Using TAs As Key Component Of Active Learning Transformation at UC Davis

Last week I described how UC Davis is making efforts to personalize one of the most impersonal of learning experiences – large lecture introductory science courses. It is telling that the first changes that they made were not to the lecture itself but to the associated discussion sections led by teaching assistants (TAs). It is well known that much of the instruction in lower division classes at large universities is led not by faculty but by TAs. This situation is often seen as a weakness of the business model of a research university, but it can also be leveraged as an opportunity to lead educational change. Consider this interview with staff from the iAMSTEM group at UC Davis from our e-Literate TV series on personalized learning:


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Blackboard’s Messaging Problems

There are a lot of things that are hard to evaluate from the outside when gauging how a company is doing under new management in the midst of a turnaround with big new products coming out. For example, how good is Ultra, Blackboard’s new user experience? (At least, I think the user experience is what they mean by “Ultra.” Most of the time.) We can look at it from the outside and play around with it for a bit, but the best way to judge it is to talk to a lot of folks who have spent time living with it and delivering courses in it. There aren’t that many of those at the moment. Blackboard has offered to put us in touch with some of them, and we will let you know what we learn from them after we talk to them. How likely is Blackboard to deliver the promised functionality on their Ultra to-do list to other customers on schedule (or at all)? Since this is a big initiative and the company doesn’t have much of a track record, it’s hard to tell in advance of them actually releasing software. We’ll watch and report on it as it comes out. How committed is Blackboard to self-hosted customers on the current platform? We have their word, and logical reasons why we believe they mean it when they say they want to support those customers, but we have to talk to a bunch of customers to find out what they think of the support that they are getting, and even then, we only know about Blackboard’s current execution, which is not the same as their future commitment. So there are a lot of critical aspects about the company that are just hard and time-consuming to evaluate and will have to wait on more data.

But not everything is hard to evaluate. Communication, for example, is pretty easy to judge. Last year I mocked Jay Bhatt pretty soundly for his keynote. (Of course, we have hit D2L a lot harder for their communication issues because theirs have been a lot worse.) In some ways, it is so easy to critique communication that we have to be careful not to just take cheap shots. Everybody loves to mock vendors in general and LMS vendors in particular. We’re mainly interested in communications problems that genuinely threaten to hurt their relationship with their customers. Blackboard does have serious customer communication problems at the moment, and they do matter. I’m going to hit on a few of them.

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Reuters: Blackboard up for sale, seeking up to $3 billion in auction

As I was writing a post about Blackboard’s key challenges, I get notice from Reuters (anonymous sources, so interpret accordingly) that the company is on the market, seeking up to $3 billion. From Reuters:

Blackboard Inc, a U.S. software company that provides learning tools for high school and university classrooms, is exploring a sale that it hopes could value it at as much as $3 billion, including debt, according to people familiar with the matter.

Blackboard’s majority owner, private equity firm Providence Equity Partners LLC, has hired Deutsche Bank AG and Bank of America Corp to run an auction for the company, the people said this week. [snip]

Providence took Blackboard private in 2011 for $1.64 billion and also assumed $130 million in net debt.

A pioneer in education management software, Blackboard has seen its growth slow in recent years as cheaper and faster software upstarts such as Instructure Inc have tried to encroach on its turf. Since its launch in 2011, Instructure has signed up 1,200 colleges and school districts, according to its website.

This news makes the messaging from BbWorld as well as their ability to execute on strategy, particularly delivering the new Ultra user experience across all product lines – including the core LMS – much more important. I’ll get to that subject in the next post. Continue reading

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UC Davis: A look inside attempts to make large lecture classes active and personal

In my recent keynote for the Online Teaching Conference, the core argument was as follows:

While there will be (significant) unbundling around the edges, the bigger potential impact [of ed innovation] is how existing colleges and universities allow technology-enabled change to enter the mainstream of the academic mission.

Let’s look at one example. Back in December the New York Times published an article highlighting work done at the University of California at Davis to transform large lecture classes into active learning formats.

Hundreds of students fill the seats, but the lecture hall stays quiet enough for everyone to hear each cough and crumpling piece of paper. The instructor speaks from a podium for nearly the entire 80 minutes. Most students take notes. Some scan the Internet. A few doze.

In a nearby hall, an instructor, Catherine Uvarov, peppers students with questions and presses them to explain and expand on their answers. Every few minutes, she has them solve problems in small groups. Running up and down the aisles, she sticks a microphone in front of a startled face, looking for an answer. Students dare not nod off or show up without doing the reading. Continue reading

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Blackboard Ultra and Other Product and Company Updates

Phil and I spent much of this past week at BbWorld trying to understand what is going on there. The fact that their next-generation Ultra user experience is a year behind is deservedly getting a lot of attention, so one of our goals going into the conference was to understand why this happened, where the development is now, and how confident we could be in the company’s development promises going forward. Blackboard, to their credit, gave us tons of access to their top executives and technical folks. Despite the impression that a casual observer might have, there is actually a ton going on at the company. I’m going to try to break down much of the major news at a high level in this post. Continue reading

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