YSU Considers Alternatives to Blackboard

As Youngstown State University’s contract with Blackboard — the school’s current online learning management system — nears expiration, the university has begun to consider an alternative package to Blackboard.

Millie Rodriguez, director of distance education, oversees the online programs services and the Instructional Design and Development Center, assisting faculty develop online courses.

“We are deciding on what LMS to use. The Blackboard contract is running out and we are taking the opportunity to explore our options and make sure that the university’s LMS system is the best one for our future online course and program goals,” Rodriguez said.

Though the university has not yet made a final decision regarding a new learning management system, both licensed learning management systems and open source software — software for which the original source code is freely available and may be redistributed and modified — are being considered.

While Ken Schindler, associative vice president and chief technology officer, expressed satisfaction with Blackboard, he said the university could save money by switching to another system.

“The product itself is a very good product. But, dealing with the company Blackboard is a little bit like dealing with Microsoft. They tend to dominate other companies and shut down products,” he said. “While we do have a very good contract with Blackboard … it’s still an awful lot of money to pay for a learning management system.”

YSU currently pays about $190,000 per year for Blackboard. Schindler expects to pay about a third of that price for another licensed learning management system. If an open source software is selected, the cost would be nonexistent.

YSU is considering four different packages at this point in time: Sakai, Moodle, Amvonet and Desire2Learn.

Bill Swann is an instructional designer in YSU’s Distance Education Office. He is optimistic about a potential change, but remains cautious.

“I enjoy learning new systems and expanding my horizons, so for me [a change] would be fairly exciting. It would also be a significant challenge. I know that there will be a lot of concern among faculty and possibly students too,” Swann said.

Swann also talked about the challenges in overcoming the learning curve that Blackboard currently presents in terms of designing classes.

“I don’t think Blackboard is completely intuitive,” he said. “I think it does take some time and experience to get the hang of designing and building a class in Blackboard.”

Rodriguez, Swann and Schindler all stressed the importance of a transitional period for implementing the change.

“If we decide to convert, it’s up to me to put together a nice gentle conversion plan so that it’s the least disruptive to the university,” Schindler said. “I’ve been through one of these conversions about seven years ago now, and there are things you can do to make it a natural segue.”

During the transitional period, YSU would likely run both platforms to give professors time to convert to the new format.

A change in the online learning management system is not expected to negatively impact the quality of resources available to students and faculty. The systems being considered all have similar functionality to Blackboard with only minor differences.

A decision on whether or not to convert learning management systems is likely to be made by the end of the 2014 spring semester.

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