The UG’s in the market for new software
Bye bye Blackboard?
Every year when he has to prepare for his courses, social psychologist Arie Dijkstra gets stuck in Blackboard and is forced to seek help. He’s no fool; he does know a thing or two about computers, but ‘Blackboard is just too complex’, he says.
The problem lies in the fact that he only uses it once or twice a year. He currently teaches two courses, which both take place during the first block of the first semester. He has to relearn how the system works, every time.
At times it’s counter-intuitive, he feels. ‘Blackboard Collaborate is often unstable. Every lecture presents a problem and that can be very frustrating. Honestly, Blackboard offers many good functionalities, but the drawbacks and the recurring problems can make it hard to use and to appreciate it.’
Both lecturers and students have complained about Blackboard, which the UG uses under the name Nestor. Nevertheless, in spite of its shortcomings, the overall verdict on the UG’s learning management system over the past twenty years has been positive. In 2019, a survey showed staff members felt that Blackboard duly accomplished its job, and was considered ‘reliable’, while students judged the system somewhere between positive and neutral.
Blackboard supported 600 exams without problems
But now that education has moved online, criticism that Blackboard isn’t very intuitive, lacks overview, and is neither mobile-friendly nor user-friendly, suddenly feels more pertinent.
‘Problems are always around the corner’, says Alexandros Athanasios Grampas (21), a third-year student of economics and business economics. ‘Two of my exams were delayed for an hour due to system congestion. I heard that some students had entire days of delay due to poor performance of the system.’
When helping students with practicals as a teaching assistant, he discovered that Blackboard was very limiting. ‘I couldn’t add any document that wasn’t a PDF or a PowerPoint, and it’s hard to even make the simplest visual effects while presenting.’
Communications and information sciences student Emma Lennemann (21) has also had her share of problems with Blackboard since she started her bachelor in September. ‘Loss of audio keeps recurring during lectures. Usually I just need to refresh the page, but once, when doing a group presentation, there was no way to make it work. I refreshed, logged out and in again, but nothing changed. I had to guess from the slides and the sequence of people talking when it was my turn. Not the easiest way to do a presentation.’
Like an old car, it has its deficiencies
Louwarnoud van der Duim, head of educational support at the UG’s Centre for Information Technology, acknowledges these problems, but also points to the bigger picture. ‘This January, Blackboard managed to support six hundred digital exams over two weeks without problems. In October we didn’t do as well, but still, 97 percent of exams did not incur any issues.’
According to Laurent Krook, e-learning coordinator at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences, ‘Blackboard’s a good system, but it’s simply outdated. Like an old car, it still performs its duties, but it has its deficiencies. It’s good to exchange it at some point.’
Van der Duim agrees: ‘The current version of Blackboard is getting to the end of its life.’
So it’s a good thing that change is coming.
On January 28, the UG launched a European tender for a new learning management system. ‘Blackboard’s been around for twenty years, and with systems like these, after several years you need to rebuild rather than update’, says project manager Michiel van Geloven, who will lead the university through the process. ‘Overall, Blackboard is a reliable system, but every now and then it’s good to make a change.’
Blackboard used to be the dominant learning management system for universities in the Netherlands, but a number of them have already taken steps to replace it. Delft traded in Blackboard for Brightspace in 2017, after which Radboud University in Nijmegen and the universities of applied sciences of Amsterdam and Den Bosch did the same in 2018. Leiden followed in 2020. The program boasts an intuitive, mobile-first design and better options to analyse students’ progress.
Jos in den Bosch was the project manager in charge of choosing a new system for Radboud University. ‘In Nijmegen, too, we received many complaints about Blackboard; mainly about its complexity and lack of interactivity’, he says.
On his list of candidates were Brightspace, Canvas, and a newer version of Blackboard. ‘After testing them, we opted for Brightspace. Mainly for its user-friendliness and intuitive approach; but it was cheaper too, in comparison to Canvas.’
No one ever wishes they could go back to Blackboard
Two years after its implementation, both lecturers and students in Nijmegen seem satisfied with the university’s choice. ‘Obviously there are always complaints; the perfect product doesn’t exist. But no one ever wishes they could go back to Blackboard’, he says.
Although lecturers and students didn’t experience many problems, there were some administrative issues. ‘Brightspace is a bit more complicated and offers fewer functionalities to control the system’, according to In den Bosch. That’s not something that affects users from day to day, though.
The University of Amsterdam (UvA) also changed its online learning system in 2018. They went for Canvas, which also advertises its e-learning environment as mobile-friendly and accessible, and boasts a ‘rich communication tools and endless data and insights’.
UvA chose Canvas because it’s intuitive and easy to use, said then director of ICT Bert Voorbraak in an interview with university paper Folia. ‘User-friendliness was the main concern and money was the last thing we worried about.’
The UG’s project team has drafted a list of requirements for the new learning management system, having investigated the different faculties’ wishes. Users want to keep tools they have in the current system, and they’d like the possibility of new ones. They’re also asking for more flexibility, more user-friendliness and more interactivity. ‘Considering the complexity of the requirements, there aren’t many possible candidates’, Van Geloven says. ‘It will probably be a race between Brightspace and Canvas or a newer version of Blackboard.’
Van Geloven understands that many users of Blackboard won’t be welcoming such a big change. Not when lecturers are massively overworked due to online teaching and many others are still trying to deal with the ongoing problems created by that other software system the university has recently switched to: AFAS.
There aren’t many candidates who fit the requirements
However, this process will not be rushed, Van Geloven says. ‘It will be a long and controlled process. Once we’ve received the candidates’ proposals in March, we will first go through an intense assessment phase of six weeks, during which each system will be tested.’
Once there’s a winner – the UG expects to make its decision by mid-June – a whole academic year will be needed to implement it. ‘We will work until Christmas 2021 to do the basic setup of the new system and to integrate it with the student information system, Progress’, Van Geloven explains. ‘In January 2022, we will start applying it to a few faculties, and slowly we will scale up until the whole university uses it.’
Then, if everything goes as planned, the UG will bid its final farewell to the current version of Blackboard in September 2022.
Alexandros, for one, can’t wait to see that happen. ‘I am sure there are better and more modern systems out there. It would be nice to see a change.’ Meanwhile, Van der Duim just hopes the new system will be as reliable as the old one. ‘It will be hard to replace Blackboard with a system with comparable user satisfaction.’