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From the Director: Vanderbilt’s Course Management System and the CFT

Posted by on Wednesday, December 17, 2014 in News.

The Center for Teaching is taking on a significant new role in the educational technology landscape at Vanderbilt. Starting this spring, the CFT will coordinate and provide technical and pedagogical support for Blackboard, Vanderbilt’s course management system, known locally as OAK. Also, in conjunction with Vice Provost for Learning and Undergraduate Affairs Cynthia Cyrus and the OAK Faculty Advisory Committee, the CFT will lead strategic planning for Blackboard and other potential platforms for supporting teaching and learning at Vanderbilt.

New roles often require new resources, and the CFT is now accepting applications for an Assistant Director for Educational Technology. This new colleague will work with current CFT staff to help Vanderbilt instructors understand the roles Blackboard and other platforms can play in teaching and learning.  We anticipate hiring additional staff in 2015, which will allow the CFT to centralize Blackboard support across most of campus. This new model, with multiple Blackboard specialists housed at the CFT, should provide more robust support for Vanderbilt instructors.

The roadmap for Vanderbilt’s course management system looks promising. In late December, OAK/Blackboard will move from Vanderbilt servers to Blackboard servers, which should improve performance and reliability. Faculty who find OAK useful but slow should look forward to their Blackboard experience in January. Next summer, we plan to upgrade to a newer version of Blackboard, which will likely have an improved user interface and new tools for instructors. This spring, the CFT will seek input from Vanderbilt faculty, staff, and students to guide upgrade decisions. Faculty who have stopped using OAK because it didn’t meet their needs are especially invited to participate in this process and to try out the new Blackboard late next summer.

See below for further information on the CFT’s new roles with Blackboard and related plans for enhancing educational technology resources for Vanderbilt instructors.

Rationale: As part of the Center for Teaching’s mission to promote university teaching that leads to meaningful student learning, the CFT works to foster institutional structures and resources that support effective teaching at Vanderbilt.  Among those resources are the various technologies that faculty and graduate student instructors find useful for supporting their teaching and learning goals.  Given the increasing role of technology on campuses, it is important that Vanderbilt instructors have access to reliable educational technology, understand the affordances technology provides for teaching and learning, and make informed choices about the use of technologies relevant to their particular teaching contexts.

New Staff: The CFT has received permission to hire an Assistant Director for Educational Technology.  This new colleague will work with faculty, teaching assistants, and other instructors at Vanderbilt to enhance student learning through the use of Vanderbilt’s course management system and other online learning platforms.  Key responsibilities will include:

  • Helping instructors understand how online learning platforms can support effective teaching in face-to-face and blended learning environments,
  • Consulting with instructors on the meaningful integration of online learning platforms in their course designs,
  • Coordinating and providing frontline technical and pedagogical support for instructors using Blackboard,
  • Communicating with and orienting instructors to pedagogically useful features available in Blackboard, and
  • Gathering and analyzing instructor needs assessments in support of strategic university decisions about educational technology.

The new assistant director will work collaboratively with senior and support staff at the CFT as well as others involved in educational technology at Vanderbilt.  Our three existing assistant directors have faculty backgrounds and significant university teaching experience, and we’re looking for a new assistant director with a similar profile.  See the full Assistant Director for Educational Technology job description for more information.  We expect to hire additional staff in 2015 to assist with Blackboard support for faculty and students.  More information on these positions will be made available as it is confirmed.

New Support Model: For now, VUIT and school-based technical staff will continue to provide Blackboard support, with support functions transitioning to the CFT as new CFT staff come on board.  Vanderbilt’s current support model for Blackboard is highly distributed.  Shifting to a more centralized model, with multiple Blackboard specialists housed at the CFT, should provide more robust support for Vanderbilt instructors.  In the new model, VUIT and school-based technical staff will still play various roles in Blackboard support, but in some cases those roles will be reduced.  CFT staff will provide training and coordination for others involved in Blackboard support and set up communication paths so that information about Blackboard usage and problems is aggregated and leveraged strategically.  CFT staff will be the preferred first point of contact for Blackboard support, however, in most cases.  (The School of Nursing is a notable exception, given their robust internal staffing for technology support.)

Meanwhile, “back end” configuration and administration of Blackboard will shift from VUIT to Enrollment Management Operations Support (EMOS), which reports to Vice Provost for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions Doug Christiansen.   EMOS director Greg Kyle and his team are already playing a significant role in configuring Blackboard during the transition to Blackboard managed hosting.

Roadmap: Vanderbilt’s course management system is moving from Vanderbilt servers to Blackboard servers.  This transition to “managed hosting,” expected to be complete by the end of December, will improve performance and reliability and make available new tools for instructors.  See this letter to faculty about OAK’s transition to Blackboard for more information on the transition, including times when courses will be unavailable to faculty and students.

We expect to upgrade to a newer version of Blackboard next summer.  This spring, with assistance from the OAK Faculty Advisory Committee, the CFT will seek input from Vanderbilt faculty, staff, and students on the upgrade process, including which features and tools to enable in the new version of Blackboard.  The CFT will also coordinate and provide orientation and training for Vanderbilt instructors to help them get the most out of the new version of Blackboard.

A Personal Note: I’m very excited by these new roles for the CFT in educational technology at Vanderbilt.  The use of technology to support student learning has been a particular interest of mine since I joined the CFT in 2005.  My early work focused on “clickers” in the classroom, resulting in my 2009 book Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Environments.  More recently, I have been exploring the use of technology to connect students with authentic audiences through the lens of what Georgetown University’s Randy Bass calls “social pedagogies.”  As I’ve consulted with faculty at Vanderbilt and elsewhere and as I’ve explored the research literature on educational technology, I’ve seen again and again how technology, when used in ways consistent with how we know learning works, can enhance student learning.

Some technologies allow teachers to do what they are already doing more effectively or efficiently.  Many of the tools available on Blackboard, such as its course communication and document sharing tools, fall into this category.  Other technologies open up new options for pedagogical practice and student learning.  I look forward to working with our new assistant director, the rest of the CFT staff, and our faculty and graduate student colleagues to explore how Blackboard and other online learning platforms can be more effectively used to support Vanderbilt’s educational mission.

More Information: If you have questions or suggestions for the CFT’s new role in educational technology at Vanderbilt, feel free to contact me at or @derekbruff on Twitter.


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