Encouraging more people to earn a college degree is a key part of the Obama administration’s economic recovery plan–and the federal government is taking a two-pronged approach to shoring up student lending to ensure that cost isn’t a barrier to a higher education.

But even as President Obama advances a plan to move the federal student loan program from the private to the public sector, a separate strategy to jump-start private student lending has been slow to take off.

Leading educational technology vendor Blackboard Inc. unveiled its first integrated instant-messaging service April 2 for students and professors who rely on class web portals for lectures, assignments, exams, and grades.

Blackboard launched its newest feature as many colleges and universities are gravitating toward open-source course management options, a collaborative effort in the technology community that differs from the centralized, dependent model of campuses that use popular vendor systems. Blackboard teamed up with Wimba to develop the first IM system that is incorporated into every Blackboard platform.

Professors and their students can discuss lesson plans and homework questions with the instant messenger’s pre-populated class rosters, which provide connectivity between classmates who might be encountering the same problems in preparation for quizzes and tests. Pre-populating the IM service ensures that professors are not assigned the tedious task of collecting student IM addresses and plugging them into the course web site.

Kara Monroe, executive director of instructional technology at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, said Blackboard’s new IM option is appealing for a generation of college students who grew up using IM for everyday communication with friends and family.

"Students get a lot of satisfaction out of this, because it allows them to ask a quick question, be less formal, and get instant feedback from faculty," Monroe said. "This is helping to create connections between students and faculty that they didn’t have before, connections that are more comfortable, accessible, and engaging."

While Blackboard and other industry giants unveil new features, some campus IT officials have lauded the flexibility and affordability of open-source options. Some colleges have used open-source technology not only to manage courses, but also to recruit students–arranging online meetings between students interested in majoring in physics, for example, and the professors and department heads who could best persuade them to attend their college in the fall.

Blackboard’s IM service is the latest addition to its market-leading proprietary course management system, as Blackboard aims to stave off competition from the open-source community as well as rival companies.

Earlier this year, Blackboard officials introduced a feature that will let college faculty work with students via Facebook, the popular social-networking site that many students visit while they’re studying or doing homework. The Blackboard Sync program allows professors to deliver course content and alerts through Facebook. If a student signs up for Blackboard Sync, he or she can check discussion board posts and grades while logged into Facebook.

"A lot of the work we do involves group projects and collaboration," said Zachary Girod, a University of Maryland graduate student. "Having access to academic alerts while I’m on Facebook lets me work more efficiently and informally with classmates and learn from their experiences."

Links:

Blackboard

Wimba