Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Alternative to Blackboard and Moodle?

Fast Company reporter and Do-It-Yourself college education advocate Anya Kamenetz reports on Coursekit, a free online application that is positioning itself as a more student- and teacher-friendly alternative to market leader Blackboard.  

Kamenetz focuses her December 5 article in Fast Company on the business model used by Coursekit.  Coursekit is available free and ad-free for the next year (its first year in operation).  After that, it will continue to be free (that’s its value proposition) but could feature ads as a means of generating revenue.  

To provide background, Kamenetz notes that Coursekit was developed by some dropouts from the undergraduate program at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania to provide an easier-to-use experience than Blackboard.  (I had actually read this before; whomever is launching this company has hired a great PR firm.)

That intrigued me, because when Blackboard first hit the scene a bit over a decade ago, its ease of use was the key to its success.  Instructors could easily create course websites without knowing anything about HTML or Dreamweaver.  All they had to do was upload Word, Powerpoint and Excel documents, and fill in a few templates.

But after a semester or two of work, Blackboard looked clunky and I returned to writing my own course websites in HTML.  

After it established itself in the market, other educational technologists, too, tired of Blackboard.  Blackboard and its then competitor WebCT dramatically raised their prices, added a host of features that only a few teachers needed, and drove many schools to the open-source competitor, Moodle.  Moodle operates similarly to Blackboard and offers similar functions, but the software is open source so organizations avoid licensing fees.  I use Moodle but mostly for its privacy capabilities or when I'm told to; my feelings about the application and its usability are neutral. 

So Kamenetz's article--the second I had seen in a week about Coursekit--piqued my curiosity.  I wanted to see whether Coursekit was easier to use.

So I checked it out myself and created a simple course website.  Its interface is cleaner, using a social media feed rather than the announcement boards typical of its predecessors.  The gradebook and submissions processes look much simpler than Blackboard and Moodle.

What I liked the best was the calendar function, which lets instructors present all of the materials needed for a single session together.  I also appreciated the privacy settings, that let instructors keep some parts public and others private.  In terms of usability, the product seems to live up to its promise (won’t know until I use it under the real pressures of a term).


Jeff said...

Hi Saul,

The frustrations of Blackboard are driving me mad so stumbling upon this post is a welcome accident. Coursekit looks like an interesting alternative. The Facebook-like design is likely to be more familiar and intuitive for students than Bb and the whole package seems to run much faster too. One of the things that I believe is critical that both Bb and Coursekit are lacking is detailed tracking of student behavior (when/where they clicked, how long they spent there, etc.). D2L has this, but we don't have that at my university. I just might try Coursekit this spring to see how it goes.

Gilbert said...

Hi Dr Carliner,

Have you tried it out under term pressure yet? I've posted my first impressions on my blog here and will post my follow-up impressions soon. I am very impressed with coursekit's feedback/support, their response time is very quick and they respond as if they are having a chat with me, taking the time to build a personal relationship with me.

Saul Carliner said...

Gilbert, I haven't tried it under the pressure of an actual course yet, but am interested in doing so the next time I start a course (which won't be until next September).

Glad to hear that the support is so good.

Gail Broady said...

This looks really cool... We are using Blackboard for an online course but will be switching too Moodle soon...and while Moodle is a lot easier to use, I am worried about its ability to host robust discussions... We have syndicates working in assessable dialogues where 10 students may make up to 200 posts in 5- 10 threads, many with multiple sub- threads.

The tree function in BB discussions makes this manageable... But I can't imagine this working in Moodle ... how is the discussion function in Coursekit? Would it be easily navigable for a discussion like this?