Clare Otting: GW should consider Blackboard alternatives

Blackboard is key to staying organized and keeping up with classes. For the past 14 years, students have used Blackboard as a tool for connecting with professors, submitting assignments and facilitating class discussions.

The University has had a relationship with Blackboard Inc. since 2002 when Blackboard acquired GW’s course management software, Prometheus. Because of this financial negotiation, the University pays very little to use Blackboard. But Blackboard isn’t the only option for online learning management websites, and it recently has fallen in popularity at universities nationwide. GW ought to carefully evaluate every option and consider ending its relationship with Blackboard, regardless of the financial advantages Blackboard offers to the University now.

There are some alternatives to Blackboard that are easier to use that officials should consider: Platforms like Canvas and Sakai, are more modern, flexible and intuitive. GW should compare Blackboard’s muddled, outdated system to its competitors. Of course, officials will have to contemplate factors like the costs and challenges of transitioning to a new interface, but the University has the duty to find and utilize the best online learning site for students.

Blackboard’s clunky design and maze of tabs have hindered students and faculty using the platform. Under “course list,” the title of each class is preceded by 17 seemingly meaningless digits. To add to the confusion, professors must create multiple courses for each discussion section of a lecture class. The muddled design is emphasized by the red notifications at the top right corner indicating new grades or assignments that have been posted, which never seem to disappear – even when students view those grades and assignments.

A confusing layout might not seem like the end of the world, but it has repercussions for students: Recently, my professor used Blackboard to administer an assessment. When setting up the assessment, my professor mistook the timeframe to access the quiz for the window to submit the quiz. In the five-student class, only one of us successfully submitted the assessment. With this episode in mind, alternative systems that are described as intuitive and flexible seem appealing.

Many universities are starting to recognize that Blackboard isn’t the best option: In 2006, an estimated 80 to 90 percent of higher education institutions used Blackboard. Now, only approximately 32 percent of institutions use it. While Blackboard’s popularity wanes, alternative sites, like Canvas and Sakai, are emerging.

Of GW’s 14 peer institutions, three have transitioned from Blackboard to Canvas within the past year. Canvas is a cloud-based system that is noted for its mobile accessibility and customizable notification settings. It also integrates Twitter, Google Docs and LinkedIn with students’ accounts. Georgetown University has been the most recent convert to Canvas, following in the footsteps of the University of Maryland, the University of Pennsylvania and Brown University. A report from Emory University’s trial period with Canvas found that 74 percent of faculty rated Canvas as “very easy to use,” while Blackboard’s ease-of-use rating was only 20 percent.

Another alternative, which both Duke University and New York University use, is Sakai. Faculty members can tailor course sites to their teaching styles. In contrast to Blackboard’s fairly rigid format, professors who use Sakai can choose from a variety of organizational frameworks for their classes’ sites. Professors can build their courses with a traditional syllabus, linking to course readings and resources. Others can use Sakai’s calendar tool and create detailed calendar items that link to readings, forums and other materials. Sakai’s customization reflects professors’ distinct teaching styles, creating more individualized and clear webpages.

In 2012, faced with a growing number of online courses, officials considered other systems, including Sakai and Moodle. Ultimately, the committee tasked with evaluating alternative online options did not choose to switch from Blackboard. If GW created a similar committee now, the members might reach a different conclusion. If GW wants to be an innovative, tech-savvy institution, officials should accept Blackboard’s decline. The University ought to examine the reasons that its peers have abandoned the system for its modern and easy-to-use competitors.

There is no perfect website for both students and professors. Switching to one of Blackboard’s competitors would not completely eliminate confusion. But these alternatives should be easier to use. As technology advances and students’ and professors’ needs evolve, institutions have turned away from Blackboard, and it no longer dominates the industry. Instead, modern, innovative competitors are strengthening, and GW needs to explore those options.

Clare Otting, a freshman double-majoring in international affairs and German, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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