It’s been almost three months since we launched the new CourseSites with the Ultra experience enabled and it feels like a good time to reflect on progress over that period. We made the new CourseSites available on 27 June. Since we have gone live we have had over 58,000 new accounts created. New CourseSites was made available using what was formerly the Educator Preview platform and this means at the time of writing we now have 72,097 users. While we have been delighted to hear many positive comments from users, I also wanted to take the opportunity to address some of the questions that users have raised in order to provide some context.
Some users may be wondering why we decided to transition users to a new version of CourseSites. In order to explain this, we need to consider why we created CourseSites in the first place. The original CourseSites was always intended to serve two purposes:
- It was our way of giving something back. As an organisation our commitment to education meant that we had a desire to enable users who would otherwise not have access to a learning environment to support their teaching activities.
- It was a way for users who were interested in Blackboard Learn to experience what it was like for themselves through a simple self-service process.
We have always felt that the experience we provide for CourseSites should be the very best experience a user can get from us. We no longer felt this was the case with the original CourseSites. This in turn meant that we weren’t meeting either of our two primary goals stated above in the way we wanted to.
The original CourseSites is based on a very old version of Blackboard Learn (released in April 2014), which has been heavily customised. The customisations which were made to the environment included things like the ability to create Instructor pages with their own URLs and enabling Instructors to search for students already on their courses to enrol them in other courses. However, these customisations (and a number of others) have meant that we have been unable to update CourseSites since April 2014. Therefore, while it contains a great deal of functionality to support teaching and learning, CourseSites users have not received any of the new innovations we have added to our environments in the last 4 years.
We wanted to change this to again provide CourseSites users with the best teaching and learning experience – both now and in the future. Since we first introduced the original CourseSites, and last updated it, we have been moving our solutions into the cloud. Our best experience now runs on a SaaS (Software as a Service) platform using a continuous delivery model. What this means in practical terms for the end user is that we are able to deliver updates on a regular basis without needing to have downtime on the environment. In order to support this modern approach to software delivery we have also made the decision to not customise CourseSites. The experience that users have as either Instructors or Students in the new CourseSites is exactly the same as in the core Blackboard Learn solution which is currently used by 29 million students globally.
While we have received positive feedback about the new experience from many, we acknowledge that the transition has also led to some confusion, including within our own support teams. Users have asked how to do things which they could do previously in the original CourseSites through the customisations, but which are typically reserved for users with Administration capabilities in the core Blackboard Learn solution. As we do not enable CourseSites users to have administration access to the site, this means that some of the responses received from our support teams has not been helpful. We are also aware that there has been confusion on occasion about which environment – the original or new CourseSites – a ticket has been logged for. We are working to address these issues and can only apologise for any confusion caused by unclear responses in the meantime. We are confident however that it is still possible for users to do everything they need to do in the new CourseSites, although the mechanism for achieving this may be different.
CourseSites users have access to support through a variety of sources. One item that has been requested is a pdf Quick Start guide akin to what was provided for original CourseSites. We have decided not to do this for a couple of reasons. The primary reason is the delivery model for the new CourseSites platform. Because we are using a continuous delivery model, pdf documentation would be out of date as soon as we published it. This would cause immense frustration for users saving local copies or printing copies for students. Additionally, one of the key reasons for producing the pdf guide in the first place was that it provided supporting documentation for the customisations in the original CourseSites which were unique to that environment. Now that CourseSites is based on the core Blackboard Learn solution a separate document set is unnecessary and it makes sense to refer users to the core help documentation at help.blackboard.com. On visiting help.blackboard.com, users can search for the most appropriate help for their role by entering the help portal as either a student or an instructor.
As mentioned above, one of the benefits of the new platform is that we are able to deliver new innovations to users far more rapidly and on an ongoing basis and without requiring downtime. Since we launched new CourseSites in June we have actually delivered three updates already, adding the following new features in Ultra courses:
- SCORM support
- Download gradebook
- Group creation and grading enhancements
- Course list optimisation
- Conversation improvements
- Download annotated PDFs
- Anonymous grading
- Unsubmitted work counts as zero
- Improvements for course messages
You can read the full details of the release notes for the SaaS deployment of Learn at https://help.blackboard.com/Learn/Administrator/SaaS/Release_Notes (note that this will also include features that require administration rights to take advantage of, which are not part of CourseSites). Another update is due in early October and you should expect to see updates to CourseSites on a monthly basis.
Please continue to provide us with feedback on your experience of using the new CourseSites. We do value this, both the positive and the negative, and it is considered in the future development of the Blackboard Learn solution even if we are not able to respond or implement all suggestions in the short-term. The best place to provide us with feedback and ask questions is the CourseSites community pages: https://community.blackboard.com/groups/coursesites/pages/welcome