Last week, Blackboard showed off its latest release of their core learning management system (LMS), 9.1 SP 8 - code named "Ocho".
To get a look at Ocho you can browse around a set of videos  that Blackboard has made available to demonstrate the design and feature updates of service pack 8.
For the larger context of where Blackboard is going in the next 24 months, it is worth reading Ray Henderson's (President, Blackboard Learn) "A Letter to our Clients " from 1/10/12.
Some Initial Ocho Observations:
Ocho Looks Great: I am not a user interface (UI) expert, but from what I can see the Ocho interface looks clean and modern. It is a good lesson for all of us to hear Ray Henderson candidly talking about how Blackboard's UI had fallen behind, and how he is dedicating the resources of the company to create a best-of-breed look and feel. Blackboard has access significant resources, and in choosing to invest these resources on design (as opposed to new acquisitions or features), the company has the potential to create an elegant platform.
A Change of Focus: My sense from listening to Ray Henderson is that Blackboard sees itself at an inflection point, and rather than continue to follow a path of acquisition and rapid new service rollout that the focus will be on innovating around the core learning platform. This innovation will take the place of further integration with the core LMS (particularly with mobile and analytics), and refinements and enhancements in design (Ocho) and functionality (in 2013). A focus on core product is just what Blackboard customers have wanted, and the other areas that have occupied Blackboard's attention over the past few years (mostly acquisitions and the need to integrate the acquired products and customers), have opened the door for a range of competitors to challenge Blackboard for existing and new customers. I think Blackboard's competitors, and many educators, are at risk of underestimating Blackboard in the next couple of years.
Some Ocho Questions (for you):
Your View on the New UI? What is your take on the new user interface? How big of an upgrade is this? How does the UI compare to Canvas (the acknowledged leader in UI), or the latest versions of Moodle, D2L or Sakai?
How Important is UI vs. Features? Modernizing the Blackboard UI is great, but Blackboard's competitors are not only claiming a comparative advantage on look and feel. They are claiming that Blackboard's core design is not built around a web 2.0 sensibility. That Blackboard remains an instructor centric platform, rather than one built for social learning, collaboration and creation. They argue the future belongs to true cloud based platforms, where product evolution can be swift and diffused out seamlessly to all users. They argue that Blackboard does not really integrate seamlessly with web 2.0 social and productivity tools. What do you think?
How Big A Deal Would an Uprgrade Be? If you are running a Blackboard 9.1 LMS, how big a deal do you see doing an upgrade to 9.1.8 to be? Would you be comfortable rolling this out, or would you be worried that the change in UI would create too many support and training headaches?
Can We Even Evaluate Blackboard In a Fair Way? Can we be objective and dispassionate when evaluating Ocho? Are we either too much invested in the platform to be critical enough, or over-invested in another platform that our reactions will be knee jerk negative? My argument has always been that no LMS is a silver bullet, and that the real success (or failure) of an LMS implementation on campus is the resources and leadership that the institution provides in partnering with faculty to create great courses. I'm looking for an unbiased and analytical evaluation of Ocho, but I wonder if that is even possible.