Fairfax Co. schools move away from Blackboard amid distance learning woes

As distance learning woes continue in Virginia’s largest county on Monday, Fairfax County schools said that it is moving away from Blackboard online learning system.

“We recognize that our students and teachers need a reliable system for virtual learning; therefore, we are going to move away from Blackboard Learn 24-7 as a tool for face to face instruction,” school Superintendent Scott Brabrand announced in a statement Monday night.

FCPS will also provide “face to face” instruction to students as schools begin the transition away from the Blackboard Learn 24/7 system. Schools will be preparing to provide virtual instruction through a secure Blackboard Collaborate Ultra link or through other alternative means.

Teachers and students will continue to use Blackboard Learn 24-7 to access instructional resources and supports.

“While many students were able (roughly 40,000) to successfully participate in synchronous (simultaneous) learning with their teachers and classmates this morning, we received reports that there were challenges at about that point,” said Fairfax County Public Schools spokeswoman Lucy H. Caldwell in an email Monday afternoon. “It appeared that the system slowed down and it started to take several attempts for users to log on.”

Caldwell stressed that the school system did not cancel distance learning altogether, and said students continued to work on assignments given by teachers.

Just after 1 p.m., some sixth-grade parents had received an email that the district had canceled Blackboard activities for the rest of the day and had moved assignments to Google Classroom.

For that, Caldwell clarified in a statement: “Nothing was ‘canceled’ today. Many teachers have been able to provide virtual live instruction. For others that experienced technical challenges, they were instructed to continue engaging with students using a variety of different learning tools.”

Caldwell went on to say that if some teachers had issues with the Blackboard system, they would then move their students over to Google Classroom, for example.

Earlier in the day, Caldwell said some users were able to access the system. “However, as the volume increased, we received word that access was intermittent or slow, in some cases requiring multiple log-on attempts. Once inside the system, Blackboard Collaborate worked well.”

The persistent problems began last Tuesday, the first day of online learning, after the school system closed school buildings on March 13. The widespread issues later forced the school system to cancel classes Wednesday, and then again Thursday and Friday.

Then, on Monday, an email to parents said, “The updates made by Blackboard over the weekend have not corrected the system delays.”

But one parent, Kirk Volovar, wrote in an email that there was no apparent improvement in the system Monday morning. “Failure after failure has been quite frustrating,” he said.

Another parent, Maurisa Potts, said her son was finally able to log in after 45 minutes of trying — just in time for the last three minutes of his first class.

“This is going beyond a technical issue,” Potts said. “This is also a leadership issue within the county, as it seems that other counties and jurisdictions and universities surrounding us are able to figure their stuff out.”

Nick LaForgia also had problems getting his two first-graders logged in.

“We would sometimes get the login page,” he said. “We would use the username and password, and then it would go hang for a while, then go to ‘site unavailable.'”

LaForgia, who works in IT security, said he has “been trying to get the county to fix their site” for nearly two years, and said such alternatives as Google Classroom, prerecorded videos and e-books — which the district has utilized as backup methods — should instead be the first option now.

“I think they just have to say: ‘Hey, it doesn’t work. And let’s go to plan C here or plan B, whatever it is,'” he said, “‘and let’s provide the materials that people can print out and work with their children.'”

Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand apologized last week for the problems. Blackboard also apologized.

Jack Pointer

Jack contributes to WTOP.com when he's not working as the afternoon/evening radio writer.

Colleen Kelleher

Colleen Kelleher is an award-winning journalist who has been with WTOP since 1996. Kelleher joined WTOP as the afternoon radio writer and night and weekend editor and made the move to WTOP.com in 2001. Now she works early mornings as the site's Senior Digital Editor.

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