ALASTAIR MACNAMARA/THE VARSITY

“Portal Service Outage” messages, scheduled maintenance, and generally slower service plagued the university’s Blackboard service over the December exam period.

Between December 4 and December 10, Portal experienced at least three service outages, while UTORmail experienced at least one. Most of the outages lasted from one to two hours.

While technical staff did not elaborate, the University of Toronto is reassuring students that the issue was promptly resolved.

“During a short period in early December, the University’s Learning Management System (the Portal) was very slow for some users. U of T’s IT staff and the Blackboard support team worked around the clock to successfully identify the source of the problem,” says Avi Hyman, director of academic and collaborative technology.

Although the December outages went unnoticed by many students, there was concern over how consistent Blackboard outages could potentially impact academic performance, particularly during exam periods.

“There have been times when it’s been out the night before an exam, and then you don’t have access to it. You hope that your [professor] is going be understanding,” says Michelle Woodhouse, a third-year environmental and Latin American studies student, adding: “I think it could have the potential to affect academic performance.”

While not every professor chooses to use Blackboard, many students rely on its services to access their syllabi and additional materials not included in course textbooks. “One of my course professors puts up supplemental material on Blackboard. Not being able to access that material could be a disadvantage, especially around exam times,” says Nicole*, a third-year health and disease student.

Chris*, a third-year history student, also says it’s important for the university to ensure the reliability of Blackboard services. “It affects upper-year courses more because classes are smaller and more discussion-based, like seminars, so students rely on the syllabus that’s supposed to be accessible on Blackboard,” says Chris.

Many students also stated that they were unable to access their grades during the month of December.

INTUITIVE DESIGN

The University of Toronto currently uses Blackboard Learn 9.1, the most recent Learning Management System (LMS) product offered by Blackboard for its higher education clients. The product is advertised as a student-centred LMS system with an intuitive design, boasting several efficient teaching features.

Efficient teaching features include the opportunity for professors to easily create and grade assessments, give real-time feedback, and create engaging content without any programming experience.

Global navigation, updates and notifications, collaborative spaces, and mobile capabilities are among the features targeting students.

Skepticism of Blackboard’s user-friendliness, however, is pervasive; students have expressed a disconnect between how professors and students understand the learning system.

“We, as students, expect a certain efficiency and consistency with it [Blackboard], but TAs [teaching assistants] and professors struggle with it. It’s user friendly for students, but not user friendly for professors or TAs,” says Woodhouse, adding: “TAs and professors don’t seem to have had a proper walk-through tutorial for performing the functions they want to on Blackboard. For the most part, it works out, but sometimes it seems like an annoyance for the people that have to administer the course on the Blackboard website.”

Blackboard is among the most competitive Learning Management Systems in the North American education market.

The company offers online educational products to elementary schools, government, and businesses, in addition to higher learning institutions.

UNDER REVIEW

The University of Toronto is currently undergoing a comprehensive review of its educational technology, citing a criteria overview as the focus.

The Academic Toolbox Renewal Initiative seeks to create a holistic set of common criteria that would be easily consumable for instructors and the various departments.

The review includes, but is not limited to, Blackboard. “The University of Toronto’s enterprise educational technology ecosystem (our Academic Technology Toolbox) has grown organically over the past several years. The renewal process will take a holistic approach by reviewing the Toolbox in its entirety,” says Hyman.

The Academic Toolbox Renewal Initiative invites students to give their input. “We are currently in the midst of our Academic Toolbox Renewal Initiative, and all members of the University, especially students, are being invited to comment on the future of educational technologies here at U of T,” adds Hyman.

Many of the university’s current technologies are scheduled for renewal in 2015.

*Names changed at students’ requests.

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