College sets plan to replace Blackboard WebCT

by Tyler Deffebach / Beacon Correspondent • October 4, 2012

Last week, Blackboard — the company that owns WebCT— installed emergency fixes to the website after it crashed for the second time in one week. The system is still running at a slower than normal pace, according to Emerson’s Instructional Technology Group (ITG).

WebCT, a website that allows students and professors to share, grade, and submit assignments, was originally released in 1999 and has been used at Emerson since 2002, said Jenn Stevens, the ITG director. 

A series of six emails were sent to the student body this past week from ITG informing students of the crashes to keep them up-to-date with the recovery process.

The problems come on the heels of a recent announcement that a new website, Canvas, will replace WebCT on Jan. 1. The new system is used in some classes already, said Stevens.

“The thing that is most important to us is usability, because that is really lacking in WebCT,” said Stevens. “It is not intuitive, it’s not easy to use, it’s not fun to use, and that is the area where Canvas outshines Blackboard.”  

Stevens said Canvas is expected to run more smoothly because it is not written in Java, the programming language WebCT uses to access most of the site’s functions. Java is notorious for security-holes and viruses, she said, and is often automatically disabled by modern computers.

Canvas is owned by Instructure Inc., an educational software company created by two Brigham Young University students in 2008. The system, which is designed to resemble social networking websites, runs on Amazon web servers and should be more reliable, Stevens said. She added that Instructure is better than Blackboard, as the latter company has a reputation in the technology industry for poor customer service.

“When WebCT goes down, I can’t get any work done,” said Stefani Robinson, a junior visual and media arts major. “I can’t look at what homework is due in my classes, I can’t look at my class syllabuses, and everything becomes very stressful.”

Professor Cathryn Edelstein said she used WebCT since 2005, but has noticed an increasing number of issues as of late.

“I have been using WebCT since I began teaching at Emerson in 2005,” said Edelstein in an email. “At that time, and in recent years, it has worked well and has been reliable. In the past year, however, those of us using WebCT with our courses have experienced reliability issues.” 

In May, ITG hosted a series of drop-in user tests featuring four different websites to determine which would be selected to replace WebCT. Of the roughly 30 students and faculty that tested each system, 85 percent of users said Canvas was very user-friendly.

Blackboard Learn, the software Blackboard was pitching to Emerson, came in a close second to Canvas, with 80 percent of users saying Blackboard Learn was also a user-friendly website.

Some, however, rated Canvas a 3-out-of-4 in terms of assignment and discussion features, while Blackboard Learn scored 2.5-out-of-4. 

“Our expectations of software have quadrupled in recent years,” said Bret Kulakovich, the interim director of technology support services. “We are uploading more content and larger files, and we are really packing WebCT to its breaking point. Canvas should help with these issues.”

Canvas has been bought by Emerson only through June 2015. Stevens declined to comment on how much the new system would cost, but said that it would be substantially more than WebCT. 

“I don’t really mind the extra cost,” said Joseph McCormick, a freshman visual and media arts major. “WebCT is crashing all the time, and most of my teachers use Canvas anyway.”

Edelstein has viewed Canvas and says she is happy with the changes.

“Canvas has the ability to do all the functions that WebCT made available,” Edelstein said. “But additionally, Canvas has tools that allow for easier navigation and greater depth of use. Students and faculty will benefit from this change and from what I have heard, it will be more reliable.”