May 17, 2010

Planning for the demise of WebCT

Faculty, meet Blackboard 9.1. This summer, four of the university’s academic divisions will switch to the popular course management software, now in use at a majority of U.S. colleges. Three others will be upgrading to the latest version in the near future.

Blackboard will replace WebCT, the virtual learning system at Johns Hopkins since 2000. No courses will be offered in WebCT after summer 2010.

The Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Whiting School of Engineering, SAIS and Peabody will migrate existing course sites to Blackboard starting July 6 and begin use in the fall. (Part-time programs in the Krieger and Whiting schools will continue with Sakai, a customizable community source system used by more than 200 colleges and universities worldwide.) The Carey Business School, School of Medicine and the School of Nursing currently use an earlier version of Blackboard, and a specific migration schedule to 9.1 is being finalized.

The Bloomberg School of Public Health and School of Education have their own proprietary course management systems, which they developed specifically for their faculty and students, and have no current plans to switch to Blackboard.

Blackboard is a Web-based course management system that allows students and faculty to participate in online classes or use online materials and activities to complement face-to-face teaching. Through Blackboard, instructors can provide students with course materials, discussion boards, virtual chats, online quizzes and other functions. Faculty routinely use the system to post a course syllabus, assignments and a schedule of due dates.

Version 9.1, which was released in March, has a new user interface to take advantage of current Web technologies. Faculty can now create course blogs, foster social networking or integrate into their sites multimedia files, such as YouTube videos.

The massive migration will be coordinated by instructional support staff in each division, such as the Center for Educational Resources for the Homewood divisions, and carried out by IT@JH.

Blackboard Inc. purchased WebCT in 2006 and later announced it would phase out the product. At Johns Hopkins, a task force was established to look into a replacement system, and a user survey was conducted last year. Faculty overwhelmingly chose Blackboard, which has become the industry standard.

Amy Brusini, a training specialist with the Center for Educational Resources, said that while WebCT’s phaseout necessitated the move, some faculty had criticized WebCT’s lack of intuitiveness. “Plus, if you think about any software system that was developed 10 years ago, you can imagine the frustrations some faculty have been dealing with,” she said.

Candice Dalrymple, associate dean of university libraries and director of the CER, said that Blackboard’s interface should facilitate the migration. “The new version of Blackboard takes into account the idiosyncrasies of WebCT, and hopefully this will minimize headaches for the faculty,” Dalrymple said.

Faculty are being asked to back up content they have on WebCT and delete files they no longer use. They have the option to manually migrate their preferred content to Blackboard on or after July 6 or request that it be moved for them automatically.

To ensure that nothing gets lost, the center is encouraging faculty to migrate the data themselves. Steve Hellen, director of academic applications for IT@JH, said that Blackboard’s user-friendly “drag and drop” interface should make the process relatively straightforward.

For those divisions using Blackboard, course sites will automatically be created for every course defined in ISIS, the student information service. Faculty can then opt if and when to publish the course site to their students, as use of the system is optional.

“We hope that as time goes on and more faculty perceive Blackboard’s advantages, they will use it,” Dalrymple said. “Even a modest course site with a syllabus and a calendar is useful. A faculty member can point students to due dates for papers or exams, for example.”

The Center for Educational Resources and the participating schools will offer training—one-on-one sessions and small group classes—throughout the summer months. Migration instructions, Blackboard video tutorials, tip sheets and other materials will be available online.

“We will have a very robust set of resources for faculty to make this transition as smooth as possible, and to accommodate any schedule,” Dalrymple said. “We think this is a major step forward.”

For up-to-date information on the migration, go to The site also lists Blackboard training sessions that have been scheduled for Homewood.