BlackBoard Vista takes e-learning to a new level

Tara Powers

Have you ever heard of BlackBoard Vista?

Believe it or not, it’s what you probably know as WebCT, that online course management system that your professors might use to post readings or give quizzes.

Villanova decided to enter the e-learning market in 1998, when WebCT was offered for free. The interface was developed by a group of faculty members, so it was ideal for use in academic institutions, and all of its tools were geared to a class environment.

“The intention was to meet the needs coming out of the administration, who were looking to move some of their classes online,” said Kevin Donahue, supervisor for Instructional Technologies at UNIT.

In October 2005, WebCT merged with BlackBoard, another e-learning company. The interface remained under the BlackBoard name, but the company is trying to synthesize the best features of each system into its current model, Blackboard Vista.

What would become BlackBoard Vista was piloted at Villanova in the summer of 2006 and was fully implemented in fall 2006.

Wimba tools, third-party applications available through BlackBoard Vista, make audio teaching and learning possible. Voice board – a bulletin board feature that includes audio discussions – is one such tool. Wimba LiveClassroom also makes use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology.

Wimba became fully available to Villanova professors in fall 2007, although this interface is not well-known in the Villanova community. Richard Wack, instructional technology analyst for UNIT, cited the emergence of virtual office hours as a way in which professors can make use of Wimba’s enhanced conferencing tools and make managing a larger group of students easier.

While use of BlackBoard Vista is perhaps more frequent in the School of Business and College of Engineering, where technology is more directly related to future careers, Wack and Donahue stressed that such use is dependent on the choices of individual faculty members.

“If you take a look back at the real adoption rate, it has always been faculty-driven,” Donahue said. “Those who want to use it are the ones we will support.”

While some functions of Vista, such as podcasts and assessments, may work well for larger lecture classes, seminar classes often make use of features like the discussion board or calendar.

“Different tools help different professors based on their personalities or the subject matter of the course,” Donahue said.

One major advantage of Vista is that any third-party application, such as iTunes U or e-Portfolio, is linked directly from the BlackBoard Vista page as well, making the process as streamlined as possible.

“We have third-party applications, but we try to integrate them so everyone knows where to go,” Donahue said.

Vista also creates a standard foundation on which faculty members can build their individual courses. However, this makes things difficult when some professors choose to use different interfaces, such as eEducation.

“Using BlackBoard Vista gives students a consistent environment,” Wack said. The variety of Web pages faculty can use to host their classes results in students’ having to accommodate different styles and layouts.

However, faculty and students alike agree that when technology is made available, it helps to reinforce the material encountered in class.

“I hold a chat room for pre-exam review sessions, and I post my course syllabus, copies of all class e-mails, lab handouts [and] old exams,” Dr. Phil Stephens said. “In addition, I have developed programs like … an mp3 player, which allows me to integrate recorded lectures with HTML notes.”

“[Dr.] Stephens, would record his lectures and put them on WebCT,” sophomore Stephanie Scianni said. “They could be downloaded to your computer or to your iPod – I thought that was great.”

“I love it, and I hate it,” Dr. Timothy Horner, professor of humanities, said of BlackBoard Vista. “My students can access all PDF files online and can print them out themselves … My syllabus gets updated quite a bit, and the changes are reflected quickly and easily so that my students always have an authoritative syllabus on WebCT.”

Horner’s students appreciate this instantaneous access to class materials.

“We were not required to buy any texts for the class, which was wonderful, so instead [Dr. Horner] posted readings on WebCT that we could use our VPrint to print out,” sophomore Danielle Davies said. “My only complaint is that it is often slow, and the dialogue boxes that always pop up are annoying.”

Other ‘Nova students agreed with this complaint.

“WebCT seems to be overloaded with content, making it both extremely slow and sometimes difficult to navigate,” sophomore Diana Misdary said. “Not many of my professors have used it, and the ones who have used it seemed very comfortable with the complex technology, which may be the deterrent for others.”

But for some classes, there is no other option – all teaching and learning takes place online.

“I have had a little more use of WebCT because I took a distance-learning class last summer, so the whole class was based off of WebCT,” sophomore Amanda Slattery said. 

While distance-learning classes use BlackBoard Vista exclusively, most students touch Vista in some form, even in face-to-face, traditional classes. Still, though, not all professors and students are as well-versed in Vista as those involved in distance-learning.

“The majority of professors only use WebCT to post readings online, which is helpful, but I think the program is good for a lot more than that,” Slattery said.

Online tutorials for professors and students are available on UNIT’s Web site. UNIT has plans to record videos to post on the Web that are more “self-service,” addressing faculty members’ specific needs, such as posting syllabi. They also offer faculty workshops as well as one-on-one tutorial sessions year-round. However, such seminars receive mixed reactions.

“If you need to explain it, it’s too complex,” Horner said. “It should be designed in such a way that it’s intuitive. It’s just daunting and unnecessarily so.”

“If it were not for the amazing support we get from Joan Lesovitz and her colleagues at UNIT, I would find the program rather frustrating,” said Dr. John Immerwahr, professor of philosophy. 

“In most cases, someone from the department is more than willing to talk to resolve your individual issue,” Kevin Donahue said. “The biggest mistake anyone can make is not calling and asking.”

Feedback from other colleges and universities in the Big 5 that use the BlackBoard system is varied.

“In my experience at Penn, I’d say more than 50 percent of my classes have used BlackBoard to some extent or another,” said Michael Blodgett, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. “I have found it really easy, and I find myself relying on it for access to class assignments or notes anywhere that has access to the Internet.”

Blodgett’s complaints, rather than being about technical difficulties, centered on professors’ reluctance to use the program with which he has become comfortable.

“The only complaint I have is when teachers use ‘lazy’ students as a reason not to post helpful lecture notes,” Blodgett said. “While not unique to Penn, some students have used posted lecture notes in lieu of attending class. So a handful of the teachers hesitate when posting this material to BlackBoard.”

St. Joseph’s University also uses a BlackBoard interface.

“It really depends on the teacher,” said Mairead Kelly, a sophomore at St. Joe’s. “Some teachers do not utilize it at all. Others post homework, add links to course documents and additional readings, post the slides for the lecture that day or you can send your papers through it. I also had one teacher who had us post a blog a couple times a week to respond to the readings.”

UNIT has plans for the future as well. They are actively researching SafeAssign, a program that will enable faculty members to prevent plagiarism by running student papers against a database of other papers.

Donahue says UNIT is also hoping to get the second application pack of BlackBoard Vista installed in the future, but such an upgrade will require significant updates to the University’s operating system.

“We are expected to be up 24/7, so finding the time to do large updates is a challenge,” Donahue said.

Despite the glitches that may be encountered, Wack made sure to reinforce the main goal of programs like BlackBoard Vista.

“Having learning materials available in many different mediums – having 24/7 access,” Wack said.