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1.3 Comparison to Blackboard

Blackboard is one of the two leading learning management systems (LMS) on the market (the other one is Moodle). Cal State LA is currently offering Blackboard to faculty and students through the eLearing Programs and Support Center (eLPS).

Blackboard, like many other LMS, takes a very course-centric approach and focuses primarily on course-level content creation and management. In comparison, CSNS's philosophy is to provide a set of general-purpose yet tightly integrated tools and let the users to do anything they want. So when it comes to certain course-level tasks, CSNS may not be as convenient or capable as Blackboard, but it can serve a much broader set of goals including, for example, program assessment and student administration.

In this section we first compare the features of Blackboard and CSNS in four major categories: course content creation and management, tools, program assessment, and student administration. We then highlight several advantages of CSNS, including simple and flexible usage, persistent data storage and record keeping, and control over future development.

We should point out that we are not very familiar with Blackboard, so there might be inaccuracies in our discussion regarding Blackboard. If you notice any, please let us know at, or, if you are a CSNS user, please post your comments in the discussion area of this page.

1.3.1 Course Content Creation and Management

Blackboard CSNS
Announcements Class Systemwide
Assessments Quiz, Self-Test, Survey Online Assignment, Survey
Assignments Yes Yes
Discussions Threaded Topics, Blog, and Journal Forum Topics
Goals Yes  
Learning Modules Yes  
Class Roster Yes Yes
SCORM Support SCORM Package Import  
Customizable Class Home Page Yes  
Syllabus Yes  
Web Pages Yes Yes
Files Yes Yes

Table 1.3.1 Comparison of Course Content Creation and Management Features

Blackboard has great support for online course content creation and management, which is probably the defining characteristic of an LMS. In Blackboard, an instructor can easily create a variety of resources for a class such as a syllabus, announcements, web pages and files, discussions, assessments, assignments, and web links to external resources. These resources can be associated with user defined course goals, and can be packaged into reusable learning modules. SCORM content packages can be imported and used as learning modules. Links to these resources and learning modules, together with tools such as calendar, chat, mail, and search, can be easily added to or removed from a pre-created and customizable class home page that is shown to the students.

Started as a homework turnin server, CSNS assumed that course materials were created and hosted outside the system, which was the case for most CS faculty. Over the years, CSNS has been extended to support course content creation through tools such as Wiki and File Manager, but compared to an LMS like Blackboard, several important features are still missing from CSNS, including a pre-created, easily manageable class home page that serves as a hub for all the course resources, and support for course goals, learning modules, and SCORM content packages.

1.3.2 Tools

Blackboard CSNS
Class Systemwide
Class General Purpose
Class General Purpose
File Manager
Class General Purpose
Class General Purpose
Class Participants All Users
Mailing List
Class Resources Forum, Wiki, Mailing List, User
Who's Online

Table 1.3.2 Comparison of Tools

As shown in Table 1.3.2, the majority of Blackboard tools are class specific while the CSNS tools are general purpose.

Class specific tools allow resources created to be associated with class goals and tracked like other class materials. For example, an instructor can created a discussion topic, monitoring the students' participation, and grade them accordingly.

General purpose tools can do anything class specific tools can, albeit with less support for course specific tasks. For example, an instructor must manually keep track of who posted in a discussion topic. On the other hand, general purpose tools are more open and flexible. For instance, in CSNS, students and faculty can use the Wiki to create their home pages, manage their own files using the File Manager, and share their knowledge and opinions in the forums regardless of whether they are in a class or not.

1.3.3 Program Assessment

Blackboard CSNS
Course Journal
Skill Evaluation
Project Listing
Web Portfolio
Data Analysis and Presentation

Table 1.3.3 Comparison of Program Assessment Features

Program assessment is one of the strengths of CSNS. Assessment elements such as course journal, skill evaluation, and key assignments are built in at the course level. Assessment artifacts such as project listings and web portfolios can be automatically generated. Data collection, management, analysis, and display of assessment instruments such as MFT and surveys are provided.

Blackboard currently has no support for program assessment. Although it can be argued that it is possible to create course level assessment artifacts, it is useless for program assessment purpose because the system deletes all the students' work after a class is completed, and there is no mechanism to collect assessment data across multiple classes.

1.3.4 Student Administration

Blackboard CSNS
Class System
User Management
Limited Advanced
Academic Record

Table 1.3.4 Comparison of Student Administration Features

CSNS is designed to not just facilitates teaching and learning, but also student administration. Currently, the system keeps track of the demographic and contact information of the students, all the Computer Science class grades dated back to Spring 2004, the academic standings (including alumnus standing) of each student, and advisement data including course substitutions, course waivers, course transfers, and general advisement records.

Blackboard, due to its course centric approach, has little support for student administration other than class roster and grade sheet.

1.3.5 The CSNS Advantages

Individual features aside, we believe CSNS has several inherent advantages over Blackboard, namely, simple and flexible usage, persistent data storage and record keeping, and control over future development.

To use Blackboard for a class, an instructor must inform eLPS to set up the class before the quarter starts, and this must be repeated every quarter, which is very inconvenient and adds to the already heavy workload of eLPS. In comparison, instructors can create their own classes on CSNS at any time with only a few mouse clicks. Furthermore, the system lets the users to choose what functionality they want to use instead of forcing them to use it in certain way. For example, an instructor can create a complete class web site using CSNS or just use it to receive some homework submissions; a student may use the system for their classes or socialize with other students; a staff may use the system to contact the alumni or post some photos of the graduation ceremony. Due to the open and flexible design of the system, it can serve many different needs of the users.

Another important advantage of CSNS is the persistent storage of data and records. In particular, the system never deletes any course data such as assignments, submissions, and grades. For the students, the system serves as a repository for all their course work during their college careers, automatically organized by quarter, class, and assignment, and can be accessed even after they graduate. For the institution, these data are not only the basis for program assessment and student administration, but also provide a wealth of opportunities to study the progression of the students through the programs and how the institution can better serve the students.

Last but certainly not least, because CSNS is completely developed in-house, we have complete control over the directions of the development, which means that future development will be driven by the actual needs of the students, the faculty, and the institution instead of marketing and revenue.

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