Blackboard, WordPress, or Both?

I recently chatted with some incoming faculty at an orientation event.  When I mentioned Rampages–our multi-site WordPress install–for course sites, some faculty asked why they would want to use this, given that Blackboard is the default LMS here at VCU.  Good question, so I thought I’d sketch out some of the thinking below. 

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  • Blackboard is the default Learning Management System (LMS) at VCU. All course enrollments (along with student email addresses) are fed automatically into Blackboard.  
  • A multi-site installation of WordPress called Rampages (named after the VCU mascot) is available for you (and your students) to create your own websites.  (Since the Fall of 2014, all first-year undergraduate students have been creating their own Rampage website as part of the UNIV Focused Inquiry program.)

Since both Blackboard and WordPress are available, why would you use one, the other, or both in your courses?  Here is some background to help you decide.

Blackboard_Logo

Blackboard

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WordPress (Rampages)

What is it?

Blackboard is specialized commercial course management software that helps instructors handle the administrative logistics of a course, such as offering online quizzes and posting grades securely.  Over the years, additional features have been added in an attempt to mimic some of the options available on the open web, such as blogs and a discussion board. Rampages is a multi-site installation of WordPress, an open website platform, originally created for blogging but now used for a wide variety of applications and content management.  (Currently, nearly 20% of all websites are WordPress sites.) Because it is an open source platform, new applications are constantly being developed that can be incorporated into your site.
How is it structured?
Blackboard is a centralized software system.  Much of its functionality is self-contained.  Students visit a course website, for example, to submit work, take quizzes, or add a comment to a discussion board. The result is an integrated, enclosed experience. WordPress sites are decentralized and can be configured in a variety of ways.  A single course site can be created where students work.  More commonly, instructors and students each create their own sites, but content for a course can be aggregated from many student sites onto a course site.
Standardized or flexible?
Blackboard has a standardized look, feel, and functionality, most of which is locked-in by the vendor.  This results in consistency across courses but limited flexibility.  Users often describe it as “clunky” and not very attractive but it is useful for getting basic administrative tasks done. WordPress has a large number of themes (that provide different visual looks), plugins, and widgets (that offer variable functionality) making it highly flexible, and enabling the creation of distinct one-of-a-kind sites.  At first, all of these options can seem a little overwhelming for new users but those who stick with it are usually much more satisfied with the results.
Open, closed, portable?
Blackboard content is “walled off” with only authorized users (students) allowed to view content.  Students do not control any of the content they create on Blackboard and their content cannot be easily exported to be saved or used elsewhere.  Students also lose access to their course materials shortly after the course is over. WordPress’ site content is typically viewable on the open web by anyone who either has the URL (web address) or who finds it via a search engine.  However, some pages can be password protected if privacy is a concern.  Site content can also be left up online as long as an instructor wants.
What can I do with it?
With Blackboard you can:

  • post course content
  • quiz students online
  • create and use grading rubrics
  • keep a gradebook and post grades
  • use Blackboard’s plagiarism prevention service (SafeAssign)
  • lockdown a student’s browser while taking a test (Respondus)
  • use Blackboard’s version of blogs
  • use Blackboard’s discussion forum
  • use Blackboard’s basic wiki
  • email registered students en masse
  • use Blackboard Collaborate for video chats
  • connect to publisher-created textbook websites

The focus tends to be on creating a controlled, tightly managed environment.

Rather than a list of discrete tasks that exist in a separate environment, WordPress sites are fully “of the web.”  That is, they can be integrated with almost anything on the web and can be used to:

  • present course content of all sorts (text, video, audio, data visualizations, etc.) in highly customizable ways
  • aggregate student-created content from student web sites or via customized submission forms (to add text, images, and other content)
  • import media content, such as Twitter feeds, news and blog feeds
  • showcase content to a potentially broad web audience for possible feedback and interaction

The focus tends to be on an open, connected, and fluid environment.

Why would I use it?
Blackboard is probably best for instructors…

  • who are looking for traditional course management tools
  • who are not tech- or web-savvy and who have no interest in learning
  • who are primarily focused on handling the logistics of classes, especially in large-enrollment courses
  • who like the familiarity of a standardized course site
  • who want to keep their course “behind closed doors” due to privacy or safety concerns.  
  • who are not concerned with controlling or exporting course content (either your own or students’)
WordPress is probably best for instructors…

  • looking for a contemporary platform on which to organize unique course content and activities
  • who may or may not be tech- or web-savvy but who are interested in learning
  • who are primarily focused on offering engaging learning experiences and taking advantage of the web’s capabilities, such as multimedia elements
  • who want customization, ranging from a unique course site look to creating cutting edge learning experiences.
  • who want to help students learn to smartly navigate and use the many resources available on the open web, as well as become content creators, not just consumers.
  • who want to let students control the content they create, perhaps exporting it for future use in professional web site, while posting to a potentially broader audience on the open web
What are the drawbacks?
Blackboard is not so good at…

  • delivering engaging, customized courses
  • meeting the expectations of today’s students, who are accustomed to web sites with higher-level functionality and a more contemporary look and feel.
  • facilitating learning
  • integrating with the open web, including engaging with social media, and integrating multiple platforms  
WordPress is not so good at:

  • offering a quick-start, standardized course template, with no planning
  • handling course logistics, such as posting grades or emailing an entire class.  Both can be done but need some advance preparation.
  • serving as a platform for quizzes and exams
Either or both?
While not mirror-images of each other, Blackboard and WordPress do tend to have complementary strengths and weakness.  Consequently, some faculty choose to use Blackboard for basic course administration (especially posting grades) and any quizzing, while using WordPress to present course content and facilitate student activities.  
To learn more…
  • Take a look at some examples of course web sites created on WordPress.
  • ALT Lab maintains Rampages and provides advice and assistance to faculty in setting up courses using WordPress.  On Wednesdays and Thursdays from noon to 2 p.m. we have open office hours–our “Agora”–to discuss any teaching issues, including WordPress.
  • VCU Technology Services provides support for their own WordPress installation, including WordPress trainings. This is not Rampages (which has more options for users)  but the WordPress basics are the same.
  • WordPress has extensive support material and an active online community.

 

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