New version of Blackboard Web system reduces bugs

An upgrade to Blackboard will be made later this month to address the bugs that caused the Web site to be down for three weeks last semester, according to Alicia Balsera, associate director of academic computing.

Version 6.1 of Blackboard will be implemented following testing of the new release. Before the fall semester, USF upgraded Blackboard from version 5.5 to version 6.0 to accommodate the growing number of online courses and tests being administered. However, heavy user load caused difficulties for faculty and students.

Mark Hafen, professor of geography at USF, abandoned Blackboard after problems he encountered trying to reach his students.

“There was a flaw in the testing software … that (the creators of the program) were unaware of,” Hafen said. “One of the bugs in the new Blackboard software made it slow down whenever too many students would log on.”

Hafen said the slower connection to Blackboard resulted in lost information and abandoned tests, and eventually the geography department abandoned using the university-wide online classroom supplement.

According to Hafen, last semester was the first time the department tried testing online. Hafen’s world regional geography class, which had 800 students, was partly dependent upon online assignments. Too many students would log onto Blackboard at once to do the assignments, Hafen said, and the entire system would slow down, making it ineffective for faculty.

“A lot of the problem was with students themselves, though. Many students would wait until last minute (to complete an assignment), and they all would be logged on, slowing down every function of Blackboard,” Hafen said.

Some faculty members think the bugs have been worked out of the system, however, and continue to incorporate the site into their classes.

“I think, for one thing, that Blackboard makes it very easy to distribute material and give students resources online,” said Richard Taylor, professor of philosophy at USF. “I think students appreciate the fact that they can get grades as soon as I am finished grading something. We had major problems when they switched over to the newer version at the beginning of last semester. But now they seem to have most of those worked out.”

According to Balsera, the changes made to Blackboard will be primarily for faculty, and neither students nor faculty should be affected by the transition.

“(The upgrade) will mostly benefit the faculty trying to use the site. For students it will behave the same way it has been. We will not have the same issues we did last semester,” Balsera said.

Blackboard allows teachers to post assignments, announcements and other documents for their students. It also allows students and teachers to e-mail each other and view grades online. For the faculty members that have embraced the system, Blackboard has become a valuable tool.

“I think two things: One is it facilitates communications. You can put announcements up for students. You can e-mail them; they can e-mail you,” said world language education professor John Campbell. “Number two is you can … take advantage of a closed system, because you only can access it with a login ID. You can post documents in a secure forum.”

Campbell said the system has improved since the fall, and that bugs are bound to happen once in a while.

“It works pretty smoothly now. It’s obviously improving all the time,” he said. “With all the work done on computers now, you run the risk of encountering some problems. But this semester it has been working.”

Campbell said Blackboard not only benefits students, but that it saves teachers time and resources as well. Ultimately, he added, the system is aimed at improving the faculty’s ability to reach its students.

“I suspect students do appreciate Blackboard,” he said. “I post grades and supplementary material to help them. I suspect in general the students like it.

“Most students are computer literate and know how to use it.

“And because what I post on the Web site is only supplemental, it doesn’t hurt attendance. If students aren’t coming to class, they won’t come to class regardless of whether I use Blackboard or not. What goes on Blackboard is strictly supplemental to what I teach in class.”

Adam Becker contributed to this story.