Blackboard, as we are all aware, is primarily designed as learning platform. Its purpose is to allow teachers and students to communicate with each other in a variety of direct and indirect, synchronous and asynchronous means, and via that communication, to support and foster learning. For some, that function alone may be sufficient to justify the licence fee and was certainly the view that I took in my early years of utilising Blackboard in my teaching.
Things have changed, however. As the financial situation of the UK Further Education sector has worsened over the past year or so (and looks likely to continue in that vein in the immediate future), it has become increasingly important to maximise the benefits to the organisation of any expenditure made and to justify why that expenditure should continue to be made. In relation to the cost of the Blackboard licence there are a number of ways of doing this.
The most obvious way of maximising the investment in your Blackboard licence is to increase the use of Blackboard for teaching and learning, and this is probably something to which all of us aspire – providing it is appropriate to do so, of course! This is often a difficult aim to achieve, however, and is more likely to be a relatively medium to long-term goal, taking three years or more before the majority of academic courses utilise Blackboard in their teaching and learning.
With a little lateral thinking, however, it is fairly easy to identify other ways of using the functionality of the Blackboard learning platform for other areas within your institution without this having too much impact on the primary use of Blackboard for teaching and learning. As stated in the opening paragraph of this piece, I see Blackboard as being, primarily, a communication vehicle between teachers and students. This communication ranges from a fairly static one-way process (pushing content towards the student with instructions on what they should do with it), through an intermediary bi-directional form of communication (the passing back and forth of files plus comments via the digital drop-box, for example), to real-time two-way communication via the interactive virtual classroom.
These same communication tools can be utilised for non-teaching purposes as well. For example, Blackboard course sites (or Organizations, if you have the community system) can be used to aid communication within both teaching and non-teaching teams in an institution by:
- acting as document repositories for such things as minutes of meetings;
- providing an effective route of delivering important information, access to which, of course, can be targeted and tracked (and thus removing the necessity to e-mail large files to numerous people);
- acting as a project management tool via the reporting of progress towards milestones etc. on a (group) discussion board;
- facilitating virtual meetings via the virtual classroom, thus cutting down on travel time/costs for multi-campus institutions (and allowing ‘instant’ minute-taking via the record facility);
- ensuring that all team members are accessing the latest version of important documents/ files etc.;
Thus, the one licence fee, is now being used to support both teaching and non-teaching areas of the institution and the power and functionality of the software that the licence fee buys is being leveraged to its maximum.
There are, however, additional costs involved, such as the training ofr non-teaching staff in using Blackboard. As employers, however, it makes sound business sense to train staff to work more effectively and efficiently and it is surely more cost-effective to train all staff to use one sytem than different groups of staff to use different systems.
At City of Sunderland College we are already taking advantage of using Blackboard for non-teaching areas. For instance our Facilities Management Division (which comprises Estates, Catering, Caretaking Services, ICT Services, Telephony Services, Media Services, Examination Services, Purchasing, Learning Centres, Design and Publishing, Reprographics and the e-Learning Team) have had a Blackboard organisation since September 2004. Prior to this, communication across these different services was fragmented and the level of mutual understanding of the roles they played within the college was somewhat limited. The use of the Blackboard organisation site, however, has changed that. We all have access to each others team minutes, team targets, operational plans and so on, and the ability of this disparate division to work more cohesively has improved as a consequence.
Our next step in leveraging the benefit we take from our Blackboard licence fee is to utilise Blackboard as a replacement for our existing staff intranet. In essence, we will be using two organisation sites, that all college staff will be enrolled on to replace the current intranet. One will be called ‘My College’ and will be where each department, division and unit will make available to the wider college staff community information about who they are and what they do. The other will be called ‘My Resources’ and will be a repository for such things as standard college forms, policies, links to important external web-sites and so on.
The precise details of what goes where and how it will all be managed is being worked through via a series of consultation workshops and, although still in its early stages, there has been a very positive response to this initiative from all the staff who have contributed to the consultation process so far, with the most common response being something along the lines of “It makes sense to use a system that many staff (i.e. teachers) are already familiar with, in order to improve on the way that the intranet is used and managed.” We are convinced that this response will be repeated throughout the year as we progress the project and that we will have no difficulty in reaching our target of switching off the current staff intranet at the end of this academic year.