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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Blackboard Goes Mobile ... with Many Questions

Last week I attended a session hosted by Blackboard, the learning management system company, at Babson College. It was titled Blackboard Higher Education Mobile Summit and there were schools represented from all over New England. Who from the schools attended? Mostly IT, web development, marketing, recruitment and development staff. I was the only educator there.

The goal of the day seemed to be two-fold: to get the attendees thinking about their mobile strategy (I think nearly 100% of the schools attending use the software in some fashion) and to help Blackboard figure how to better serve the schools.

Some parts of the day reminded me of talking about GIS software. Just like in discussion of enterprise GIS, the attendees could not keep all the pieces straight. What was Blackboard Connect? eLearn? What was free or for fee? I was lost since the only Blackboard software I ever used was Angel, which the company acquired a few years ago. I longed for a product map!

Another analogy to enterprise GIS was Blackboard's own suggestion that a mobile implementation needs a champion. Further, it needs buy-in from several departments and a pilot program and a plan to capture the low hanging fruit... it sounded just like GIS! That makes sense since mobile is really just another layer of an enterprise strategy.

There was significant confusion related to exactly what "content" was going mobile. Reps from Babson spoke about the school's rollout on mobile and had to explain more than once the plan to put its (1) public facing website type content in an app with (2) access into the learning management system as separate offering. The former had much of the content of a school website aimed mostly at admissions type questions. The latter allows registered students who logged in to do school work  (upload papers, participate in discussions, etc.). I was interested to learn it was the softest of soft rollouts, yet some several hundred students found, downloaded and tried the apps.

The question I brought to the event (and have held in my head for some time) is this: What kind of school work (not checking to see if class is cancelled) can a student do on a mobile device? Is it different on a tablet vs. a phone? How would I as a distance learning instructor formulate classes so students could "do work" on their phones? I gained no insight into those questions during the sessions because none of the schools were really at that point yet. Few had really engaged their faculty in thinking about the topic. Most of the schools were developing a mobile strategy, but it seemed actual learning was not part of it... yet. I guess that explains why I was the only educator in attendance.

My thought experiment is simple: How could I best formulate classes in say a GIS masters program to take advantage of the 30 minutes a professional might have on the train with his or her phone? Would they realistically read? Watch videos? Contribute to discussions via text or voice? Diagram the workflow for a GIS analysis? How could I make at least parts of the course "mobile phone friendly" to take advantage of that time in travel (or in a doctors office, etc.)?

The other presentation of note was from Assumption College, a small liberal arts school in Worcester. That school aimed to increase student retention in its Honors College by giving students iPads. These devices were in addition to anything the student might have brought to school. The devices were required for use for specific interview projects but otherwise could be used as the students wished. Detailed surveys kept track of how students used the devices (for reading, writing, entertainment, etc.) and it seems there is a correlation of ownership with retention. I found this an interesting experiment since it seemed like "tossing some tech" into a program to see what would happen. I'm curious to see what could happen with more thoughtful course/project development.

The good news seems to be that educators and instructional designers have some time to ponder the questions of course design and mobile "friendliness" since at least the schools in attendance are in the early stages of defining their mobile strategies.

Ian McBride from Middlebury also has a review of the event.