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In my opinion

My scrapes with Blackboard

Learning management woes.

BY LYNN CUNNINGHAM | AUG 17 2011

After spending several days updating one course site in Blackboard Learn, it was cathartic to come across the Bollywood videos making fun of the learning management system (LMS) that dominates the North American postsecondary market. “The Adventures of Bollywood Blackboardwala” consists of about a dozen brief but barbed episodes featuring Blackboardwala, for example, winning cheers from a roomful of the company’s help-line staff when he tells them, “You mope around like support matters. Wrong!”

It’s harder to find cheering users of the LMS that apparently aspires to be the Microsoft Word of its category. In an online “Love/Hate Blackboard” poll, just seven percent of the more than 2,500 respondents declared their affection for North America’s dominant LMS. Admittedly, a web-based survey isn’t the most rigorous scientific measure of anything. Still, most of these folks are the supposed beneficiaries of what the 14-year-old company touts as a means to “drive learner achievement by creating personalized and engaging learning experiences.”

A colleague of mine is a full-monty Blackboard nerd, using all its features, but even he describes it, mutedly, as “helpful.” Rochelle Mazar, an emerging technologies librarian at the University of Toronto Mississauga, says the system is best at pushing digital paper – syllabi, readings  – which doubtless can make students’ lives easier.

But more typical are faculty members’ complaints. On The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “I hate Blackboard” thread, one writes: “One of my favorite things to hate is that when I print out the screen showing when students submitted their assignments … it alphabetizes the students by name. That is, by first name.” Another suggests that the company’s user-interface folks “never had to teach a course in anything.”

The irony is that Blackboard’s roots are very close to the classroom. The company grew out of course software developed in 1997 by two Cornell University students for one of their professors. The contemporary version promises to turn “closed-door classrooms into communities where students remain connected to their educational experience 24 hours a day,” but in reality Blackboard can be a deeply annoying time-bandit.

Here’s an example. What was I doing during those several days at the beginning of the term? Altering some readings and revising brief class descriptions. However, you can only make one change at a time: add one hyperlink; remove or insert one reading. Try to do two things simultaneously and, after a wait long enough to hum all of “Paint It Black,” you will find that neither has happened. Plus, the only way to transfer text cleanly from a Word document is to paste it into a text editor, which strips out all of the formatting (and hyperlinks), and then move it into Blackboard. Reformat and restore the hyperlinks, one at a time. Repeat for every separate section.

Despite this infuriating clunkiness, Blackboard is as well ensconced in academe as a tenured professor. Few large universities in Canada use Moodle, a 12-year-old open-source LMS, rather than Blackboard or WebCT, which Blackboard bought in 2006. A reliable estimate of its share in the U.S. academic market is the 2010 Campus Computing Survey that measures computing-related practices at non-profit colleges; it puts Blackboard’s slice at 57.1 percent, followed by Moodle (16.4 percent) and Desire2Learn, another proprietary system, at 10.1 percent.

It’s the cost and commercial aspect of for-profit systems like Blackboard that get some of us exercised. When there is free courseware available, why do most universities select a proprietary model? It’s true, adopting Moodle or Sakai isn’t a cost-free endeavour, since these still require a battalion of technicians and support staff, plus enough computing space to handle a landing on Mars. But at least there isn’t a profit motive there.

Information about the cost to a university of using Blackboard is proprietary, but one agreement floating around in cyberspace indicates Northern Arizona University, with 25,000 students, paid $167,750 in July 2010 for a one-year contract. If the research showing a majority of faculty members use just a couple of an LMS’s features is accurate, then perhaps Blackboard’s next product should be a “version-lite,” priced accordingly.

But even that prospect isn’t likely to tempt one of my colleagues, who remains content with e-mail for communicating with her students. As she says, “Blackboard is just one more friggin’ thing, ya know?”

Lynn Cunningham is an associate professor of journalism at Ryerson University.

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