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When Failure Makes You Better

The Wainhouse Research Blog

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on Unified Communications & Collaboration


When Failure Makes You Better

By: -
14 Feb 2018

I’ve written a good bit in the last eighteen months about Blackboard (progress made on its Ultra versions of Learn and Collaborate), and last year’s Blackboard Analytics Symposium, focusing on best practices and schools like Indian River State College and Concordia University Wisconsin.  But I haven’t written about Blackboard’s failures.  Nor its reinvention.

On February 1-2 this month, more than 95 institutions of Higher Education, 200 people in person, and hundreds of live streamers participated in Blackboard’s second Analytics Symposium, held in Austin, TX. The night before the Symposium I had heard astronaut Scott Kelly talk about his life and new book Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery.  His talk – which included discussing the need to be able to fail to get better – strongly influenced my take on Blackboard’s directions.

First, what Blackboard told us or formally announced at the Symposium:

  • An Innovation Partnership Program for Blackboard Intelligence.”  Background: in the U.S., enrollment and graduation data on more than 98% of all students in public and private institutions are provided to the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC).  The process of formatting data requests to the NSC can be labor intensive and time consuming.  Last year Blackboard released an NSC data extension for the Blackboard Intelligence Student Management Module (an extension jointly developed with two educational customers), which was so successful Blackboard is emulating that effort with a new customer partnership program.  The big idea: through that process Blackboard validated a market need and then partnered with customers from that point all the way through implementation.  This approach was so successful the company is scaling that model to its BI community.  Customers can submit ideas for features and enhancements to be included as extensions to Blackboard Intelligence (including Student Management, Financial Aid, Finance, HR, and Advancement modules). Blackboard will accept a first round of submissions to the program through the end of February.  The goal: to partner with customers to address market needs, from which other customers might benefit.  Blackboard isn't unique in partnering with its customers -- most vendors do this -- but it certainly signals the intent to build out BI aggressively.
  • Blackboard talked about its progress with predictive analytics in improving instructional practices and student outcomes, and has created a readiness assessment for supporting institutions wishing to adopt predictive analytics.  The company has conducted research on how to draw from LMS data to be able to predict student outcomes literally from the moment a student enrolls in a class – the challenge up to now has been that many models have drawn upon demographic data that doesn’t really allow for interventions.  (Just knowing a kid’s zip code doesn’t cut it.)  Blackboard reports that the approach it has taken is not specific to any single LMS, and that this work has helped it find patterns of LMS use that support a predictive model that can impact instructional practices. In other words, making educators even better instructors and feeding better actionable data to an institution.
  • Other discussion points included how Blackboard now is conducting formal academic research inside the organization (something very rare for a technology vendor) – with the goal of translating research findings into new product features. The company also announced that it is planning on driving the dialogue surrounding “Ethical AI in Higher Ed”, with the goal of elevating the level of discussion surrounding how data is used in colleges and universities. (And ensuring that data-averse instructors might become open to the concepts inherent in data analysis practices.)

Now let’s talk about how failure leads to success. Blackboard’s VP for Teaching and Learning, Phill Miller, talked about how the company recently embarked on a project to automate discussion board grading in its Analytics for Learn (A4L) product.  The goal was to create a tool that could help instructors grade better.  Discussion boards are heavily-used by many students and academics, but the idea to automate how they are graded was likely to not just be controversial, but also stumble (IMHO).  According to senior product marketing manager Timothy Harfield, “Results were promising when we conducted a preliminary analysis using Moodle data.  But when we scaled our approach to include data from Blackboard Learn we discovered two things: 1) that only 0.2% of instructors who use discussion forums grade them, and 2) when grades are assigned, they are poorly distributed.” 

This led to a reboot of the entire Learn Ultra discussion board grading effort. Instead, the company put on its roadmap for Q2 2018 discussion board metrics that will provide analysis from post counts, word counts, lexical complexity scores, and a critical thinking coefficient. These are capabilities that will be useful for the many instructors who use discussion forums. I suppose the jury is out until the features are released, but it appears that one failure likely will turn into a success. More important is that this marks a shift in attitude and culture at Blackboard. Frankly, it’s refreshing to see a new, more open-handed Blackboard has emerged.

I also got a deep dive into how Blackboard has introduced a new approach to its A4L rubrics, which has resulted in a redesigned version of the product. (I missed this at Educause when first briefed on it in October.)  The purpose of the redesign of A4L is to go beyond descriptively reporting on learning analytics and instead figure out how to strategically apply behavioral and activity data sourced from its Rubrics tool to “think bigger” about items like assessments, program improvement, and accreditation.  Blackboard wants to empower its customers to ask and get answers to questions that relate to their specific institutional and functional data needs, “surfacing insights whenever and wherever you need them.” 

As an example, Blackboard used to focus primarily on the content instructors loaded into the LMS, with an assumption that if the content was there, it’s automatically academically relevant.  Now A4L examines the behaviors that people exhibit when they interact with deep levels with content – and “surface” (to use the latest trendy word) insights.  Goodness, this sounds like some of what my colleague Charles DeNault and I have been saying over on the corporate Learning Experience Platform side of the market. 

Another example is Blackboard's new direction with the discussion forums. Building on Phill Miller's mea culpa regarding the automated granding, Learn Ultra soon will be able to surface a number of dfferent metrics to help instructors grade better, particularly in large course sections. So, the net of this: the point isn’t to help the instructor by doing the grading of the board, the point is to extract value and meaning from the activities around the board and create insights.  I believe that’s an essential distinction because I still believe in the primary role of the educator as creator of context and as guide. To institutions, though, the rebooted approach to analytical rubrics could result over the long haul in better evaluating and establishing grade equity and better institutional guidance.

Blackboard's Coming Discussion Board Analytics

What does this have to do with astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent 340 days (a record) in space on the international space shuttle as part of a science experiment?  I told you I had a lot of imagery of space flight bouncing around my head during the Symposium.  But though eloquent about the beauty of seeing the earth from above, Kelly spent a good bit of time talking about the value of failure in making us better.  He was a poor student, unlike his twin brother Mark Kelly.  He almost stumbled into his career, and was the last person anybody expected to become a Navy test pilot, much less an astronaut.  Here he is in a Colbert interview.  Take a minute to listen to this remarkable, humble scientist/engineer. I happen to believe in science. Hey Blackboard, I even believe in data science.  Blackboard’s focus on making data relevant in the face of its own failures reinforced Kelly’s talk in my mind.  I’ll steal a quote from the book:

“Putting this space station into orbit ... is the hardest thing that humans have ever done, and it stands as proof that when we set our minds to something hard, when we work together, we can do anything, including solving our problems here on Earth.”

There’s some heavy lifting involved in designing and placing a space station into the atmosphere, just as there’s some heavy lifting involved in reinventing a company.  I’ve covered Blackboard for over ten years as an analyst. In that time, I’ve seen it go from ticker symbol BBBB gobbling up its LMS competitors to private-equity owned, figuring out how to regain credibility for its well-branded, well-designed teaching and learning products, Learn and Collaborate.  To today: new regime, new culture, new focus. 

So, is Blackboard a failure?  Nah, I declare this is my last time ever to ding Blackboard on anything from the past and instead say, finally, I get it.  The ship is turned.  I give good odds to a company that recognizes its own need to try things and be willing to fail, and that the way to strike back at Canvas and D2L and Schoology over in the educational LMS space is to strongly differentiate itself. Besides the recent refreshes to Learn and Collaborate (their Ultra releases), Blackboard's Business Intelligence products provide specific and unique differentiation.  The company offers so many other campus products, it really is a turnkey provider, from campus enablement (student transaction services and more) to teaching and learning tech to analytics and BI provider to security systems provider.  I see Cisco’s Digital Education Platform as one of the few platforms with the scale that Blackboard offers, but Blackboard has the lead on inserting analytics into every piece of its tech in a way that Cisco has not yet demonstrated to me. Blackboard's biggest challenge now is to get the message that it has changed out to the markets.  Let Blackboard be known as the leader in analytics supporting teaching and learning and educational management suites, analytics that can help an institution transform itself while keeping faculty happy and students successful.  Stay tuned, the rocket is still being boosted.