Blackboard: The Platform for Our New Educational Future

Published on: September 14, 2016

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Working within Unity Worldwide Ministries to pick a new platform for the future of education throughout the Unity movement was the exciting challenge given to the Technology Team, a sub-team of the Education Transition team.

Led by Rev Roxanne Graves, associate minister at Christ Church Unity, Orlando, Fla., the team included Rev Deborah Frownfelter, executive director of education UWM; Rev Dr Jessie Tanner, professor of religious and spiritual studies Unity Institute; Rev Pat Veenema, founder of New Vista Learning Center; Rev Toni Fish, minister of Unity in Frederick, Md.; Rev Sharon Ketchum, minister of Unity Spiritual Center of Lansing, Mich.; Sarah Lundquist-Galloway, MEd; Laura Lane; Mary Cain Fehr, learning specialist; Rev Diane Venzera, assistant director adult learning Northwestern University; and Rev Kelly Isola, MDiv, adjunct professor Unity Institute.

Over the first few weeks, the team sent out RFPs (Requests for Proposal) to small-, medium- and large-platform providers. We wanted to identify those in the market who would be able to support a vision of growth in the Unity movement and Unity Worldwide Spiritual Institute (UWSI) well into the future. In other words, the list would have made Santa Claus shudder. Below are just a few things from that list:

  • Both asynchronous and synchronous
  • Customization on the interface
  • Multi-lingual support
  • Audio/video conferencing, recording/archival
  • Screen sharing, break outs, live chats
  • Upload/download/embedding files, including video
  • Sub-licenses for satellites—to be used by SEE in the Unity movement field as well as the seminary
  • Upfront training for instructors and staff, as well as ongoing turnover training
  • 24-hour help desk for students
  • Cloud-based with security, backup, and capacity for growth
  • Rich set of course features: student forum, lessons, file management, quizzes, discussion forums, group pages, small group pages within the course, instant messaging, live chat
  • Course management by instructor: presenting material, assignments, announcements, calendars, assessing and grading assignments, analytics, progress monitoring
  • Support for blended learning environments: eLearning capability (self-paced), eClassroom capability (virtual classroom), live classroom broadcasting
  • Student transcript management, course catalog
  • User registration via self-enrollment/eCommerce capability for self-enrollment
  • Recording and archival of classes for review or absent students

In the end, the top contenders were Blackboard, Jenzabar (the platform being used at that time by Unity Institute), and LearnUpon, in order of preference. Both Blackboard and Jenzabar were considered large-platform providers whereas LearnUpon could be modified to fit into either a small or medium category. So, the Technology Team made their recommendation to the Education Transition Team, which in turn, made their recommendation to the board of Unity Worldwide Ministries.

It was decided—based on the success of a technology grant spearheaded by Deborah Frownfelter to the Templeton Foundation—that Blackboard would be the company Unity Worldwide Ministries would partner with going forward for the LMS (Learning Management System), SIS (Student Information System), video conferencing (Blackboard Collaborate), help desk and training.

Unity Worldwide Spiritual Institute and Blackboard (BB) are working closely to have the online classes available that are needed for existing MDiv students for the Fall term, as well as a few SEE classes. As time goes on, we will continue to see an increase in the number of classes available for students at all levels through UWSI.

This is how Blackboard describes their product:

Collaborative Learning Designed for Education

With features like high-quality, high definition audio and video, application sharing, and a thoroughly redesigned, modern user experience, Blackboard Collaborate™ offers an incomparable online learning environment. This is web conferencing created with education in mind.

 More Impact for Educators

Browser-based web conferencing
Browser-based web conferencing means simple deployment and convenient access with nothing to install—and more supported devices, including Chromebooks.


Classroom/In-Session chatter
Instant, convenient chat with all participants promotes participation, but can be disabled as needed. Supports twemoji, Twitter’s emoji standard.


Chalk it up
Collaboration is enhanced with real-time annotations and text. Whiteboard text editing allows content to be added and edited on the fly.


Flipped learning goes mobile
Record sessions in a mobile-friendly format, perfect for flipped lessons. Captured video, audio, and shared content can be played back as streamed MP4 files.


Follow the speaker
Follow-the-speaker layout makes it easy to know who’s talking by placing the active speaker in a larger top space among up to 5 HD videos in the conference.


High-quality audio and video
Engage learners with HD audio, video, and webcam support. Display up to 5 HD videos at once, with dynamic adjustment for bandwidth/network constraints.


Participant engagement
Increase engagement and personalization with participant-specific controls and a participant list that displays profile pictures, names, and moderators’ roles.


Personalized profiles
Profile pictures personalize the learning experience and can represent you in place of video—for those times when you’d rather not go live in HD.


Raise your hand

Participation counts. That’s why the hand-raising feature tracks the order in which hands are raised and lets the moderator call on participants.


Simple, sharing fast file
Share content with drag-and-drop ease. PowerPoint and PDF files can be shared without additional software. Supports real-time annotation and text entry.

Clearly, Collaborate is just one of the tools available to UWSI through the partnership with BB. We haven’t even begun to imagine the outer limits of where these tools can take us; improvements and upgrades are happening all of the time, and BB is taking us with them. We look forward to many successes in education on all levels throughout the Unity movement.

We know that we are blessed and all is in Divine Order through the one Source God, Omnipotence. And so it is. Amen.

For questions and/or comments contact Rev Roxanne Graves at [email protected].


Roxanne Graves

Rev Roxanne Graves, associate minister at Christ Church Unity, Orlando, FL, leads Unity Café, an alternative Saturday ministry service, and facilitates the SEE program. She is on the UWM Budget & Finance Team. She has a front yard organic garden and is certified as an Urban Chicken Farmer.

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  • Sharon Ketchum

    If you’re like me, going into new technology is sometimes kicking and screaming and then I get to the other side and wonder what all my fuss-full fear was about! It is a great, intuitive system. Hello future. Here we stand.