Blackboard has launched CourseSites, a free, fully hosted and supported online course system. The cloud service gives schools, colleges and higher education instructors an innovative option to host online courses or add a Web-based component to traditional ones.

CourseSites is designed to support instructors who may not have access to a learning management system at their institution or school, or who may have access to an older platform system from Blackboard or a competing course management provider. There is no license fee, no hosting fee and no additional setup required for instructors to get started.

Core features of CourseSites include the flexibility of the Wikis and Discussion Boards. These tools enable educators to design group exercises, such as a collaborative construction of a timeline, in order to support student-lead seminars. Seminars can require students to post seminar questions, monitor seminar discussions and respond to questions by other students – ideal for a live class.

Perhaps what’s most helpful to teachers is the opportunity to use the SafeAssign plagiarism prevention feature. CourseSites also has the potential to save teachers lots of time in terms of grading with the online assessments.

“We want to reduce all barriers, whether technical, financial or administrative, to getting our best technologies into the hands of educators new to online learning products or unfamiliar with our latest offerings,” said Ray Henderson, President of Blackboard Learn. “We’re investing with a belief that CourseSites can become the most accessible option for introducing new educators to online instruction in the market.”

CourseSites presents an option for instructors looking to preview and test Blackboard’s teaching and learning software before their institution makes a purchasing decision. It can also serve as a production-quality teaching and learning pilot environment for instructors at institutions preparing to upgrade their implementation of Blackboard Learn.

Based on Blackboard Learn, Release 9.1 – the Company’s newest platform for teaching and learning – CourseSites features a range of social learning tools and Web 2.0 functionality. The system also features integrated technologies from Blackboard partners and platform offerings that will be expanded over time, including Blackboard Collaborate instant messaging, live collaboration, conferencing and voice tools; assessment, self-assessment and locked browser tools from Respondus; and content authoring tools from SoftChalk.

CourseSites also features a range of instructor-focused features including dedicated homepages and URLs for instructors, templates to guide course development, themes to allow instructors to customise the look and feel of their courses and the ability to login using credentials from popular websites like Facebook and Twitter. In addition to being fully hosted and offering live support for users, CourseSites comes with a complement of training resources and course development resources and tools.