Jurassic Blackboard

Blackboard (or, as I like to refer to it, Blackbored) is a learning management system used by many schools and universities, including mine.  I will have to admit to being somewhat involved in the selection process, by advocating that since there really was no difference between these products 6 years ago (still not much of a difference, really) we might as well go with the market leader, for reasons of externalities and experience.

Blackboard is not a good product. It reminds me of certain software packages I used on an IBM mainframe under VM/CMS back in the 80s – packages like PROFS, which were good then but are obsolete now. Blackboard has a few good attributes, first and foremost that it can be used by the truly clueless, both teachers and students. And it does have a nice sub-system called SafeAssignment, which does a good job with plagiarism detection.

Over the summer, the IT department here installed the newest version of Blackboard – version 7. As far as I can see, there are very limited additions in functionality, mainly associated with keeping score of students’ grades (which I do in an Excel spreadsheet, much faster and more flexible than Blackboard’s web interface). I am now working on re-establishing my courses after a six month sabbatical. That is a chore at the best of times, and Blackboard makes it worse with its tedious interface and limiting structure.

Here is a running list of irritations, as I notice them:

  1. When you upload a file, you can only upload one at a time (no control-click to select more than one.) Yes, you can zip the files and upload the zip archive, but that is a kluge. Why on earth can’t I click on several files at once – every web service under the sun can do that, starting with services that lets you upload pictures?
  2. It doesn’t work well in Mozilla Firefox. It has gotten better: Version 6 had several things that only worked in Internet Explorer. No problem, Firefox has a small market share – except on campuses, where it sometimes dominates. What kind of companies use Blackbored? That’s right, universities. Smart.
  3. It is not possible to publish a course, or parts of a course such as individual pages, to the web. Those of us who like to share our courses with the world will have to maintain separate web sites.
  4. You cannot pull external web pages into Blackboard, only link to them.
  5. Possibilities for customization are very limited – you can change the color of buttons and such, but you cannot, for instance, rearrange the order of courses that appear on your login screen, or where they go.
  6. The menu system requires an incessant stream of clicking – start at a top screen, click down in the hierarchy, click to do something, fill in a form, press Submit, wait forever, get a "success" screen that you have to click to close, and then get taken back to the screen you started with. If you have a lot to do, especially repetitive tasks, this drives you nuts.
  7. There is no ability to apply changes to more than one course. As a matter of fact, there are no shortcuts whatsoever for people who are comfortable working with information technology.
  8. There is excessive duplication of information. I am listed in 5 courses, and for each one of them I have to go in and fill out "staff information" about myself. To put it in technical terms, their database is not in normal form. If you have a number of courses that use (wholly or partially) the same material, this drives you nuts. Especially if you find an error and have to correct it 5 places.
  9. You cannot customize announcement displays – so I end up getting my login screen cluttered with stale announcements from courses I have guest lectured in a long time ago.
  10. The system is a nightmare to manage for the IT department. Trust me. Those guys usually don’t complain much, but they are swearing over the complications of adding new users to a course, for instance.
  11. There is no possibility to use social software tools, such as RSS feeds (meaning students could subscribe to changes), wikis (collaborative content creation), blogging functionality such as Trackbacks, or tags. (And don’t tell me about "next release" – this should have been in there a long time ago.)
  12. There is no click-and-drag functionality anywhere.
  13. There is no functionality for having a local copy and uploading (replicating), so that you could work in a non-connected setting.
  14. It doesn’t preserve session state, so when you press Refresh, it takes you out of the screen you were working in (the Control Panel, say) and back to the starting screen for the course.
  15. The courses (individual pages or courses in themselves)  are not searchable (or, to use Peter Morville’s term, not findable.)
  16. Each screen contains very little information, mainly because the fonts are big, so it is hard to get an overview. You end up clicking around a lot  just to find things. A more compressed view, perhaps with browser functionality that would let you jump between branches in an information hierarchy would be appreciated.
  17. You can’t log in automatically – in fact, you have to go via an opening screen with a "Log In" button. How about having the browser remembering the password and UID and jumping straight in?
  18. (added 8/31): The system makes it extremely tedious to change small errors in several entries. Item: I had, for one course, entered 10 assignments, all with text, due date etc. Then it dawned on me that I had forgotten to specify that they should be SafeAssignments, i.e., that they should be subject to plagiarism control. There was no way I could fix that, neither for the whole group of assignments nor for each entry. Instead, I had to create 10 new assignments, copy the text over, and set the "display until" dates again. Why oh why? Doesn’t the company have anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of user interfaces?
  19. (added 9/17): When students submit a paper to SafeAssignment, they don’t get a receipt that the paper has been received (for instance through an email). Coupled with performance problems in SafeAssignment, this means quite a few students think they have submitted the paper even though they haven’t.
  20. (added 9/17): When you send out an email to all participants in a course, there is no standard way of limiting it to only students. There is also no way to CC: someone who is not inside the system – for instance an external guest speaker. Instead, you have to go back to your email inbox and forward the mail from there.

Blackboard does something for straightening out formalities and making administration easier – but not as easy as it could be. It offers a space to leave content you want limited to the course participants, and has a rudimentary collaboration system. But the system forces you into a very rigid and limiting form of teaching and communicating – essentially, it automates a traditional way of teaching rather than make use of all the wonderful things the technology can do. Rather sad, for someone who is a market leader in learning management systems.

That being said, the fact that they are suing competitors to protect a patent for the idea of bringing together online learning in one package might be an indication that I am not the only person onto something here. It would be nice if they started listening to the people that use their softw
are and give them tools that made them better. If they did, they wouldn’t have to worry so much about the competition. And I wouldn’t have to work with a system that assumes I am an idiot.

PS: A tip if you have to work with Blackboard: Get the administration to set up a fake course for you (I call mine "0 Espens resources", with the "0" ensuring that it shows up on top of my list of courses) where you stuff all your teaching material in nice little folders, with questions, articles and data. When you are setting up a course, you can then copy materials from this repository into the new course, and not have to laboriously upload everything. Works like a charm. Would be even better if it was part of the package. Would be even greater if I could do it automatically from my PC and press "synchronize"….

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