content areas are just black, regardless of whether they are clickable or not, and there is no rollover action. The designers compensate for this by explicitly telling people to click on the words, which to me just compounds the confusion, because it seems like you should click the words in the statement rather than realizing the statement refers to the words in the title.

Contrast that with the Instructional Ideas and Technology Tools for Online Success #bonkopen course. In that course, all of the clickable titles are apparent, showing up with underlines and in green. But inspecting those elements it is apparent (I believe) that they have been MANUALLY, individually styled by inserting <u></u> tags around the title and selecting the color for the title that corresponds with link colors in the color scheme chosen for the course. Blackboard cannot expect faculty to follow this procedure to make their clickable area titles visible.

There are some other areas that we have experienced problems with in the 2012 theme that seem to be solved by rolling back to 2008, but I am less certain of the specifics … these are just things we’ve also noticed:

  1. Adding web links to the course menu takes a LONG time, and once added, response time when clicking those links is very long
  2. Browsing a course in Safari on the iPad doesn’t work
  3. Learning Units don’t seem to work correclty

All these final things are less certainly tied to 2012 theme for us, and pale in comparison to the issues with hyperlink styles I outlined above. Anyone else seeing these things or having other related issues?

UPDATE 6/21: After initial responses from Blackboard were quite discouraging (advising us to edit the CSS ourselves, telling us this would be addressed in sp10 at year’s end) we received this note yesterday on our ticket: “Just to confirm that we are waiting on patch for the issue where content items do not have hyperlinks. I do not have a delivery date, but it is a top priority, and we will let you know as soon as it is available.”

Blackboard and the future of Moodlerooms

"Big Fish Eat Little Fish," engravin...

"Big Fish Eat Little Fish," engraving, dated 1557. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here at MiraCosta, we are customers of both Blackboard and Moodlerooms, so the announcement of Bb’s acquisition of Moodlerooms is more than just a curiosity. Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle have overview articles. IHE’s is better than the Chronicle’s, which is most notable for its bizarre statement that “Now Blackboard essentially owns the open-source alternatives” to the Bb Learn course management system (CMS). Yeah, no. Open source remains open source, there are alternative Moodle hosting services, and there are other open source systems (Canvas, e.g.).

If the topic interests you but you’d rather not dig through articles, blog reactions (which predictably run the gamut from quite positive to intensely negative to “I don’t get it”), and listserv postings, I’ve attempted to distill the various analyses here (please add others in the comments!):

Neutral-to-positive

  • Bb is positioning itself to compete with emerging alternative providers of CMS functionality: ERP systems, portal systems and publishers. Bb will be less pushy of Learn and move toward being a “pick your CMS” vendor. This could position Bb better to win consortial/system contracts within which institutions will have choice…
  • Bb recognizes the future value in the CMS is not in the software but in the service. Becomes more about hosting and related services, and less about product / a specific software package.
  • Bb, and specifically Ray Henderson, have seen the light and recognize that future success cannot be accomplished without embracing open source products, principles, and community.
  • This will bring more Moodle hosting services into the market to provide an alternative to big bad Bb, and don’t forget about existing alternatives.

Less than enthusiastic

  • Bb’s plan continues to be to hook customers through the CMS as a gateway to their various other higher-margin products. This deal just broadens their customer base for upselling.
  • Bb’s “contribution” to open source will be code that enables tighter integration of other Bb products with open source CMSs. (This is something that I heard “between the lines” of the Bb/Moodlerooms webinar - anyone else?)
  • Bb is “open washing” and may end up driving away the open source community it purports to be interested in engaging.
  • Don’t forget, Bb is owned by Providence Equity … this may have much more to do with how an equity company runs its investments than any particular Bb/CMS strategy.
  • Get ready to pay more for MoodleRooms.
  • Moodlerooms was already headed down a road of “proprietizing” Moodle and this will likely continue even more. Fear: migrating out of the Bb/MR Moodle fork back into open Moodle may become increasingly difficult. Or will Bb share back as they purport to be committed to?
  • Bb is going to fold MoodleRooms into future Bb releases. Get out of MoodleRooms if you want Moodle. [This is NOT a common view but I did see it expressed somewhere.]

The future of the Moodlerooms service?

Other than the last couple points, the majority of these don’t see an immediate or even medium-term threat to the Moodlerooms service for current customers. I think the short-term bottom line is that Moodlerooms will continue to exist as it has, continuing to do what it does.

The longer-term key will be what Bb says over the next month or so. Bb’s pattern in the past with acquisitions (WebCT, Angel, Wimba, Elluminate) has been to initially reassure people that nothing will change in the immediate future (and that has been mostly true), as well as to describe some bland “synergies” both sides hope to get out of the deal (Bb has lots of tech resources, this new acquisition has a great service model Bb can learn from, etc.). Then, and I think Bb has been pretty transparent and accurate about this, they may describe their longer-term intentions to create a “best of breed” new product, and/or to support ongoing releases and then move towards a sunset of an acquired product. In this case, I don’t see any initial indications that Bb is going this route, but I’m not ready to go out on any limbs and predict that Moodlerooms will indefinitely serve our needs. But I do feel relatively confident that it will work for us for 2012-2013.

Free iPad apps useful in education

English: iPads offer a variety of software

Image via Wikipedia

I have a couple years’ experience messing with iPads, including leading an exploratory group of faculty and staff using iPads at SDSU. While iPads are an exceptional device for entertainment and content consumption, they also can be a very useful tool for curation, creation, and productivity. Having now acquired a couple iPads for faculty to experiment with here at MiraCosta, I decided to create a list of the free apps that we should include on the iPads we make available to our faculty.

My hope is that exploring these apps will help faculty form their own judgements about how iPads may help (or not) in the teaching and learning process, helping them to not only decide whether an iPad might have utility to them personally, but also to consider how students might effectively use iPads in the learning process.

Please share in the comments if you have thoughts about any of these apps, or which additional free apps you’d include in this list. Note: while I think many entertainment apps are also worth exploring to consider the educational possibilities (or hindrances), I have decided not to include any in this “starter” list. Note 2: This list is of course time-bound; while many of these apps will remain relevant for some time, many will fade as new apps and new built-in iPad capabilities emerge.

Note-taking

  • Evernote – My favorite cross-platform, cloud-based, all-around awesome note -taking/-making/-keeping/-finding tool.
  • Other free note apps that some faculty have liked include: uPad Lite,
  • Use Your Handwriting, Simplenote, and Paperdesk LITE
  • Dragon is not magical, but with some time can be useful for those who want to use a speech-to-text capture tool.
  • Mendeley - a citation manager, PDF organizer, literature research tool, and social network for researchers

Utilities

  • Dropbox – My favorite cross-platform, cloud-based way to store/share/access files. Integrates well with a number of paid apps for working with PDFs, Office documents, etc.
  • Teamviewer – Access/control a desktop computer from the iPad
  • VMWare View – MiraCosta has a virtual desktop available via VMWare – access all your MiraCosta apps and PC-based programs on the iPad
  • Airsketch Free – While the “official” ways of connecting iPads to computers/projectors for greater visibility continue to grow, this app continues to offer a way that may be simplest for some.
  • ScanLife – If you want to use your iPad’s camera to scan QR or bar codes, this app will help.
  • Unstuck - Honestly haven’t tried yet but it has many enthusiastic reviews as a tool for nudging you in the right direction when you are feeling stuck.
  • Tools for language translation include iTranslate and Google Translate - Google allows voice input; both provide both text and spoken output.

Screencasting

Each of these have slightly different features and approaches to creating screencasts (narrated videos of content displayed/marked up/created on the iPad):

Graphics/Photos/Video

  • Free photo editing tools include PhotoPad and Photoshop Express
  • Flixlab – video editing and creation of slideshows from images
  • Skitch – image markup and sharing; integrates with Evernote

Mindmapping/Brainstorming/Doodling

  • Popplet Lite – arrange images on a bulletin board-like canvas
  • Idea Sketch – simple mind mapping
  • Whiteboard Lite – doodle on the iPad, and if you like, collaboratively create with someone nearby who is on another iOS device with the app

Communication tools

  • Facebook & Twitter are of course, the dominant social media channels.
  • Storify – combine images, videos, & social media conversations into a cohesive narrative for reference and sharing
  • Skype – Make voice or video calls
  • Blackboard – access MiraCosta’s Bb course management system

Feed Readers

  • Flipboard – contains many feed sources to select from; can add other RSS feeds and personal accounts from Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader, and other sources; all in an amazing interface for browsing
  • FeeddlerRSS – The most popular free, simple RSS reader iPad app

News sources

Many of these offer not only news browsing but also local information through location awareness, and push updates of “breaking news” if you are interested.

Reference/Content

  • TED – videos of ~15 minute talks from leading thinkers and innovators on subjects usually related to technology and design
  • iTunesU – audio/video shared by educational institutions around the world
  • Exemplary free science apps with amazing, interactive imagery include: 3D Brain3D Medical ImagesMolecules
  • Google Earth – explore geography in amazing detail
  • Wikibot – a simple interface directly to Wikipedia

e-Readers

  • Inkling is worth a look to see one take on the future of interactive “textbooks” – you can download some free chapters.
  • Other eReaders worth exploring (in addition to the native iBooks) include Blio, Kobo, Google Play BooksNook, and Kindle
I look forward to hearing about more free apps that you think are worth including with these!

Admirable WordPress sites

I am looking forward to working with WordPress to build a new website for MiraCosta’s online education/ Teaching-Technology Innovation Center. Here are a few websites of instructional technology / teaching enhancement centers that are inspirational in what they’re doing with WordPress.

http://cit.duke.edu  http://cft.vanderbilt.edu  http://www.txwescetl.com

Do you have any others you’d recommend as exemplary?

How tasty is diigo?

About 9 months ago, when it was looking like delicious was just going to vaporize, I was quite panicked – I had been using it since the early days (I still type del.icio.us much more readily than delicious.com) and had several thousand bookmarks. But as it became clear that it was going to hang around, I put off switching over to diigo. Now that #potcert11 has a diigo group, though, it’s time for me to finally take the plunge.

Exporting my old bookmarks out of delicious and importing them to diigo was easy and quick. So far, things appear to be mostly intact at diigo. Some people do complain about diigo truncating long descriptions, but I don’t think that affected me much, since I’m kind of a minimalist when it comes to saving bookmarks (though maybe my 700+ different tags say different).

I am having a bit of a problem, though. I use Chrome on the Mac as my primary browser. I installed the diigo extension but when I try to bookmark, I get an endless attempt at “loading recommended tags“. I’d like to have the recommended tags available, but also this seems to block the area where normally I’d be able to share with a group (i.e. mccpot). Usually a little googling of this kind of problem gives me an answer, but in this case no luck. Anyone else encounter this issue? Any solutions/suggestions?

On teaching/learning in the network age

Alec Couros’ talk on teaching & learning in the network age (http://lisahistory.net/mccpot/newpages/courosvideoannotated.html) covers a lot of ground regarding tools and concepts underlying the cultural impact of the emergence of social media. I don’t think I have a problem with any of his major points. My sense of his audience at the conference is that they were very receptive – educators who are interested in technology and innovation. Unfortunately, I think many typical educators would be a bit lost in this talk.

A recent piece in the NYT on “What will schools look like in 10 years?” (http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/03/what-will-school-look-like-in-10-years/) featured five “experts” and none of them spoke specifically about social media. Their focus was primarily on content and subject areas. As long as education is driven by outdated (IMO) paradigms based on scarcity of information resources and expertise, and assessment/accountability regimens designed for those paradigms, all the cool tools will have minimal impact on our systems. My fear is that our education systems are so completely intertwined with those non-network paradigms that evolution simply won’t happen. What would a new paradigm look like?

Differences between Instruction Paradigm and Learning ParadigmNote the citation: this is from 1995. Still waiting … and the tools perhaps provoke some to think more about this shift … but pedagogy first!

Dear reader, if you are a teacher, have you made this shift, or are you in the midst of it? What helped you? What made it difficult?