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On Blackboard and Blogs

I’m going to be honest: I don’t love Blackboard (Bb). Certainly, it fills a niche, and I agree that something like it should be used. But I’m just not sure Bb is the be-all, end-all solution for every problem, in every class, in every university. Honestly, course webpages are, in many ways, an improvement. Let me break it down:

Bb Pros:

  • It’s a great place for storing course-related files and assignments, that students and professors can access 24/7 (mostly).
  • It is customizable, within certain parameters.
  • It is 508 compliant.
  • It is massively improved since 1999.
  • The professor does not need to learn HTML or gain access to web design software (or a TA who knows HTML) to build a course page.

Bb Cons

  • The discussion boards are painfully slow, at least from off campus.
  • There is no way to set content to “push” instead of “pull.” More plainly, it is a waste of the student’s time to have to go to each and every course’s (sometimes multiple) discussion board(s), read all the new posts (which, I reiterate, do not load all that quickly), comment where they choose to, rinse, and repeat. And to check it constantly. Whether there is new data or not. Because catching up on it, if you get behind, is a nightmare. RSS is not new technology; fixing this should be trivial.
  • I’m harping, now, but, for that matter, how difficult would it be to implement e-mail functionality in the discussion boards? We’d have a better discussion with Google Groups than we do with Bb, and it would be equally easy for our instructors to watch–easier, I imagine, since they must get the same headaches as we do, using the boards.
  • The organization of each course’s Bb page is completely different from that of each other course. In one of my courses, I click the tiny “Communications” link at the bottom of the page to get to the Discussion Board. In another, I click the “Discussion Board” button on the sidebar. In one other, that button goes to course-wide questions, so to get to the Discussion Board I’m usually interested in, I click “Groups,” in the side bar, click my group number, and then click “Discussion Board.” When we’re put in groups for projects, as I understand it, there will be other Discussion Boards opened up to us. It’s a little confusing, when I’m going class-to-class, keeping it all straight. Honestly, I’m pretty worried that I’m going to ignore one Discussion Board altogether and lose 10% of my grade, or something, for “not participating.”
  • Presumably, the university paid money for this clunky monstrosity. I wonder whether it was more or less than site-wide license of HTML creation software (spoiler: that link goes to a list of free products) and a web site for each faculty member (this is already in place, although storage space usage would go up; then again, if we dumped Bb, that would free up some server space, I bet!).

In short, I’m thoroughly convinced that the old-school[ish] way of dealing with course administrivia–making a webpage for the course, with the syllabus, assignments, and so on all there–is in most ways equal, if not superior. (Robots.txt it and password protect it, if you want to keep outsiders out of it. It worked great for many of my classes, undergrad, so I know the technology is there. 508 compliance isn’t hard; just don’t make the site stupid fancy and colorful, or use frames, and that will more or less cover it.) And I really feel that we are not well served, using Bb as a discussion platform: a Google Group for each sub-group of the class would lead to–I am certain–better communication between the students than pull-only discussion boards.

I really, really like what we’re doing in 2670, where each student has to keep a blog and post the feed link to the Discussion Boards. We’re doing all of our “virtual” discussion of the readings that way. (As I understand it, we’ll also discuss in class.) I put all of the feeds in a folder in Google Reader, and I see the updates that other students and the professor make as soon as I sit down at my computer. It’s fantastic. I wish all my classes would do something like this, really. I’ll do my part and post my writing assignments here, as well as in Blackboard (I’m aware that it’ll turn up a hit if they’re using automated anti-plagiarism software–you wouldn’t believe how quickly Google indexes my blog posts–but I trust my professors to investigate and realize that this blog belongs to me). This is a little nerve-wracking, honestly, because I don’t have a lot of faith in my writing skills. (Brevity, for one thing, seems to be completely beyond me. I know.) It took me three years to get up the guts to let CMU post the full text of my Master’s thesis; I still haven’t had the wherewithal to go look at it. But I assume that I’ll have some ideas worth sharing, once in a while (I mean, most people do), so I’d like to start putting my thoughts out there, even the naive ones that mean I just haven’t learned enough, yet. This blog will grow with me, and hopefully my writing ability will grow with it.

Published inblackboardclasseslibrary schoolmetateaching and learningtechnology


  1. Sneezy

    In response to … Not running your school’s Blackboard system. For us, typically, the Sunday usage reaches higher than the Monday summit and peaks between 9pm and 10pm. We still had around 2,500 active users (40% of peak) this last Sunday between midnight and 1am. We didn’t get under 10% usage compared to the peak until around 3am.

  2. Coral

    Thanks for the info, Sneezy! I try not to put stuff off until Sunday nights, just on general principle, but now I know why doing so is a /really/ bad idea. (In-law-types coming into town for a week throws everything off!)

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