Bye, Bye, Blackboard! NYU Classes Is The New Kid On The Block

on 27 September, 2012

Last November, NYU Provost David McLaughlin announced that in lieu of upgrading our costly and outdated Blackboard course management system, the University would transition to an open source platform called Sakai. Since the software isn’t licensed by some education conglomerate, the University could tailor the tool as it wishes. For free. And it could decide on any name. With no new dead benefactors to name it after, our school decided to call it NYU Classes.

The majority of students won’t get access until Spring 2013, but right now some classes in Liberal Studies, the Silver School of Social Work and some abroad sites are participating in a beta test. You’re probably head-over-heels excited about the transition, so we made you a list of things to look forward to. You’re welcome.

It’s sort of social — Your NYU Classes profile can contain pictures of yourself, a status, personal information and links to social network profiles. It’s all voluntary and you can control who can see what with privacy toggles. You can add other users as “connections,” presumably a LinkedIn-style nudge that said person is only useful for advancing your career. And there’s a chatbox.

Designed like a workspace — The interface isn’t too beautiful, but at least your courses are finally united under one roof. The NYU Classes home screen offers a quickview of your classes, assignments, deadlines and announcements. It may or may not make you more productive.

All about groups — Your profile both identifies you and lets you collaborate in a group-driven environment. Professors can segment anything on the site, so certain assignments can be given to select students, real-life group projects can be mirrored with small-scale collaboration on NYU Classes and announcements will only reach the people they are relevant to.

Lots of old things, repackaged — Most of the features are like generic cereal versions of Blackboard: forums replace discussions, resources instead of course documents, grade center will be called gradebook, etc. There are subtle changes, like the ability to assign points to forum posts, but otherwise the software is pretty similar. In fact, NYU has spent most of its energy convincing faculty that NYU Classes is equivalent to Blackboard instead of parading its benefits.

Noticeably missing from the upgrade is professors’ proficiency with online course management. There are a few good apples that know how to leverage Blackboard, but generally speaking they are completely clueless. Posting PDFs in the Course Documents section is not impressive, and it’s definitely not worth all the money we pay — soon, paid! —Blackboard for. Did you know that Blackboard lets teachers assign and create timed quizzes, collect homework assignments, issue grades, generate rosters, schedule posts and include videos? No, you didn’t, because your professors don’t know how to.

To make NYU Classes successful, teachers have to promise to educate themselves by watching tutorial videos, attending demos and spending time learning the tool. They have to start a dialogue with colleagues on how to build the technology into their classroom without reinventing the wheel, and be willing to listen and adapt to suggestions.

But most of all, students need to push professors to make content on NYU Classes accessible, structured and dynamic; we have to encourage them to use its potential or it will all be a waste. We don’t need this platform in order to learn, and we know from Blackboard that University-wide platforms can be a bit of an annoying panopticon. (We also know from NYU IDs that no transition happens smoothly.) But it does make sense for us and it can be powerful. We just need some effort.