I teach at Tamagawa University, a beautiful campus about 40 minutes west of Shinjuku. The total student body at Tamagawa University is approximately 8,000 strong. To communicate online with that population, my school started using the Blackboard LMS platform in early 2004. For those of you not familiar with Blackboard or an LMS, allow me to briefly explain.
An LMS, or Learning Management System, is either a software application or web-based technology that is used to plan, deliver and assess learning. An LMS provides a teacher with many tools and students with many resources. A teacher can send out class-wide announcements, create and deliver content, monitor student participation, and even assess student performance. In addition, it provides students with the ability to use interactive features such as blogs, online journals, threaded discussions and wikis. There are numerous institutional learning management systems available, including Moodle, Desire2Learn, Canvas, Sakai, Language Cloud, and of course, Blackboard.
Blackboard ranks as one of the biggest players in the LMS business, one of the most powerful, and also one – if not the – most expensive platforms out there. However, despite the ubiquity, variety and the power of these collaborative platforms, like any tech tool, the problem I find lies with getting our students to use them.
Although my students all have a personal PC, and it’s not unusual for them to be required to bring it to class everyday, there is never a shortage of sighs and complaints when a teacher makes this demand; “It’s too heavy”, “My PC is broken”, “I can’t connect to the wi-fi”, are all too common gripes. However, they are glued to their smartphones (or is it vice versa?) and as more and more students in Japan (and indeed, around the world) are accessing their digital online content via smartphones, it was only a matter of time before my institution decided to test drive the Blackboard Mobile app (screen shot from iPhone below).
As one of the resident “techies” on campus, my colleague (and fellow contributor to DMLL, Brett Milliner) and I were asked to pilot the mobile application of Blackboard for a slated campus-wide release in 2014. The pilot version – for both iOS and Android – was made available to students in my academic English classes, about 30 students total. Support staff from my university’s e-Education Centre visited my classes for about 20 minutes to explain to the students what their teacher had gotten them involved in and how to basically operate the app. At the moment, and until the big rollout next year, my university is operating two separate servers specifically for Blackboard: one for the PC-based version and another one for the mobile version. Obviously this helps with the data organisation but it does present a bit of a problem for now since the two servers are not synced with each other. It’s more of an inconvenience as I have to periodically check both the PC and the mobile sites.
I downloaded the Bb Mobile app on my iPad and my students on their smartphones. I must admit: during the first month of using the app I wasn’t terribly impressed. It seemed “heavy”, as in too many features from the PC platform were simply copied across into the mobile platform and as a result, it didn’t really feel like a proper, streamlined mobile version. However, when compared to the PC version, my students have heaped praise on the ease of posting to our class blog page and I like the fact that any announcements sent to the students via Blackboard pop up as a push notification on their lock screen. Now, when something is due, there are no “I didn’t see your message” excuses!
Operating and maintaining an online LMS platform – be it mobile or traditional – for 8,000 students and about 2,000 faculty and staff is no small feat; nor is it a meagre budgetary item. Tamagawa University has an entire department (e-Education Centre) devoted to its Blackboard system, including the faculty and student email accounts. Whether their time, effort and investment in Blackboard is rewarded through increased student access using the mobile app remains to be seen. At the very least, yet significantly, I do believe this mobile platform will increase the frequency and chances that my students will have to interact with English, anytime and anywhere.