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BbWorld17 – DevCon – Monday 24th – Tuesday 25th July 2017

Blackboard’s World Conference at BbWorld17 and DevCon17

These are my notes and thoughts and should not be seen as a fully accurate or complete account of the information provided.  Some of the information included here contains features that Blackboard are working on / towards but have no guarantee to bring to market.

If you feel I have missed something / been inaccurate in my note taking please let me know in the comments and I will correct / discuss / debate with you 🙂


Usual legal statement about everything discussed has the potential to change and not come to market etc. etc.
Knowledge bar has been expanded this year. UX lab – user experience – come and discuss your experiences and how Bb can help.
Mobile app should have every bit of information you need about the conference.
Thanks to sponsors Amazon WebServices + Amazon Alexa

DevCon: Blackboard technology state of the union

Tim Tomlinson 

Produce Excellence & Quality

Bb hear from us quality is our top priority. This is most important in Learn. In the last year, 100’s of bugs fixed, updated technology and simplified releases. 
New rating system this year:
Bb have invested in a lot of automated build and test to try and make sure releases are simple and bug free. Almost 600% increase in fix requests delivered. BUT this increased install times. the Q2 2017 release down by 1/3 and runtime is down by about 20%. Bb are continuing to work on improvements to the installer.

Average time to resolution down to 6.5 days for critical issues. New test automation technology and higher coverage is supporting this.

203 clients on SaaS, 68 underway and 52 evaluations / pilots.


  1. Learn
    1. (The backbone)
  2. Experience
    1. Original
    2. Ultra
  3. Deployments
    1. Self Hosted
    2. Managed Hosted
    3. SaaS
New Product ALLY, allows you to make the content you delivery through your LMS / VLE more accessible to your users / learners.

ALLY is available to integration to Bb, Moodle Rooms and Canvas. Later to D2L and others.

Bb Student app is now Blackboard app – still aimed at students.
Bb Instructor is the new app for staff.  Bb ask us to remember this is version 1 of the app and grading etc. is coming soon. (no timeframe discussed)

REST APIs are expanding in coverage. Bb’s support for open standards is also increasing. Bb is certified with the IMS Global®


Bb Community allows for more communication and discussion with users. Recent voting allowed for the community to direct the companies development direction etc.

Bb Developer portal allows developers to access key information and dev versions of Bb.

Bb are working on providing a bigger / longer look into the Bb roadmap. With greater visibility comes more chance of change as development progresses.


We were shown what was promised last year and that Bb have done it – anything not mentioned I guess comes under the legal statement above lol. In my opinion they have delivered on last year’s announcements. Bb admin communication could have been a little better this year and they are devoted to improving this again.
Announcing a free no cost licensing option for developers. Entry level to community.

DevCon: Architectural modularity and adaptability with Blackboard Mobile products

Henry Lee, Hubert He, Qing Xu

All communications via HTTPS for secure communication.


 – the way for Bb to make their products more usable and enable Bb to be more responsive to development and support.

Drawer Menu
Base navigation panel for native apps gives the user a consistent way of accessing other functional spaces.

Allows users to view their courses for the past, current and future semesters

Course Overview
This module allows the user to quickly navigate sections within the course.


Bb now have the ability to reuse these widgets into other modules.

Product Adaptability

Module Repository
Modules in this repository can be shared across all products, they are all based on Bb design and technical standard.

Blackboard Instructor
Based on standard modules and added some instructor specialised customisation, can be independently distributed into the market.

Based on standard modules and added some specialised customisation, can be independently distributed into the market.


Building a utilities library for common functions across all products. 
Building a widgets library – part of the UI kit.
Building a core framework library
Modules are then built from these three libraries.


Independent Modules > Unit Testing – this guarantees quality of the system – > Continuous Integration Testing – this makes sure all of the modules developed work well with each other – > Manual/Automation Testing – last defence and final testing to make sure nothing has been missed.

Live demonstration of the modules being pulled into the app development and how they work.

DevCon: Going Splunking: Using Splunk for server log analytics in Blackboard Learn

When you get an error emailed to you, you usually try and look in the log files. But there are many log files with different formats and it can be very hard to dig your way through them.

Splunk is Google for Logfiles.

Schema on the fly
Splunk will:

  • Collect and index data
  • search, analyse and visualise
  • Monitor, alert and report.

Forwarders can be placed directly on your data sources to send your data to splunk
Indexer goes through your data and transforms the raw data into events and stores the events in an index.

Managed and self-hosted Bb Environments

Not sure about SaaS – Offering ELK (Elasticsearch, LogStash and Kibana)

Alternatives to Splunk


Demonstration of how this can be used to query student claims of submitting but no result etc.:

Simple way to visualise the activity when filtering on the student ID and PK1 value of the quiz.

Recently there is now a log file entry to show when a file is attached to an assignment submission.
This allows you to check if the student did or did not attach a file with their submission.

getSafeFileName is the search term to look for file attachment.

Philips Hue lights can be controlled by splunk analysis. i.e. have a light turn on if there is an issue 🙂

DevCon: Machine Learning: Past, Present, and Future

Hilary Mason, Fast Forward Labs

In 1880 it took 7 years to count everyone who lived in the USA. Someone developed a machine for simply counting the US census.

This machine used punch cards and this lead into the creation of IBM where these cards were used into the 1900’s.

These days we have a change in our language where we now refer to software as though it were a person.  People refer to an AI as “The AI” and even how they can get it to be their BFF.

In the 1960’s they felt that within 10 years we would have a solution that can translate natural language.

In 1952 Bell Labs were able to develop a mechanical ‘mouse’ that could solve its way through a maze and learn as it went so as to inform future path decisions.

In 2017 we are not doing anything new, but it is now so cheap and fast we can handle a lot more data in a shorter time.

Currently we are able to develop a computer user interface which is the same as the user interface we use between humans – speech.

Data Science is going from “How many people signed up for my course” to “How many are likely to sign up next semester”.

  • Big Data
    • Analytics & BI
    • Product data science
    • R&D
Take Google Maps traffic, you don’t need to worry about how much data is being processed or from where, it’s boiled down to Red, Amber and Green lines on a map. You can even ignore this as your route calculator will use this data when plotting your route and it will continue to update based on this data as you drive.

We are starting to see real value generated from machine learning.

Data science is a new professional role.

Data Science is a team sport!

We are augmenting human capabilities not replacing humans.

Intuition and data – it’s not one or the other

Fast Forward Labs

Natural Language Generation – going from data to naturally sounding sentences. This has been demonstrated on real estate listing creation.

The real impact will be in making complex data simple.

Deep learning for rich images is something a lot of people have their eye on.

This can go wrong – example: algorithm learnt that anything that looked like fries next to water was a crab so a burger restaurant’s images had some listed as “Crabs” when they do not sell crabs and there were none in the image.

Most machine learning is done within black boxes – i.e. you can see what is going on or why but we need to know what is going on and we need to understand them.

DevCon: IMS Caliper: Crossing the event streams

IMS Global learning standards body creating standards such as LTI and Caliper.  This allows for Learning ecosystems without vendor lock in.

IMS provide standard implementations of the Caliper Sensor on GitHub and also the Event Store Implementation on GitHub.

Using Caliper with Bb

Self-Hosted Learn support – planned from Fall 2017 – same outbound as MH/SaaS

What is included?

  • AssessmentEvent
    • Starting or submitting an assignment
    • In Ultra, includes Assignment activity
  • AssessmentItemEvent
    • Saving a question Event
  • AssignableEvent
    • Starting or submitting an assignment
Outcome events run overnight not live.

Question asked about inbound for Self-Hosted – is the roadmap planned? Not yet as it isn’t yet on Managed hosted. It is being considered and issues resolved.

DevCon: Accessibility: Common coding mistakes developers make using ARIA

When navigating as a keyboard only user you need to be mindful of tabbing to button hidden by models that you wouldn’t expect a user to be able to click.
Voiceover will try and work out the context of a button but with models this can get very wrong. Demonstration showed reported “Continue Button” whilst on “Cancel Registration”.
Some amazing code examples to enhance your side and support users who rely on screen readers and non-mouse navigation.  I will try and link to the example code when posted.

DevCon: Managed hosting: Does it work? Will I get access to my data?

During migration in 2012 they had to send 3TB of data but could only do this by sending a USB HDD via Fed Ex.
Using Graduate Assistants for 1st line support queries.
With OpenDB from Bb they will give you a direct copy of your database every night to allow you to query with SQL your data.
But with REST APIs they predict that this may become redundant.
With managed hosting you can install your own building blocks (unlike SaaS) and you can install one that will allow you to run SQL query directly in web interface.
NOTE: because they put the 2016 theme on their staging server, search engines ranked this before the live server – they had some student submit to the staging area.  Added robots.txt to deny everything to the staging server.

DevCon: Customize teaching and learning with the Learn 2016 theme with CSS

Jason Eggert
Senior Software Engineer Bb
In 2016 theme the functionality that was in the 2012 theme (where you could customise the theme) is missing.
Jason and Wade started to use Sass.
If you are used to using CSS you the extension .scss
Sass allows you to nest components.
Setting a single variable=value you can then use variable in multiple places in your Sass allowing you to quickly make global changes to colours etc.
Bb have put an example on Github for you to modify. great app to work with Sass
Download 2016 theme from Bb.
You get two folders:
  1. core
  2. plugins
Output your sass into the core folder.
Note: you can change body-max-width back to 100%
Once you’ve made you changes in sass and output the css to the core folder, select both the core and plugin folders and compress these.
Create a new theme in brands and themes and upload the ZIP folder.
Next releases of Bb will have a lot of accessibility updates

DevCon: Amazon Alexa & building great voice experiences


We’ve been using voice for 100,000 years to communicate. but for the last 40 + years we’ve been using nonverbal forms of input / control. 

“voice is the most natural input method, it requires no training”

The real trick is the natural language understanding. understanding the context the request comes with / from.

20 second audio buffer looking for wake word “alexa” on device, once found, device sends next 7-8 seconds of audio to server.

Some example code:

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