Blackboard Streamlines Virtual Instruction With New LTI Tool Built on Amazon IVS

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2020 turned out to be a landmark year for education, as K-12 and higher education administrators, staff, students, and caregivers quickly pivoted to distance learning amidst a global pandemic. Behind the scenes, technology developers like Blackboard and AWS have been working to make the transition smoother, creating solutions aimed at helping educators deliver more compelling, high-quality video instruction.

In addition to online learning, the need to host events virtually that are typically live and in person has also become important. Recently, Blackboard released the Blackboard Interactive Video Service Integration (BIVSI), which expands on the workflow built to support live event video streams at Blackboard’s BbWorld and DevCon 2020 conference held virtually in July. Available to institutions around the world looking for a simpler way to set up video streams and onboard students within their content platform of choice, BIVSI is built on the Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) standard protocol developed by the IMS Global Learning Consortium, the Blackboard Learn REST API, and Amazon Interactive Video Service (Amazon IVS), the new managed live streaming video solution from AWS.

“If there’s anything we’ve learned in the education industry this year, it’s that there will be circumstances that we cannot anticipate, yet we must find a way to persevere. It felt as though the world shifted to virtual learning overnight and many of our clients were suddenly scrambling to keep pace. Looking further ahead, we saw DevCon as the perfect opportunity to build and test a tool that could benefit the greater community by simplifying high-quality virtual instruction and learning for students of all levels,” shared Scott Hurrey, who leads Blackboard’s Developer Relations team.

Although Blackboard had previously included virtual components in BbWorld and DevCon, 2020 marked the first year the event went fully virtual. To serve an exclusively online audience, Blackboard had to double support for the volume of its viewers from 500 to upwards of a thousand. “When planning a virtual event like DevCon, it’s challenging in normal times to try and gauge the size of audience you’ll have to support online, but with no one able to attend in person, it’s a total guess, so we wanted to be sure that we’d be able to accommodate whoever wanted to view a session,” shared Scott. “Fortunately, we found Amazon IVS. We have a long history of collaborating with AWS and were confident in the IVS technology, which is built on the proven infrastructure of Twitch. Combined with the fact that it supports RTMP, these factors made it a natural fit for the solution we were trying to build.”

The Blackboard team worked closely with AWS to build the streaming solution for DevCon and launch it within the Blackboard Learn platform, Blackboard’s flagship Learning Management System, to embed the video player and create video streaming sessions without the need to write code. “IVS shaved many hours off of R&D on this tool,” added Scott. “It’s reliable, and the quality of video it delivers is impressive.”

Seeing demand for a similar application across the larger education community, Blackboard extended its DevCon workflow into an LTI tool to support nearly any educational platform. With LTI deep linking at its core, BIVSI allows educators to log into a course, click on the course link, and start streaming.

In the background, BIVSI looks for an available video channel, and if a channel does not exist, it automatically creates a default channel and stream for the instructor and course. Streams can also be created ahead of time and added to the calendar. Using the Blackboard application programming interface (API), a link to the stream is then made available to students and added to their calendars, so that when they log into it, they can see the scheduled stream and click to watch via a video player embedded into the site.

Once set up with the player, the solution also provides viewership insight such has how many people clicked on the stream, who clicked on it, and more. BIVSI can be accessed by an institution or professor, regardless of whether or not they’re using the Blackboard platform. They can host and install this application at their institution using a range of providers, from AWS to Heroku, and many more.

Blackboard decided to make the solution free and open source to broaden access to it at a crucial time, as schools around the world are prioritizing distance learning programs. “As we began experimenting with the integration for DevCon, we quickly realized it could alleviate some of the common pain points that schools and instructors were facing in virtual instruction. Instead of building it into Blackboard Learn, we wanted to make that sure people would be able to use it with whatever Learning Management System is in use at their institution,” shared Scott.

With the support of the developer community, Blackboard is helping to extend the capabilities of the tool and keeps in constant communication with BIVSI users. General feedback has been that students love how easy it is to find, click on, and start watching a high-quality stream as they would to watch a movie or show.

“With IVS handling the video infrastructure backbone, this tool promises unending potential and less work for developers, so they can spend more time on helping educators make streams more interactive and engaging, which will be crucial as distance learning remains relevant. This is part of the reason we open-sourced BIVSI: We hope that universities and K-12 institutions around the world will embrace it. We can’t wait to see how it gets used and improved upon in the future,” Scott concluded.