This spring, UB will make course-management software available to all its professors, putting them one click away from putting supplemental course material online.
Starting next semester, the software, distributed by Blackboard Inc., will allow professors in every department to set up Web pages for their courses with course content, discussion boards, e-mail access and electronic assignment submission.
Richard Lesniak, director of academic services at UB and project manager for Blackboard's implementation, said that after investigating other options over the course of several years, an Educational Technology Center taskforce chose Blackboard because "this is the one that's being used everywhere. This is the one that students respond to."
The program, which currently reaches 10,000-12,000 users in 350 courses at UB, is a touted as a simple way to centralize course Web content.
"Blackboard is for people who don't want to take the time and effort to construct a Web site themselves," said David Willbern, director of the Educational Technology Center. "We tried not to impose, but to encourage a standard system for professors to set up sites for their classes."
Jonathan Golove, a music professor who uses Blackboard for his rock music class, called Blackboard "extremely convenient. ... I only use a certain number of the features, whatever I can figure out, but it is a wonderfully convenient tool."
Some of Golove's students "seem to make very frequent use of it, and then there's some who don't use it at all. ... But I don't think that's any different than any other resource here."
English professor Stefan Fleischer, whose "best-sellers" course utilizes Blackboard, said the program was "one more thing to learn ... it's a learning curve, and probably many faculty don't feel it's worth the time."
"Some students make it part of their class routine to check the site, while others don't use it at all," said Fleischer. Fleischer said that while other functions of Blackboard had not been explored much by students, the grade postings were worth his efforts.
"I get fewer students whining about grades, and that's one definite good thing," said Fleischer.
Illustration senior Kathleen Racculia uses Blackboard mainly "to check my grade and post discussions for assignments, but that's it. ... I haven't really been told what it can offer."
Racculia said she uses the instructor's own Web site for studying more often than Blackboard resources. "Until it gets more fully integrated into classes," asked Racculia, "why don't we just turn things in in class?"
Willbern said that investigating which features students would use is "something we should do ... because we've been so concerned with loading the system and making sure everybody can use it, we haven't had a chance to look at how it's being used."
Lesniak said at Wednesday's Faculty Senate Executive Committee that as part of UB's Iconnect standards, all students should be able to access Blackboard, and with Computing Information and Technology's survey showing 92 percent of students have personal computers, accessing the program should not be a problem for students.
Blackboard has become increasingly demanded by universities due in part to its roots in academia, said Michael Stanton, senior director of corporate communications for Blackboard. The company, which services 1,750 universities worldwide, began as a project among graduate students at Cornell University.
"We've always taken the students' reaction into account when designing the software," said Stanton. "If students aren't happy with the way the interface is, it ultimately won't be used, and the university will switch to something smaller."
Only five years ago UB was investigating smaller-scale systems similar to Blackboard. Since the switch to Blackboard, the Millard Fillmore College has been able to offer between 20-30 online-only courses through use of the software, a feat which would have been impossible using its previous program, TopClass.