I recently had the opportunity to examine Blackboard Collaborate™ a bit more deeply while providing some of our staff with a general introduction to the tool, which we will be cutting over to during the summer, in time for a fall general deployment. As a very long time user of the tool—and of the versions that preceded it—I was curious to view the changes, especially in light of the fact that its predecessor, Elluminate Live v10™ was a very mature and stable product. Overall I am pleased to note that the newest evolution of the platform does represent a step forward. In particular the user interface has been updated so that many of the routine tasks now happen in a way that is more natural. As you might expect, though, given the sophistication of its predecessor, the actual number of new features and enhancements is limited.
The product has been around for almost a year now. New releases usually become available first in the hosted service version. The self-hosted ELM (Elluminate Live manager) version, which we use, usually follows a few months after. Because the ELM version was not available in time for the 2011-12 school year we made the decision to continue with the existing version and not to deploy Collaborate until the school year was out.
In preparation for deployment in the 2012-13 school year we have installed a test instance of the software on a development server and have been using that installation for testing and training purposes. Over the past few weeks I have been doing just that.
The first thing experienced eLive users will notice when they start Collaborate is that the interface has been modified significantly. Some tools—in particular the audio tool—have been moved and the overall look is more sedate. Users will remember eLive and its predecessors as having a bold and vibrant look, with big colourful buttons and windows. By contrast the new look is much more sedate; even drab. That said, experienced users will quickly acclimate themselves to the new look and feel because, for the most part, the changes are such that items have been moved from where they were to where they, perhaps, should have been in the first place! By moving the audio window to the bottom left to the top left, for instance the software designers were now able to merge it with the video window and provide the user with an integrated audio/video interface that exists in a place where it is easier to find and work with.
Session moderators will appreciate the simplicity with which Collaborate handles content. Previous versions handled the loading of whiteboard files, other media types and web tours each in different ways. The new version has three buttons at the top left of the whiteboard, one for each presentation mode: whiteboard, application sharing and web tour. Moderators only need to click the appropriate button to switch. Furthermore all media types are now loaded using the same ‘load content button. Users only need browse to the content file and the application takes it from there: whiteboard and powerpoint files go directly to the whiteboard, other media types such as mp3, swf and mp4 go to the media centre and other files are cued for file transfer to the participants.
While most moderators will appreciate this simpler workflow some users—math teachers for instance—may not like it as much. The previous version brought the application sharing session as a separate window that could be shown at the same time as the whiteboard. In this way a graphing calculator emulator could be layered to display at the same time as the underlying ‘handwritten’ calculations. This is no longer possible and moderators will have to alternate between the app sharing view of the calculator emulator and the whiteboard.
The whiteboard toolbar is more compact, with some tools being layered. For example you now need to click and hold the pointer button to get the pointer options.
The audio window has now been merged with the video tool resulting in a single audio/video window. As before, up to 6 talkers and 6 cameras can be active at a time. The new version synchs the audio to the video so that if multiple talkers are in place the dominant video screen becomes that of the current talker. My own testing has shown that the synchronization between audio and video is excellent. That said, I have not yet tested it in a bandwidth-compromised environment and, so, cannot say what happens when the transmission experiences the ‘chipmunking’ associated with audio delays.
Every window now has a submenu that includes common tasks associated with that window. Note, in the image above, the audio and camera actions and options are all in the window menu. They are also located in much the same place as before in the main menu.
The participants window has undergone a major makeover. Previous versions of the software utilized a table view which showed permissions. Yellow highlights in any cell indicated usage of that tool. The new view is more like a list. The image below shows that the moderator’s menu can be used to set global permissions for all users. Similar menus for the participants can override this with individual permissions. Rather than a highlighter, the tool’s icon now appears next to any participants name when that tool is being used by them.
Most new users will likely find this quite intuitive however experienced eLive users may have some un-learning to do first as the previous method—the table interface—was quite entrenched, have existing in essentially the same format since 2001 when the product was referred to as “Tutor’s Edge.”…then vClass, then Elluminate Live, or, more affectionately eLive.
The Chat tool has been given new functionality. In all previous versions of the tool the chat was completely supervised; that is the moderators in any given session could see all chat items regardless of whether they were the intended recipient. In the new version this is still the default, however moderators can switch this off thus allowing the participants privacy if needed. Emoticon support has been enhanced. Perhaps the most significant change is the new tabbed-chat functionality. To chat to individuals or groups just select them and right click. Chat is one option. When you do this a new tab appears in the chat window. You can then use this tab to follow any particular conversation thread.
This has the potential for creating many tabs, especially in long sessions with many attendees. Some other functionality can be of help, though. All windows can be detached and scaled separately. What’s more, Collaborate allows windows to be spread over several monitors. During a Collaborate session you can now detach the chat window, move it to a second monitor and size it to match the tabs.
Collaborate allows users to create local user profiles. During any session all any user has to do is to click the menu item next to their name in the participant window and select ‘edit profile.’ This profile is stored on the local machine and works for all Collaborate sessions done from that user account.
In summary, Blackboard Collaborate represents a solid evolution from Elluminate Live! V10. While it does not offer significantly enhanced features, the redesign makes the product significantly easier to use.
It will be interesting to see what is in store with the soon-to-be released hosted version of Collaborate 12™. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what the promised mobile support will mean. No doubt that alone will make the product worth the next scheduled switch, probably this time next year.