Abandoning Blackboard

It’s been a while since I’ve written about how much I dislike Blackboard, the borg-like learning management system used here in the overly-large school district.

Why bother? Little has changed over the past four years. The site is still a turn of the century course delivery system, one that gives both teacher and students a false impression of what publishing to the web is or could be.

The writer of this post has been Working in Blackboard (at the college level instead of our K-12 application) a little longer than we have and sees many of the same problems.

But 15 years later I am no longer relieved to be working in Blackboard. I now find it an obstacle. Things that should be easy, such as blogging, editing and uploading videos, live synchronous sessions, using wikis etc. are unnecessarily difficult in Blackboard, or they are [not] in the version of Blackboard that I am using.

She, however, is willing to work around the flaws in the system, using kluges to offer her students far superior blogging, wiki and discussion tools.

I’m not. I’m tired of helping people patch together something useful. It’s long past time for our district to abandon the expensive mess that is Blackboard and find an online solution for students and teachers that actually works.

Hating Blackboard, Let Me Count The Ways

A friend sent me an interesting post by a software developer for the City University of New York (CUNY) who loves his institution and open software, and what both stand for. And hates Blackboard, which he says is a “parasite” on both CUNY and public education.

Writing free software, he says, is the “best way I know to disrupt the awful relationship between companies like Blackboard and vulnerable populations like CUNY undergraduates”.

Now, I know nothing about CUNY and have lost whatever skills I once had for writing software, free or otherwise. But I completely understand his dislike and distrust of Blackboard. All of us working in this overly-large school district have been stuck with this turkey of a system for more than ten years now. And I totally agree with his “short” list of reasons why.

blackborg

  • The software is expensive [EDIT 9-21-2011: See this post for more details on cost]
  • It’s extremely unpleasant to use
  • It forces, and reinforces, an entirely teacher-centric pedagogical model
  • It attempts to do the work of dozens of applications, and as a result does all of them poorly
  • Blackboard data is stored in proprietary formats, with no easy export features built in, which creates a sort of Hotel California of educational materials
  • The very concept of a “learning management system” may itself be wrongheaded
  • As recently reported, the software may be insecure, a fact that the company may have willingly ignored
  • Blackboard’s business practices are monopolistic, litigious, and boorish
  • In short, Blackboard sucks.

Blackboard was designed as a course distribution system for colleges, and was probably one of the best around at the turn of the millennium. Today it’s still stuck several generations back when it comes to web interactivity, usability, and flexibility.

Of course, at least half of the blame for the decade-long and continuing affair with Blackboard around here belongs to the administrative and IT folks who make the decision to continue renewing the contracts (fool me once, etc., etc.).

We try to use the system for multiple purposes (teacher intranet, parent communication, student collaboration, a portal to other applications, etc.), none of which work well or are easy for most staff to use. There is still no way to even do something as basic as a site-wide search. Even our small online high school doesn’t really use Blackboard to deliver courses. They build a website for each class, zip it up as a package, and use the system as a way of presenting it to the user’s browser.

Anyway, other than complaining in this space and elsewhere (not that anyone around me listens to my Blackboard complaints anymore :-), I don’t have many tools to help our teachers avoid this particular parasite.

But I’m very glad there are talented people who are willing to create open source alternatives to this kind of corporate crap masquerading as an instructional tool.

You Call These The “Best”?

A writer at CNET offers Five tools for the world’s best teacher, calling them “five teachers’ aids that stand out from the rest”.

  1. Blackboard
  2. Classroom 2.0
  3. Engrade
  4. MyGradeBook
  5. TeacherTube

Huh?

First of all, numbers three and four are both gradebooks. To me that falls under the category of classroom management, not teaching tools.

While Classroom 2.0 is a wonderful community, it’s about professional development and not for use with the kids.

TeacherTube is also excellent, a great place for both teachers and their students to share their work.

And then we come to Blackboard.

This “technology columnist who has written about everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems” either has a huge grudge against teachers or is clueless to make that his first choice.

Or include it on any instructional “best of” list at all.

Want To Buy a Blog?

We’re back for day 2 (actually half-day 2) of the annual Leadership Conference here in the overly-large school district.

This morning we’ll have mostly school-based administrators attending a couple of sessions on topics centered around our themes for the year and the always-present school board goals.

I will be assisting with two sections on using blogs and wikis.

I’d be much more excited about that if we weren’t forced to use the web-2.0-with-training-wheels package that’s wedged into our Blackboard system (and about which I’ve ranted a few too many times).

The one with no RSS feed, no search, and extremely limited access to anyone outside of the immediate class.

However, one of my goals this school year is to find five of our principals who are willing to experiment with blogging in the outside world, so anyone in their community can read, comment and interact.

Maybe I can find one of them this morning.

So during our two sessions I’ll be helping to sell the tools for which we’ve paid lots of money and received so little value (and which have rightly gotten very little use).

However, I’ll also be sneaking around in the background trying to sell our district leaders on the larger concept of speaking to the larger audience that lives outside the walled garden.

Artificial Social Networking

I learn a lot from the web.

For example, today I discovered that the overly-large school district in which I work makes social networking tools available to students.

And that we believe that “in the right environment these social networking tools do have instructional value”. At least according to an administrator in our IT department.

Reading down a little, however, we find that the “right environment” actually refers to the modules that insert blog- and wiki-like features into our Blackboard installation (about which I’ve ranted many times before).

Blog and wiki modules that have some major flaws.

  • they have no RSS feed;
  • they cannot be searched, either internally or globally;
  • they can only be seen by those who have been added as members of the same class;
  • they are wedged into Blackboard’s already slow, clunky, and difficult to modify interface.

Not particularly social. A network on training wheels.

Ask any of our tech-savvy students if this is an adequate substitute for the resources they’re already using and you’re likely to get one of those teen-age “what? are you totally clueless?” kind of smiles.

Ok, so it’s a start, right? Educational systems adapt very slowly so maybe this is only the beginning of our district’s efforts to help students learn how to contribute responsibility to the real world web.

I’d be willing to concede that point if I saw any signs that our system has a plan for going beyond this so-called “walled garden” approach.

But I don’t. Most of our leadership, especially those in the IT driver’s seat, thinks what we have is just fine.

However, even more discouraging is the fact that our district offers no “approved” tools for teachers and principals to learn to use blogs or wikis for their own communication and professional development. And little support or training on why they should.

Other than, of course, to tell them that the same crippled “social networking” modules we bought for the kids are just wonderful for them as well.

But then that’s just one more example of how we use Blackboard around here: an all-purpose tool for publishing to the world.

Or at least the part of the world that has a key to enter our garden.