Lynn University to drop Blackboard Learn in favor of iTunes U
Lynn University will phase out its learning management system for the next stage of its tablet-centric evolution. Beginning this fall, the university’s daytime undergraduate courses will be managed through Apple’s course management software, iTunes U.
The move makes Lynn one of only a handful of institutions that offer more than a select few courses through iTunes U, and is noteworthy because Lynn will trade a more comprehensive system, Blackboard Learn, for a product lacking key features such as analytics, attendance tracking and gradebooks.
Apple has developed pieces of something that could resemble an education strategy. Its laptops and tablets are ubiquitous on college campuses, thanks in part to an educational discount, and each new device comes pre-installed with iWork, Apple’s answer to Microsoft’s Office and Google’s Docs. Faculty members can build courses through iTunes U’s Course Manager, which can import custom-made textbooks from Apple’s iBooks app. But the company lacks some unifying piece of software that handles administrative tasks, and has shown little interest in challenging companies such as Blackboard, Desire2Learn and Instructure.
“They keep saying ‘We’re not an LMS,’ ” said Michael P. Petroski, who manages faculty development for the tablet initiative at Lynn. “And then it always seems like we see a quick wink out of their eye.”
A spokesman for Apple declined to comment for this article, but Petroski said the company has been “extremely supportive” of the university’s efforts.
Chris Boniforti, Lynn’s chief information officer, said Apple has listened to some of its suggestions, such as adding a feature to easily duplicate a course into multiple sections. Fundamentally, however, he said “it’s not an enterprise solution. You can’t connect it to your student information system. It’s still on a very personal level.”
Lynn will likely develop its own systems to track what iTunes U doesn’t, leaving iTunes U as a bare-bones platform that hosts content and assignments, but not much else. In return, the university gets a mobile-first LMS that -- even with the limited functionality -- eliminates the need for students to go from one system to the other.
Another barrier to an all-Apple learning management system is the price of admission. Apple is known for its “walled garden” approach -- meaning the company closely moderates its own ecosystem. In other words, for a university to rely on Apple alone, every faculty member and student more or less needs to have their own Apple device.
That’s not an issue at Lynn, where students enrolled in core classes buy iPad minis, not textbooks. The university benefited from a massive overhaul of its network infrastructure when it was selected to host the third presidential debate in 2012, and combined with a recently reformed core curriculum, known as “The Dialogues of Learning,” the upgraded wireless capabilities spurred Lynn to invest in a digital future.
“The debate opened up the door for us to have a robust, brand new, state-of-the-art network environment, from the wiring all the way to the access point,” Boniforti said. “That’s what allowed us to -- from an IT perspective -- feel comfortable to bring in a thousand-plus devices that will hit the network at all times.”
Lynn piloted the iPad mini as a textbook replacement during the 2013 January interim term, and expanded the program to include all freshmen, transfer students and upperclassmen enrolled in core classes that fall -- handing out more than 1,000 iPad minis. The number of devices will double as the university issues iPad minis to its more than 2,000 students next fall.
“Since we are moving forward with content and making sure that a device is available for every kid, we wanted to make sure they had a mobile environment,” Boniforti said about the decision to move from Blackboard Learn to iTunes U. Lynn will still use Learn for its online and evening courses, which means it will still pay the same licensing fees to Blackboard.
By this fall, between one-quarter and one-third of all courses offered at Lynn will feature free iBooks with content created by Lynn faculty members, but the move is not primarily meant to eliminate textbooks, Boniforti said. All courses will use iTunes U to host content and assignments, but only some will have their own iBooks. The rest will use traditional textbooks.
For faculty members who aren’t interested in curating their own textbooks, transitioning their courses to iTunes U will largely be a process of knowing where to upload materials and which boxes to fill with text. Faculty members have attended at least two training sessions so far, and the university will continue hosting sessions through the spring and summer, Petroski said. Additionally, Lynn has for years required faculty members to at least post their syllabuses and grades on Learn, which means every instructor has some experience with uploading course content to a learning management system.
With the tablet already in the hands of students, faculty members and administrators, it made more sense to go campuswide than to scale back, Boniforti said, especially since students using iPads during the interim term outperformed those who didn’t. About three-quarters of students preferred the iBook used in the course over a traditional textbook -- a number that rose from 65 percent who said the same at the beginning of the interim term.
In a survey of students enrolled in the core classes this past fall, 94 percent or students said they felt the tablet contributed to their learning experience, and 9 out of 10 used the tablet in courses that didn’t require it. A majority of the students, 61 percent, even said the prospect of getting their own iPad mini influenced their decision to attend Lynn.
While those numbers suggest tablet use is catching on, Petroski, associate professor of computer management systems, said he is cautious about calling the program a success. The university is in the process of evaluating outcomes from the fall semester. Anecdotally, Petroski said he had noticed the largest performance jump among students in the personal finance course.
“The next thing for me is to make sure that this is better than the way we’ve been doing it,” Petroski said. “That does sort of keep me up at night -- to make sure it’s not a cool gimmick.”