Nov. 17, 2011

Blackboard Learn is much better, thank you

by Diana Pounds

Blackboard Learn got off to a rocky start this semester with many instructors who were using the course management system for the first time. Several issues with the Blackboard system made for a painful six weeks for both Blackboard users and support staff, who were working overtime to ensure system reliability.

The good news is the Blackboard system now is running fairly well, said Jim Twetten, director in information technology services (ITS).

"System reliability is back at a high level. "We still have some places where we feel the Blackboard software should be performing better, but with things stable right now, we'll wait till semester break before tackling those remaining issues," he said.

Many early adopters

ISU instructors are turning to Blackboard because the previous course management system, WebCT, is being phased out by its new parent company -- Blackboard. The rapid speed of ISU instructors' adoption of Blackboard Learn may have contributed to some of the new system's growing pains early this fall, Twetten said.

In fall 2010, a few instructors piloted Blackboard Learn on 10 ISU courses. When Blackboard course numbers rose to 70 in spring and 200 in summer, the system worked smoothly, Twetten said.

"Blackboard Learn touches 99 percent of students and nearly 80 percent of faculty."

Jim Twetten

However, this fall, Blackboard Learn courses had climbed 700 percent to more than 1,400 courses, Twetten said.

"That surprised all of us," he said. "Based on the last course management migration in 2006, we were expecting a more gradual shift. Blackboard Learn is loaded with new features that apparently drew instructors to the system."

As usage increased, a pattern emerged. When the load on the system went up, the system slowed, or in some cases prevented users from logging on. In addition to these issues, ISU and campuses across the nation experienced Blackboard software problems related to online tests and assessments.

Blackboard team visits campus

ITS staff and Blackboard staff continued plugging away at problems, and by the end of October, Blackboard was in good, if not optimal, shape, Twetten said. A Blackboard support team spent two days on campus in late October to help fine-tune the system and clear up a half dozen problems.

The Blackboard service at ISU is jointly operated by ITS and Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT), the latter of which fields faculty questions about both software functionality and pedagogical use.

Allan Schmidt, CELT assistant director, reports that an unresolved issue with the Blackboard software is slow assignment and grade downloads for instructors teaching large classes. ISU will need to wait for Blackboard's future software releases and patches to address these issues.

Send in your issues

Schmidt encouraged those who encounter Blackboard problems to contact ISU Blackboard support staff at

He also thanked instructors for their patience during the Blackboard ordeal.

"When we alerted instructors to the latest problems, they often responded with, 'Thanks, we know you're working on it,' " Schmidt said.