Now that I’m up and running in my new role as President of Blackboard Learn, I wanted to specifically reach out to you with an update on what I’m seeing so far at Blackboard, and on some steps I want to take to make your lives easier as we continue to bring Blackboard and WebCT together in what we’ve been calling Project NG – the development of a next generation eLearning system. There’s a lot to cover so I’ll do it in two parts. Here’s Part 1.
Simply put, I know many of you experienced a rough ride when you were moving onto WebCT CE 6 or WebCT Vista 4 while simultaneously transitioning into the Blackboard community. So one of my first areas of focus has been to closely examine the cause of those issues and what we need to do differently to make sure your transition to Project NG goes much better.
My Take on the WebCT to Bb Transition and What It Tells Us
Before getting into the work of shaping the road ahead with you, I wanted to understand for myself what happened when WebCT and Blackboard came together to ensure that we’re learning from previous experience and making the right adjustments to provide you with a much better experience with your transition to Blackboard 9.0 or 9.1.
Here’s what I’ve come to understand.
We merged Blackboard and WebCT support too quickly and rushed to change support processes. The result was a disruption in support and service at just the time our clients needed us to be at our best.
At the same time, we encountered pretty serious issues with the WebCT products. I know that may sound odd for many of you who experienced firsthand the stability of WebCT products in the past that had rightly earned them a reputation for reliability. That said, the WebCT course management systems went through a major re-write just before Bb and WebCT merged – CE6 and Vista 4 were the results of that re-write. Just after the merger was completed more than 500 clients ended up going live on these new products.
It wasn’t until these clients went live that we discovered a large number of bugs (over 2,000) and some critical architectural issues. Frankly we made a mistake in not battle testing the new releases ourselves after the closing of the merger and for not keeping WebCT’s support center in Vancouver at full strength. We made these choices in part because of WebCT’s past success with its products, but in hindsight it was a decision we wish we could make over again.
Once we identified the problems, we kicked the fix effort into overdrive. But the damage had already been done. Support was overwhelmed with tickets on bugs we couldn’t work through fast enough. Add that volume to the changes we were making in Support and it’s no surprise that the support experience for you, and many legacy Blackboard clients as well, was greatly impacted.
Today we’re in a much different place, thanks to a great deal of flexibility and patience on your part and a big effort from many on the team here. The WebCT CE 8 and WebCT Vista 8 products contain very few usability bugs and we have a maintenance plan in place that focuses on resolving those bugs along with a small number of important stability issues. We already have many successful clients up and running on these releases.
But what have we learned from all of this and how does that translate into a much better experience for you moving to Blackboard 9.0 or 9.1? I think we need to do three things:
• Extend Support – First, we need to make sure we have good support for the products we release, and we need to be more careful about timing.
• Offer Transition Services - Second, we need to recognize that these are significant transitions.And we need to make sure that we have the people and processes in place to help you during this time.
• Make the Upgrade Process As Simple As Possible – Third, we need to make the upgrade process as simple as possible and take extra steps to make it seamless along the way.
So now let me directly address what I know has been a recent source of concern: the October 2010 date for transitioning WebCT CE 8 and Vista 8 licenses from Full Support to Operational Support. I hear you. That’s not long enough based on where we are today. So we’re going to extend Full Support for WebCT CE 8 licenses and WebCT Vista 8 licenses to January 2013. Hopefully when you learn more about the transition process, you’ll gain greater comfort that these new support windows create plenty of room for the move to Blackboard 9.1 or a later release of Project NG. But I understand we’ve got to prove it.
Offering Transition Services
While I want to make sure that we have the additional resources available for your institution should you need it, let me first be clear: you don’t need professional services to complete this upgrade. The tools and documentation required to complete this upgrade are available for clients to implement on their own.
Having said that, these are widely deployed enterprise systems with lots of users, courses and content. Experience tells us that some schools would like additional support and assistance in upgrading so we are also providing that option. I have asked our team to come up with several “Getting Started” offerings in addition to our standard services to support interested clients in their move to Blackboard 9.0 or 9.1. I am pleased to offer special pricing, including no cost options, for early adopters. You can learn more about these services at http://www.blackboard.com/Release9/CEVista.
Making the Upgrade Process As Simple As Possible
I’m very confident that we’re in a much different place in terms of the stability of the platform you’ll be moving to. Blackboard Learn 9.0 was released in January 2009 and is the first version of the Blackboard product that incorporates a fully updated web 2.0 user interface and incorporates some of the key features and functionality of the WebCT product line. Blackboard Learn 9.1 will be available either late this year or early next year. It will have a significant amount of additional WebCT functionality and should address any outstanding questions about teaching and learning features that are particularly important to WebCT clients. Most importantly, these releases have been and will continue to be heavily tested using the great process and testing capabilities I’ve been pleased to discover since joining Blackboard.
It’s all well and good for Blackboard Learn 9.1 and Project NG to represent a compelling destination, but the process of getting there has to be good for you too. The strategy I’ve seen for this is also encouraging. Knowing how disruptive major migrations can be in the software realm, we’ve really engineered this whole process to be an upgrade, not a migration.
In the following few days, I’ll be sending a second email with more detail on our planned upgrade process and will be looking for additional feedback from the client community.
Reflecting on past decisions in the light of recent ones around the ANGEL combination has really crystallized our thinking in a lot of ways. Fresh perspective – from me and my new colleagues at Blackboard–has also led us to some of the new approaches and next steps I’ve noted here and that you’ll hear more about in the next few weeks and at BbWorld User’s Conference in Washington DC.
President of Blackboard Learn