Virtual classrooms now provide access to classes from any location.

As technology transforms teaching and learning, the newest technologies enable distance learning -- or “virtual classrooms” -- to complement and sometimes even replace traditional on-site classrooms. Class discussions, student interaction, the distribution of learning materials and access to study from remote locations have enhanced and challenged the traditional learning experience. The Blackboard web-based learning management system has dominated the distance learning market since its beginning in the late 1990s, but a variety of emerging technologies have begun to seriously challenge Blackboard’s market position.

Blackboard Academic Suite

Blackboard Academic Suite is one of the leading distance learning platforms.

The Blackboard learning management system integrates with individual campus computer systems to allow students access to classes from anywhere in the world at any time. Once logged on to the system, students can read assignments from instructors, submit assignments, take quizzes and tests, participate in classroom discussions, view video or audio files, read texts and articles, and receive feedback from instructors. Blackboard offers a number of course management tools for instructors, including grade books, class calendars and email.

How Blackboard Works

Written correspondence is the oldest distance education technology.

Blackboard uses both old and new technologies to provide a space or "shell" for each course. Audio and video technologies like YouTube and Echo360 Lecture Capture provide the ability to engage students in traditional lectures. Discussion and journaling tools allow students to interact with each other, instructors and guest experts. Another tool corrects and grades tests and assignments automatically, while another assesses students' work and provides feedback from instructors. A survey of Blackboard users from 2008 published in "MERLOT: Journal of Online Learning and Teaching" found that students rated the Assignments feature of Blackboard the most useful, followed by the Gradebook feature. Students rated the Virtual Classroom the least useful. Instructors rated the Course Documents and Gradebook the most useful, and generally rated the Announcements and Communication functions higher than students did.

Cloud Computing and Blackboard

Cloud technology provides access to data through the Internet.

Blackboard nurtures an increasingly large base of customized, locally-hosted software clients running dedicated software applications. Blackboard software runs on the computer hard drives and servers of each client, and is continually tweaked and upgraded individually. The basis of Blackboard’s strength -- customizing unique applications for each client -- is challenged by “cloud” technology. Utilizing new Internet technology to connect to off-site servers, cloud computing allows you to store and access software and data over the Web, eliminating the need for locally-owned servers and hardware.

MOOCs and Blackboard

Some MOOCs enroll hundreds of thousands of students in a single course.

Cloud computing fosters the creation of massive open online courses available to millions of students, sometimes for free. Where Blackboard focuses on local control and customized software, cloud computing focuses on shared open source software with clients using the same version of the same application. Several reputable educational institutions have invested in Internet-based learning management systems and now offer MOOCs. In May 2012, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, announced that they would offer MOOCs through the $60 million “edX” software. With its acquisition of Internet-based educational service providers Moodlerooms and NetSport in 2012, Blackboard suggests that it will also deliver open source services to educational customers.