It is more than a rumour that the university is currently undertaking a review of its Learning Management System – known to all and sundry as Blackboard.

AUT has used Blackboard as its LMS since 2003, providing an online space for lecturers to post learning material for students, and to also mediate online collaboration, discussion and assessment. Blackboard has provided the digital glue that also gives access to a number of other online platforms, including e-portfolio, video capture, feedback interfaces and the management of student assessment.

It must be said that the current provision of Blackboard has been almost faultless for the past five or so years – I think I only recall one ‘outage’ in that time, since ICT upgraded some of the internal hosting systems. The problem that calls for a review is not performance but design and user experience. The current underlying Blackboard software goes back to its earliest versions, from around 1997. For anyone still in education who remembers the last millennium, mobile devices were not invented and web design and navigation were in their infancy. A survey I conducted with AUT staff in early 2017 suggested (by some) that Blackboard was clunky, out of date and difficult to navigate. As a university, we have been long overdue for another serious look into how we provide students with an exceptional digital learning experience.

So what is this LMS review expected to provide?

It is not fundamentally an evaluation of Blackboard as a product. We know that the current experience of Blackboard (Bb Learn) is past its use-by date and will not survive far into the future. There is a new, very different offering called Bb Ultra, and one option is to simply upgrade to Ultra and stick with the Blackboard platform.

However, it is a shared view at executive levels of the university that since it is basically twenty years since the first LMS evaluation, we should be totally re-thinking what we want digital learning to provide. It is also widely acknowledged that as a university we have recently under-invested in technologies for learning, and it is time to provide some focus on this area. In an attempt to answer that curly question ‘What do we want a digital learning experience to be?’, working groups have been consulting with both staff and students to gather opinions, ideas, personal preferences and ideal worlds. A decision is expected sometime around April next year (2020) as to what our preferred direction will be.

Whatever the final decision, the rollout of the new LMS will be seen as an opportunity to not only update our user interface, but to provide a once-in-twenty-years chance to refocus our engagement with online and digital learning. Whichever LMS is selected there will be a strong focus on enhancing learning and teaching designs to get the best out of digital pedagogies. Our students expect it, and as 21st Century academics we should be providing nothing less.

Watch this space.

– Mark Northover