I don’t like Blackboard, and I don’t know why.
That’s not entirely true. I have several reasons I don’t like Blackboard, but I don’t know whether they are reasonable, or they are just rationalizations of a deeply irrational dislike for the software product.
Allow me to begin by saying I don’t hate Blackboard. I don’t feel the same way about it as I feel about, say, liver, shiokara, or Bill O’Reilly. I feel about it much the way I feel about small, yappy-type dogs: fine if you like them, and glad they exist, but I don’t seek them out. Why?
First of all, I have yet to use a Blackboard install that wasn’t slow, at least under heavy use. Now, it may be that this is an issue with Oracle–at least I think it requires an Oracle back-end. Yes, I realize that these systems get a lot of traffic, but it’s not particularly CPU-intensive traffic. Much of this should be cache-and-go. Maybe the penalty for a “do everything” CMS is that it does it on its own time frame.
Second, the interface for the instructor is not particularly attractive or intuitive. Frankly, the Blackboard sites I have designed are simple enough that students would have no problems, but it should be much easier than it is to set up a basic boilerplate class. And adding a banner to a badly organized site is like putting a fresh coat of paint on a dead horse. Why not provide the ability to use your own CSS? (Can you do this?) Why not make it possible to put everything on the first page rather than requiring six clicks to get anywhere?
Third, it’s not as easily extensible as I would like it to be. Of course, most universities love this. The more you can tie the hands of your users, the less chance of security breaches and crashing the system as a whole. But look at what opening up Facebook has done for their popularity. If you were able to easily create plug-ins that individual instructors could create and use, it might be a bit better.
Fourth, it leads to a teaching monoculture. Everyone uses it. Of course, this is also one of the advantages of Blackboard. All of the students have used it at some point and are likely using for other classes. But it also tends to mean that it is hard to try new things or new ways of thinking about using technology in the classroom and out of it. Of course, you can try the one-foot in and one-foot out approach, but integrating work tends to be much harder. So, you are required to buy into the cult of instructional design. Don’t get me wrong: instructional designers do some great work, but it also tends to create an orthodoxy that is an anathema to a flexible, progressive, and diverse learning community. My faculty is strong because of the differences in the way we teach, and Blackboard tends to pave over those differences.
Fifth, it isn’t transparent. One of the reasons I got into blogging for classes is that it allowed for our work to be open to the wider community and the wider world. I think that’s important, and Blackboard doesn’t. Now, when I mention this, BbBoosters note that I can open the class to make it public (depending on how Blackboard is set up on your campus), and that all of the things I like to do: blogs, wikis, etc., are available on Blackboard. It’s true, Blackboard has hobbled versions of each of these tools, but the reason they are hobbled is that they are not a part of the wide, open, web. I can’t sign up for an RSS feed out of my class announcements, or have good inter-wiki links. Part of the reason I use these tools is precisely that they can be used in contexts outside of the university.
Sixth, it isn’t free. Yes, some of this is complaining about how much it costs, since it ends up eating up a substantial part of the information technology budget for many universities, but I am more concerned with the “free as in speech” issues rather than the “free as in beer” issues. At the same time that many universities are following MIT’s lead in providing open access to their teaching materials, Blackboard is not only making the default organization of such materials closed, they have made some pretty outrageous patent claims.
It’s the last two that are particularly irksome, I think. Given the existence of free and open tools like Sakai and Moodle, it just seems dumb to spend money on Blackboard. I guess that the same could be said of Microsoft Vista and various versions of Linux for the desktop. Both are flawed in various ways, but despite this, people are willing to spend money on the Microsoft product. I suspect that the reason people continue to use Blackboard is the reason I am typing this on a computer running Windows (XP–not upgrading to Vista). Namely, because it is the easy choice, relatively risk-free, and familiar. Blackboard knows how to sell to school administrators, and that is part of their product.
Because of some changes afoot in my own program, I will be making a lot more use of Blackboard. Way back when they were first talking about blogging, I volunteered (through my university) to serve on an advisory board for the development of their blogging product, but was never taken up on the offer (unfortunately). As long as we are using Blackboard, I figure we should make it as usable as possible. For the courses that are offered via Blackboard, I fully intend on becoming a Blackboard uber-user, extracting every drop of value out of the product I can, because that’s what my students deserve. Perhaps more familiarity will demonstrate that my opinion is misplaced, or that my opinions formed in using Blackboard several years ago are now antiquated. Updates to come over time…