Blackbored – the disappearing future of technology in learning

According to Red Herring Blog, Blackboard.com is now worth over $.5b. Truly depressing. The best thing that can be said for their product, a course management system for universitities, is that the competition is even worse. Why anyone would want to value a company that sells shoddy software to universities (not known for willingly parting with huge sums for stuff they can either do themselves or get cheaply somewhere else,) is beyond me. Software-as-service is an excellent concept (not that Blackboard compares to salesforce.com, since they license software much as anyone else,) but the business model is shaky in the long term. The last time it was bandied about it was called ASPs, and it didn’t work then either. The reason is simple: Software concepts are copyable, and ideas spread, so prices fall until you no longer make money unless you manage to establish and defend some sort of network externality. For course management systems, the only direct network externality I have been able to find is in plagiarism detection – and even there it is only slight, as the effect of plagiarims is mostly preemptive.
So why don’t I like Blackboard and other course management systems? Here is a list (modified from this talk):

  • All they aim to do is put paper-based courses on-line – without no vision of what teaching should be like beyond Powerpoint slides. They justify this by saying they need to pander to technology virgins – saying that to facilitate learning and increase acceptance they have to use the tired metaphors of “classrooms”, “group areas”, “documents” and other hogwash. Hobgoblins of little minds, I say.
  • They dumb down the user interface for the course creator (and for the student, I should add) to unusability, and justifies this by talking about user-friendliness and how the system can be used by almost anyone with a minimum of training. That is well and good, but it is now 37 years since Smalltalk 67 was invented, with a graphically oriented object browser, and since I manage not one course, but about 10, I would very much like to do that in an interface that allows me to behave like a technologically competent and moderately literate adult, rather than forcing me into dealing with an interface designed for an airline check-in machine catering to moronic, alcohol-marinated charter tourists.
  • They are built on a systems architecture that, while using a relational database, does not let the capabilities of the database show through to the user, thus treating every course as a separate entity with ensuing duplication of content. So I end up with 6 different copies of an article because I have 6 courses, and an updating nightmare

  • They are not built to interface effectively and intuitively with other systems. This is rather odd, given that the data for the one task that justifies a course management system – namely, identity management, that is the linking of student to learning material – comes not from the course management system itself but from student administration systems
  • They arrange everything into courses, not making any allowance for the course creator or creators to have draft areas, repositories of learning modules, conditional access to course material or alternative interfaces to, say, non-students.

In short, Blackboard and its ilk are bad systems, because they do not have the capability in them to drive use of IT in teaching forward. All they do is take half a step, and in doing so, making sure we won’t get further.
This is an area where open source/free systems really ought to shine, where componentization, blogs, wikis and a rolling technological evolution – including, as the report Thwarted Innovation: What Happened to e-learning and Why by Robert Zemsky and William F. Massy says, evolving a dominant design for learning components – is critical. But it won’t come from the commercial providers. We have to do it ourselves. For instance, what if MIT took their OpenCourseWare initiative and created a way for people to specify their courses in the same format, even creating learning components by themselves the same way they do it?
Boy, wouldn’t that be fun…..

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