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Problematic blackboard system causes headaches for Algonquin College students

Three weeks ago, radio broadcasting professor Jessica Brando and her students were sent into a frenzy during their Monday morning class as they fell victim to one of Algonquin’s most infamous villains, also known as Blackboard.

Like most of the college community, Brando and her students were aware that the learning system had been experiencing issues. She had tried to be proactive the Sunday night before by emailing her students the game plan for Monday’s class that she had initially posted on Blackboard.

But because of an outage, her email was never sent, resulting in exasperation when students could access their course materials. Through Google Drive and Facebook, Brando’s students were eventually able to get the ball rolling but had already lost valuable classroom time.

“We got it done but I’d say we lost a good 15-20 minutes off the class which isn’t ideal when your trying to plan for what you’re teaching so I just think there is a high level of frustration for the students in this regard,” said Brando.

But it’s not just Brando and her students affected but the numerous problems with Blackboard during the fall semester.

Students in nearly every program that utilizes the learning system have been impacted by the consistent glitches and outages.

“It happened for every course I was in,” said a law clerk student who wished to remain anonymous. “Like they were trying to fix Blackboard because we couldn’t get any announcements or our marks but what they did made Blackboard completely fail and un-enroll students so people couldn’t access their documents to study for midterms.”

So how exactly did all of this occur?

According to Michael Gawargy, director of information technology services, it all started with a planned outage set to occur on Oct. 23 to resolve issues with the updates and grade book located in the drop-down menu on Blackboard. During the upgrade, issues with mapping students to their courses became an unexpected side effect. ITS began working around the clock to fix the issue, but because the system had to re-map students from scratch, the process took around 24 hours.

But it didn’t end there.

On Oct. 29, ITS got word from Blackboard that it would need to go through yet another update. It seemed all was good until Nov. 1 when users reported that they were unable to access the system. After further discussions with the system’s vendors, ITS began a rolling re-start of Blackboard to fix the issue later in the day.

Although ITS has made solid attempts to resolve every problem that arises, the situation became so dire that it was listed as an emergency item during last month’s academic council meeting.

According to communications professor and union Vice President Jack Wilson, there was great dissatisfaction with Blackboard expressed by staff and students.

“People don’t feel the communication is entirely adequate,” he said. “We’re using a service that our own customers disparage.”

This is an issue that is especially important for our current SA President, Egor Evseev who attended that same meeting. It was even a part of his platform when he ran for the SA board of directors in 2015 and during the 2016 election when he ran for presidency.

“I think Blackboard is at the very sort of core of what Algonquin does. It’s how most programs if not all, students get their education,” said Evseev in a recent phone interview with the Times.

“I think Algonquin has had Blackboard for a very long time and it’s been impacting students for a lot longer than just what’s happened this past weekend…Especially for these past few years, it’s become apparent that the platform is dated, that it definitely needs improvement.”

Despite the round-the-clock work to resolve all issues with Blackboard, Gawargy knows very well that this isn’t the end of discussion. He said that Marc Fares, who is the vice president of digital technologies and innovation, has been in discussion with Blackboard’s technical support to ensure proper communication between ITS and staff and students.

“We must improve communications, we must improve client care,” said Gawargy. “They need to understand what our students and what we are feeling.

“We want to make sure that everyone understands that we are taking this seriously and not only addressing the immediate issues that are affecting our academic operations – our students, our faculty – but also the fact that we are taking steps to improve the situation going forward,” added Fares. “We’ve already begun strengthening the infrastructure, we’re taking a look at operational processes, support, communications as well as partnering a lot more closely with blackboard themselves.”

Evseev also assures students that he is following through with his own promise as the SA Board of Directors works with the college to see what improvements can be made.

In fact, Gawargy and Fares have already met with the board and Evseev to discuss their options.

One potential option could be adopting the learning system called Canvas, currently used by the radio broadcast and other media programs at the college.

Brando says that Canvas has been used by the program for a few years now and has been more effective than Blackboard.

“It’s superior in a lot of ways I think,” she said. “It goes down every now and then but overall it seems to have a lot fewer problems and I also find it a lot more user-friendly and the students say they like it a lot better…”

According to Gawargy, the college launched a pilot project a few years back that concluded that while Canvas proved to be a viable alternative, Blackboard remained the more cost efficient option.

He also said that although they are open to giving other systems such as Canvas another look, certain limitations will exist for the foreseeable future.

“We are contractually obligated for a certain term on the current system,” said Gawargy. “There’s things we can do in the meantime but we are also looking at the landscape of different solutions that are out there and when would be the right time to migrate.”

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