China sees the future written on Blackboard

May 5, 2006

Virtual learning environments are being used as a teaching tool across the globe. David Jobbins reports on the latest country to get hooked up

Chinese universities are expected to enthusiastically adopt virtual learning environments as the country expands and modernises its undergraduate teaching, experts believe.

Blackboard, the market leader in off-the-shelf applications after its takeover of WebCT earlier this year, has been heavily involved in discussions with Chinese universities and government officials, and a rollout of its VLE technology is under way in Guangzhou province.

Blackboard hopes to clinch a deal to supply VLE technology to the isolated University of Tibet, unabashed by potential accusations of collaborating with an occupying power. The university, created from the merger of three institutions, is on a new campus in Lhasa that accommodates 10,000 students.

Kedong Li, a professor at South China Normal University in Guangzhou, explained that VLEs were a way of moving away from traditional learning patterns. Some 96 Chinese universities are using the technology, linking 400,000 students.

Internationally, more than 130 universities use Blackboard's Academic Suite application. Michael Chasen, the company's president and CEO, believes a new phase in learning technology has begun. VLEs are accepted as a complementary tool in the management of universities and the learning process, while universities using the technology have been better positioned to overcome catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina with its help.

Chasen says the merger has created a community of 3,700 users worldwide over seven years. "This is a tremendous rate of growth." And there is more to come. "The type of adoption we shall see is exponential as existing clients use the product more. Then we will get more and more clients, so we grow in both dimensions."

The company is to create a common set of application program interfaces to allow developers to write applications that will run on both Blackboard and WebCT, so the two applications converge and eventually merge. Chasen says:

"Over time, the two applications will reach a point where all the code is shared and there is only one next-generation learning system."

There are plans to integrate a blogging tool, Caliper, an evaluation and assessment system for courses, programmes and institutional missions, and an early-warning system with e-mail alerts for student underperformance.

The company is aware of the development of open-source applications. But Chasen believes the commercial applications have a huge advantage over their open-source rivals. "I have 200 full-time product developers. It is difficult to be competitive against this type of resource if you are an open-source solution."

Caliper is intended to improve the way universities are run by offering systematic evidence-based decision-making. It is derived from course-management systems, and outcomes are measured in terms of educational effectiveness and funding. A Blackboard survey of higher education institutions found that 90 per cent of administrators would be interested in using web-based technology to support programme assessment.

Other new developments will allow for institutions to post anonymously benchmarking data for collaborative analysis, a best practice site and, ultimately, degree verification online.
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