Six reasons I don’t like Blackboard

Blackboard logoI 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…

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  1. Posted 8/27/2007 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    I have to say I agree with you. Over the past few years I have tried to use Blackboard to teach classes at Liverpool University here in England and have found that it is fine as a repository for handouts and course documentation, but hopeless for blogging or other more interactive approaches. The lack of Web-facing content, including RSS, holds it back and is I think a subject of some scorn in the student body, many of whom use Blogger, Facebook and so on to run their lives. I find that the tools provided for me at great expense by the university are not as good as the ones available for free. I am planning on setting up some online Continuing Education courses in the next year or so and I dread having to use Blackboard to the point where I may even resort to installing Moodle on my own server.

  2. Posted 8/28/2007 at 4:45 am | Permalink

    I am conflicted about this also, for similar reasons. I work in the support team for WebCT/Blackboard on my campus, and I am under no illusions as to why the university likes it. However, I have to say that the majority of users like it too. As you say, students are comfortable with it and academics don’t want to have to set something up for themselves. That’s not where they want to put their teaching energy. I’m not sure that turning to open source software would really work on our campus – we would have to employ so many people to support and customise it. We check every Bb site before it goes ‘live’ as well as running a help desk, and believe me many of our academics are struggling to use it in the most basic way.

    However, some people use the discussions in very interesting ways to support team-based or Socratic learning. The more positivist disciplines use it for quizzes – sometimes really creatively and with sound pedagogic development ( sorry, scaffolding!), I am happy to say. There are advantages to its use as an ‘enterprise solution’. It means that our university can offer extensive support, including offering quite a lot of one-on-one educational design time to be really creative if academics can articulate what they want (and that isn’t always easy for them). Yes, you can use CSS on your pages, and we do. We set up quite complex ‘learning modules’, so academics can create functioning case studies, with either carefully mapped paths or quite free ways to deal with the material. We create flash modules and java scripting to do various things, and put them into Blackboard sites. I don’t know what support is offered at your university, but it might be worth checking.

    On the other hand, when you’ve used Web2.0 apps, Bb is very pedestrian. It is a challenge to be creative with it. The so-called blogging tool is sh*t and the wiki isn’t much better. The whole package is so… uninteresting. The good news is that we are presently choosing an eportfolio tool, and it looks like it won’t be the Bb one, but rather a much more exciting app which is compatible with it. But I’m not allowed to talk about that yet. :) And yes, the wall around knowledge with all the ‘security’ (and the complex backend that supports that) goes against the grain for me too.

    Oh, yes, it does have an Oracle db at the back, but we have had a lot of problems with the integration (and I won’t even discuss the problems we’ve had with user’s Java setups since we performed an upgrade a year ago). The slowness may be a local issue – we have doubled our server capacity twice since the upgrade, and that seems to have made it work reasonably well. Mind you, ours is huge installation in Bb’s terms – Our administrator logged 5 million server hits on one day last semester. (We’re not sure what a ‘hit’ is – we think it’s a mouse click!)

  3. Posted 8/31/2007 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    I’m taking a stats class this semester through SUNY Albany (online). They usually use the SUNY Learning Network Lotus Notes system, but the instructor of our class has gotten permission to use Moodle. I’ll be interested to see how that works, as I have taken classes that use the Lotus Notes system as well as Blackboard. In both cases I was disappointed with the functionality that the two products provide. The interfaces from a student perspective are unintuitive and what functionality there is is extremely limited. For strictly online classes, I don’t find the standard hierarchical structure of discussions conducive to particularly in-depth exploration. On the other hand, I found the blogging-only technique you employed in the Intro to Information Science and Services class you taught at UB to be a surprisingly effective means to carry on discussions.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to trying out a new system to see if it does a better job.

  4. Sarah
    Posted 9/18/2007 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    the version we use at Medaille is very different than what we had at UB and incredibly frustrating. I can’t edit content the way that I want to, It’s not user friendly, and there isn’t an easy way for students to access it, so I am still getting “what is this blackboard thing?” uploaded content doesn’t show up as a link, it just asks to be opened/saved as you click on the page “assignments” or “syllabus” I could go on and on. But we’re in a technology ignorant school so faculty doesn’t seem to know there’s better ways to do thing.

  5. Nope
    Posted 4/4/2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Dear god this font is terrible, I wanted to read this article but, began to choke on my own vomit after seeing this font, this caused me pass out wake up in a hospital after being unconscious for over two weeks, I called for nurses but, no one came to assist me, I painfully unplugged my IV (I had to do this because of your terrible font) which caused extreme pain, it isn’t at all like it is in the movies, I open my door to see a horde of zombies coming for me, as I slam the door I realize the plot of this is quite a bit like walking dead but, am still freaking out, I dash to my window and pry it open with a crowbar and make my escape, I run out into the street and find not just zombies but, little creatures that look like hats with four legs that jumped on to peoples faces and ate their face off, I screamed in horror as I saw a obese man in the street, there were no zombies or “headcrabs”, what I dubbed the little hat creatures, near him I just hate the sight of overweight people, I run away from the street into the woods to find a glowing sederic diggory from griffindor house in hogwarts and decide to procreate with him, after enjoying a 2 hour long orgy with this sparkly sederic and headcrabs I run as I see the obese man has been watching us in the trees the entire time, I run further into the woods all the way to a cliff and decide to jump off to the end this nightmare turn of events, I jump and fall, and fall, and fall, and… and… and nothing, I wake up in my desk chair realizing this was all I dream my subconscious has created when I fainted from seeing your god awful font.


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