Blackboard Learn contract up for consideration, Iowa State looks at possible alternatives


Blackboard, Access Plus, Course planning and the directory are common online resources students use. 

Emily Hammer

Students not graduating by the end of the fall 2017 semester might be seeing a new learning management system (LMS) next spring as Iowa State’s contract with BlackBoard Learn expires in December.

Ann Marie VanDerZanden, director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) and Mike Lohrbach, director of Information Technology Services, are leading the efforts to find the optimal LMS for the university to adopt, whether that means staying with BlackBoard Learn or switching to another LMS.

As of April 6, two vendors have been selected for an LMS demonstration: Canvas and Desire2Learn. They will visit campus in the coming weeks for students, faculty and staff to provide input on Iowa State’s future LMS.

Here’s what VanDerZanden and Lohrbach had to say about the process so far.

What are your roles?

VanDerZanden: My role, and Mike’s role, is we’re co-leading the overall review across campus. CELT provides support to faculty on how they use the LMS, currently BlackBoard, from a teaching standpoint. So wanting to have class discussions, or something like that in there, or setting up quizzes or exams or however they’re going to use it from a teaching standpoint.

Lohrbach: And the information technology team supports the existing system via the servers and storage infrastructure, as well as integrations with the other technologies across campus, our student information system and our authentication systems.

So you are deciding if you want to change the system?

Lohrbach: Exactly. We’re deciding. Our existing solution, the contract is up for that in December of ‘17, so we’ve been performing a review, meeting with several departments and units and groups across campus since November to solicit feedback on what is the best course to proceed on for campus. Knowing that the learning management space changed a lot in the last several years and looking at it is an opportunity to investigate what options Iowa State would have going forward.

What is the feedback that you’ve received so far?

VanDerZanden: I would say that, as we have spoken to the different stakeholder groups – faculty, instructional designers, students, graduate students, administrators – the interest is there to look at our current product, see what new opportunities are available with a new LMS. The timing is good because our current contract is up, so we need to make a decision. Either we renew or we go to a different product. There’s been some real interest in looking at what the new opportunities are. Along with that, there’s always some concern about change, not only from the faculty members standpoint but also the students and graduate students.

If you go through with changing the LMS, is there one you have in mind?

Lohrbach: How this works is we develop a matrix of requirements and each vendor has to submit their ability to meet those requirements. It’s very objective how we rate these. Based on that information, we’ll bring vendors in for some additional feedback and engagement from faculty, students and others across campus to help us support that recommendation that we make to the provost. So it’s a very objective process that we have to do as a public state institution.

If there is a transition, what would be some of the challenges?

VanDerZanden: When it comes to any type of new technology, there’s alway the learning curve. So that learning curve will be present for students, for graduate students, for faculty, for anybody who’s going to be involved with the LMS. The good news is that LMSs have been on the market now for a number of years and many of them have very similar features, kind of a similar look and layout. You can get in a Ford and it’s going to drive similar to a Chevy, so it’s not like we’re doing something completely brand new on campus that nobody has experience with. I think where the challenge will be is just getting folks up to speed on it, so people feel comfortable in using it, so it can be as seamless as possible for faculty as well as for the students.

What kind of enhancements are you hoping to see?

Lohrbach: Some of the feedback we got based on newer technologies obviously is mobile capabilities are a strong desire. The accessibility for students is something that we put a lot of consideration and value into for this project. This process is to make sure that whatever we end up going with is an accessible solution.

What are some of the downsides of BlackBoard Learn?

VanDerZanden: Some of the things that we heard that people would like to see improved was the mobile capabilities. Accessibility, making sure that it was easy enough to get content in the website that was fully accessible to a range of learners with visual, audible, a range of potential needs that they would have. The other area that people would like to see some improvement on is the grade book. The functionality of it, I would say, is kind of a love-hate relationship. They like how you can get lots of information in there. Students like it because they can see where they are and keep track in a real time type of basis. But there’s a lot of functionality that goes on behind the scenes that it can be a little cumbersome to work with though.

Lohrbach: That was another one that came up in a lot of discussions and obviously we have a wide range of users across campus but the overall user experience is something that is going to be very important going forward as we choose a solution.

Are you going to look at what other schools use to make this decision?

Lohrbach: We do have a close relationship with our regent institutions here in Iowa as well as contacts in several other higher education peer institutions. And we have had discussions with several of them just to help us understand what challenges they went through as they transitioned, what did they do to handle migrations of course content, what training materials were developed. More than likely, we can borrow some of the content that has been created or learn from the process that they went through. So we do have discussions and have talked to the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa. On the website, it actually gives the status of what Iowa and University of Northern Iowa are doing.

Who will decide what LMS we use at the end of this contract?

VanDerZanden: It’s not us making the decision. We are leading the review and the gathering of the information and the data analysis, but the decision is made by the Senior Vice President and Provost Wickert.

Lohrbach: We’re kind of an advisory group, we’re charged with going out and soliciting feedback from campus. As we go through that review process, there have been plenty of opportunities for students, faculty, staff to give feedback via surveys, via email, to weigh in on that. We’ve had pretty good participation up to this point.

VanDerZanden: It’s been a combination of face-to-face meetings in the fall, the online survey we had quite a good response rate from. We also have a steering committee made up of faculty from across the campus with representation from the Faculty Senate as well who helped provide the initial feedback when we first got started. We’ll bring them back into the review process now that we’re a little bit farther along. They also will be providing input.