Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (or OMG! We’re Moving to Blackboard!!)

It’s been a while since I posted any fresh material here, and that’s basically because when last I wrote, my institution was beginning to discuss the possibility of switching LMS’s.  As this evaluation process was a confidential internal matter, I opted not to mention it at all and decided to put the blog on hiatus until such time that I felt I could write about what was going on.

So, we’re in our first pilot semester running Blackboard.  We’ve got Bb Learn 9.1 running about 20 sections, and the remaining courses are in ANGEL.  We’ll be transitioning into Blackboard with new batches of courses each semester until finally, in Spring 2015, we’ll be 100% in Blackboard.  The migration process is complex and fraught with potential pitfalls.  We’ve done what I feel is an exceptional job planning for the transition, but as with any major system change, we are prepared to experience rough spots along the way.

My job in this transition takes several forms, and as the migration progresses, I’ll be using my blog as a platform on which to vent my frustrations, chronicle my discoveries, and the hats I wear look like this…

First, I’m responsible for getting the data to flow from our SIS into Blackboard.  Without data, the system is sort of useless.  My first task was to take the data from our SIS and bring it into Blackboard so that Blackboard would create courses and user accounts, and associate users with courses.  The data had to be parsed and formatted for two LMS’s and I had to make sure that the right data was going to the right place.  A gigantic mind map of the process and code worked wonders in helping me keep everything on track.  Here’s how it works… We get the data as a flat text file from our SIS, and I wrote a set of VBA macros to parse, reformat, and export the data into the appropriate formats.  There are 3 files that I get from the SIS, and I had to process those files and generate 8 output files (4 for each LMS).  I won’t bore anyone (including myself) with the details, but suffice it to say, it was a mammoth task.  Now that this is running, I’m refining the process a bit more so as to expedite file processing and streamline all the processes.

My second task was to customize the Blackboard interface for our institution.  So, I did just that.  Blackboard provides a certain amount of flexibility for customization, but there are points where our hands are tied.  (Our Blackboard Learn platform is hosted by Blackboard.  If we were self-hosted then we’d have power to do pretty much everything.)  For example, while I can customize practically every visual element of the LMS, I can’t change the system icons (which are hideous).  So, in my more ambitious design tasks, I’ve opted to forego the use of system icons and use the “text only” option, then add my own images to the descriptions, but that’s in the course design portion of our program which I’ve not even talked about yet….

The next task, and one which will continue for the next year or so, is the migration of courses from ANGEL into Blackboard.  This is a tedious and often frustrating endeavor, but again, it’s gotta get done.  So we roll up our sleeves and dig in….  We create a copy of the course in ANGEL and ask the faculty members to clean up these “Migration Master” courses.  Once they’ve cleaned up the courses, we export them from ANGEL and import them into Blackboard.  Then, the real work of digging through each element of the course kicks into high gear.  We have to inspect all the course elements and make sure that they carried over properly.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  It all depends on the course and the way the content was developed and organized.

Along with this, I’m working with a faculty member to design and develop a fully-online lab science course.  This is our second such course.  Our first, a fully online human anatomy course, relies heavily on publisher materials and was quite easy to migrate.  This course, however, uses lab kits provided by a vendor, but the course content is 100% home grown.  Needless to say, this has been a mighty learning experience.  But the resultant course is a thing of beauty.  It incorporates many of the features that make Blackboard Learn 9.1 such a strong product, and offers some creative solutions to problems that vex anyone designing fully online lab science courses.  One of these days I’ll write a more extensive article about how this was done.  It’s an amazing course and we’re very proud of our work.

On top of all this, we’re training our faculty to use Blackboard.  The faculty participating in our pilot this semester are all experienced online instructors, and their feedback has helped us shape the training we give other faculty members.  We’re grateful for their participation.  We can design and develop and migrate all day long, but if we don’t have the faculty to teach the courses, there ain’t a whole lot we can do.  These brave folks have weathered the complications like true champions.  Once we get done with this first semester, I think I’ll buy a drink for each of them….

So the hands are full right now, and we’re juggling a bunch of stuff.  But I love this, and I’d be a liar if I said otherwise.  I’ll be posting more about the process as it continues, and I plan on using my blog as a repository for links just so I can find the things I need as I move along…

Til next time…

~R

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