Blackboard Inc., the giant among course management system (CMS) providers, today unveils Release 9.0 of Blackboard Learn. Blackboard bills the newest iteration as more open and flexible -- allowing colleges to use the platform "as an open foundation for whatever complementary technologies they need to support their approach to teaching and learning."
And the new release will feature expanded Web 2.0 and “social learning” tools, such as blogs and journals, enhanced notification capabilities (i.e., “Your paper is due in four hours” – or four days), and a redesigned, customizable user interface.
“It would definitely be an immediate, apparent change when you log into the system," said Jessica Finnefrock, Blackboard’s senior vice president for product development.
Among the changes that will be most immediately noticeable to students and professors, aside from the redesigned, Web 2.0 interface, are the new notifications. “Probably one of the No. 1 things I heard from students is, 'We need to more clearly manage the things that are due,' ” said Finnefrock. She explained that the notifications for pending assignments will be visible as “dashboards” on the Blackboard site, and students can also elect to receive reminders via e-mail and, yes, Facebook (Blackboard launched a Facebook application last May ). “In these focus groups, sometimes students will say, ‘I’ll log onto Blackboard and when I log in I realize my assignment was due that day. Can’t Blackboard send me something?’ ”
Students can choose when (how far in advance) and for what they’d like to receive alerts. Finnefrock said the company plans to continue expanding its notification capabilities in the future to include things like text messages and iPhone applications.
The newest version also features the SafeAssign plagiarism detection software  bundled in, as opposed to it being available as an add-on. And it includes integrations to allow open-source course management systems -- such as Sakai  and Moodle , to which colleges have increasingly been gravitating -- to be accessed within Blackboard.
While Blackboard prices change from year to year, a spokesman said that the new release has no bearing on the price structure. Colleges holding Blackboard licenses can upgrade to the 9.0 version at no extra cost; Finnefrock said she expects many institutions will pilot the new version this spring and summer and fully launch it come fall.
Blackboard declined to release the full list of universities that have been doing Beta testing for confidentiality reasons, but recommended three institutions that are now in the piloting or co-production phase. Two could be reached; both officials described only minor problems, and general satisfaction with the updated software.
Donna Wicks, senior system administrator for Blackboard at Kettering University, in Michigan, said that, in addition to the notification systems, she’s particularly impressed by the new look and ability to customize the site. “Not that the old Blackboard is terrible, but it looks out of date. This new version, it’s just, it's a cleaner look.… I’ve been able to do more with our log-in page. I’ve really customized it. I don’t feel like I’m at a Blackboard site when I go to the page. I feel like it’s a Kettering page that’s been built.”
Lonnie Harvel, vice president of educational technology at Georgia Gwinnett College, said he was particularly pleased by the "mashup" quality of the new release -- in other words, the ability to import other systems into Blackboard (and export, too). "The interface is more of a robust, portaling environment that is allowing us to bring more services from outside the Blackboard toolset into that environment," he said. For instance, "with the new environment, I can simply connect it to my campus announcement system.... It's all a matter of being able to weave the different information sources together in one place."
Moving forward, Harvel said Blackboard has the daunting task of keeping two very different constituencies happy -- long-time Blackboard users and clients of its old competitor WebCT, which Blackboard bought in 2005 . Individuals could be religious in their original preferences, said Harvel (who described himself as an agnostic in that debate). "I think that will probably be one of the biggest challenges that Blackboard has to struggle with, bringing these two platforms together.... They're going to be dealing with two different sets of expectations."
A spokeswoman for a current Blackboard competitor, Desire2Learn, said that the company (which tangled with Blackboard in a much-watched legal battle ) has also been focused on social learning and interfacing with other technologies "for quite some time." Valerie Beyer cited, for instance, the company's e-Portfolio , launched last March -- "that really pushed us into the social learning space.” Desire2Learn released an application for BlackBerry in July .
Another player in the e-learning space, Epsilen, has emphasized social learning and e-portfolios. "Blackboard has held market share for a long time, and they’ve built their brand on CMS, and they’re adding some new functionality," said Felice Nudelman, executive director of education for The New York Times Company, which has an investment in Epsilen . "But the sense I get is it is not at its core a Web 2.0 environment.”