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Blackboard being bought
July 1, 2011 12:10 PM   Subscribe

Major educational technology company sold: Blackboard, the leading course management system firm, agreed to be purchased. Providence Equity is spending $45 a share, for a total of around $1.64 billion US (pdf).

Pending shareholder and regulatory review. Previously.
posted by doctornemo (82 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm sure this will really benefit my students.
posted by oddman at 12:14 PM on July 1, 2011 [8 favorites]


Lot of private money piling into Higher Ed at the moment. Everything from academic publishing to student dorms to universities themselves. Makes sense with interest rates as low as they are and the possibility of locking in a market that can't readily be offshored. It's a bit of a land-grab, actually.

Sakai is the leading open-source alternative to Blackboard.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 12:15 PM on July 1, 2011 [6 favorites]


oddman: "I'm sure this will really benefit my students"

That can't be a concern for you; you're already using blackboard.

</blackboard student>
posted by boo_radley at 12:15 PM on July 1, 2011 [24 favorites]


God, Blackboard was bloody awful back when I was in college (early 2000s). Has it gotten any better?
posted by kmz at 12:15 PM on July 1, 2011 [8 favorites]


Having recently graduated, I can tell you the only thing Blackboard was ever useful for -- assuming the professor bothered to so much as set it up -- was getting the correct spelling of my classmates' names (assuming you knew the may-as-well-be-secret combination of mouseclicks to pull up a roster) to contact them on Facebook.
posted by griphus at 12:16 PM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Has it gotten any better?

I started college in '02, dropped out and finished in '11, so I can safely say that it crashes less and that's about it.
posted by griphus at 12:17 PM on July 1, 2011


Blackboard is a massive scam — manifestly horrible software sold to the institutionally clueless IT deanlets who are higher-ed's best version of the middle-management for whom "no one ever got fired for buying IBM" was once a good rationale. It can't die soon enough.
posted by RogerB at 12:17 PM on July 1, 2011 [15 favorites]


Worst, most overpriced education software ever. When I was using it in university I don't think it even supported AJAX- to get a refresh on some data the whole fucking page had to load. It also had a really "Designed-for-IE" feel to it.
posted by dunkadunc at 12:18 PM on July 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


basically fuck "learning management software". They're built to enable extractive economies from the desperate by the thoughtless and lazy.

(yes, I am sure that you, yes you, are the shining example STAND AND DELIVER counterexample for online learning, but honestly, fuck the whole concept.)
posted by boo_radley at 12:19 PM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


boo_radley

Actually, I use ANGEL (which is owned by Blackboard) and it's not my choice, it was in place before I got hired. For now I'm making due with what I've got.

BUT, I am going to make every effort to be on the technology committee next year (when we decide on the next LMS) and unless something shocking happens between now and then, I will be pushing for Sakai (or really anything not owned by Blackboard).
posted by oddman at 12:19 PM on July 1, 2011


Christ, this thread is gonna give me a stroke. Goodbye.
posted by boo_radley at 12:19 PM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Moodle is pretty good, also open source. I agree that Blackboard sucks ... it certainly did last time I looked, anyway.
posted by iotic at 12:23 PM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


This just in: Providence Equity has no fucking clue.
posted by odinsdream at 12:23 PM on July 1, 2011


GeorgeBickham: "Sakai is the leading open-source alternative to Blackboard."

Don't forget Moodle.
posted by doctornemo at 12:24 PM on July 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


The main problem with Sakai is that I type Sakaki every freaking time.
posted by Wolfdog at 12:25 PM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


So, Blackboard has been gobbling up any viable competition it could get its hands on (WebCT, Angel), suing anything they couldn't buy (Desire2Learn) and now is getting bought up for over a billion.

Anyone want to place a bet on how long before Michael Chasen buys an island and ditches town? Because he's obviously just achieved what he set out to do; make an absolutely fantastical ass-load of cash off of educational institutions.
posted by MrVisible at 12:25 PM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes, we are moving this year from the soon-to-be-totally-unsupported POS melange that is WebCT Vista (which at its best was 92% unsupported and 37% functional) to full-on Blackboard SomethingPointSomething. Oh joy.

If I tell you that this is a wall-to-wall Dell, MS, and Coca Cola campus, you'll guess just how well the requests for hosted-elsewhere Moodle (Moodle Rooms, is it?) went over.
posted by FelliniBlank at 12:27 PM on July 1, 2011


odinsdream: This just in: Providence Equity has no fucking clue.

MrVisible: So, Blackboard has been gobbling up any viable competition it could get its hands on (WebCT, Angel), suing anything they couldn't buy (Desire2Learn) and now is getting bought up for over a billion.

Clues don't make much money. Ever-growing and litigious companies do. Who needs ease of use and function when you can get money from campuses locked into some purchase agreement?
posted by filthy light thief at 12:33 PM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


This should be the thread where people link to resources for setting up Sakai and/or Moodle for the average professor with half-a-clue and a Dreamhost account.

I'm serious: I need something to update students, distribute readings and other documents, and maybe enable collaboration and polling. It'd be good if there was a secure way to hook up a grade book. I'm hoping to teach myself SWoRD this summer, so I'm totally ready to make other switches as well.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:35 PM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


My university is pretty invested in Blackboard for most of our distance ed offerings. I don't have to directly support it (thank god) but it seems to have a bunch of institutional support. Part of that is probably it's market share and the fact they have bought up other products that we've used before (WebCT).

Having used it as a grad student for a couple of classes as an end user I can't say that I think it's a stellar product by any means but I think it's going to take either a massive cost increase or a completely awesome competitor offering better quality for less in order for us to make the switch.

It's really a shame because it seems like there are viable open source alternatives. We still have fairly good adoption of open source software (particularly in non business critical apps) but it's harder and harder to suggest an open source solution when confronted by the sales pitch of the 800 pound market leader. Cisco, MS, Oracle, Dell, IBM, etc all capture significant sales in education, sometimes that a result of the aforementioned "Nobody ever gets fired for buying X" mentality but often it's because leadership lacks the tools to effectively evaluate the upfront and maintenance costs of vendor software.
posted by vuron at 12:44 PM on July 1, 2011


As people stated upthread Moodle is the standard in open source course management. It's also surpassing Blackboard in popularity now if Google Trends is any indication.
posted by euphorb at 12:46 PM on July 1, 2011


This should be the thread where people link to resources for setting up Sakai and/or Moodle for the average professor with half-a-clue and a Dreamhost account.

I suspect my superiors would have a problem using private hosting to save information about students and classes. Unless they set up Moodle or Sakai on the school servers, if I want to use some kind of CMS for my classes it has to be Blackboard.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 12:47 PM on July 1, 2011


Yeah, filthy light thief. It's been pretty obvious that this was the direction things were headed in for some time. Bb wasn't at all concerned with making their product better; all the improvements they promised never materialized, and their support was always atrocious. They just wanted to grow the company; they didn't care about the product or the clients.

I think Chasen knew that he no longer had a viable software platform (have you seen 9? It's worse than Vista) and decided that there wasn't going to be a better time to sell.

Providence Equity is about to find out that they just bought a company with a completely non-viable business strategy, a customer base in total revolt, and intellectual assets that no-one in the company understands what to do with.

I predict a management exodus, followed by Providence gutting the company and selling off its assets to the highest bidder.
posted by MrVisible at 12:47 PM on July 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


I spent about three years of my life trying to integrate my company's product with Blackboard. I've never worked with a more incompetent bunch of toolboxes in my life. I hate that company with a passion. By contrast the guys at WebCT were awesome. The day Blackboard bought WebCT I thought of jumping off a bridge. I hope the new owners scrap the entire enterprise and start new. God, just uttering the word Blackboard makes my bowels loosen.
posted by spicynuts at 12:49 PM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Despite using Moodle for the second time this summer, I'm still torn on whether I like it. The big plus is that the students can see their line in the gradebook. I'm trying to do online quizzes right now and the problem is mostly on my end: things get tricky for Moodle to grade if you do something other than multiple choice and it's hard to write multiple-choice questions (at least for me). However, the students don't seem to moan about it nearly as much as I did about Blackboard/Edline/WebCT/god-knows-what-else. I don't know if that's because Moodle's getting better or students are becoming more acclimatised to the LMS crap.
posted by hoyland at 12:49 PM on July 1, 2011


That should say I don't know if Moodle is objectively better than the others.
posted by hoyland at 12:52 PM on July 1, 2011


Oh and I met/worked with Chasen a few times during those three years. That's all I will say.
posted by spicynuts at 12:52 PM on July 1, 2011


HNNNNNNGH. That is all.
posted by subbes at 12:56 PM on July 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


I suspect my superiors would have a problem using private hosting to save information about students and classes.

That's weird. Do they object to you having the grade book on your personal laptop? Are you allowed to use gmail as your e-mail program?
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:58 PM on July 1, 2011


Also: Online courses taught with Blackboard are inevitably shit. I took a course where we had to watch twelve two-hour lecture videos from ten years back when the course was taught live. We then had to complete a test every two videos to prove we actually watched them.

Thing is, the questions were all multiple-choice. They didn't let the student show that they actually understood the material and could synthesize something original based on what they'd learned: They proved (at best) that the students had watched the videos, and at worst that they'd Googled the answers.

(Not to mention that the tests were so half-assedly assembled that sometimes the name of the questions was also the answer to the questions. Someone didn't really care. We still all paid the $800 for the course, though, same as a real one.)
posted by dunkadunc at 12:59 PM on July 1, 2011


I think he went on to found Blackboard the next year, but I was already home and lost touch with him.

Sorry, lack of sleep... he went on to found the company with his room mate from sophomore year...
posted by dave78981 at 1:02 PM on July 1, 2011


That's weird. Do they object to you having the grade book on your personal laptop? Are you allowed to use gmail as your e-mail program?

You don't know the half of it. At one point, we were told we could of course post grades in the WebCT course site gradebook but could not under any circumstances answer a student question about grades via their campus e-mail.

Both of those things are accessible, for professor and student, through the exact same single campus portal with the same login and password.
posted by FelliniBlank at 1:03 PM on July 1, 2011


anotherpanacea: "That's weird. Do they object to you having the grade book on your personal laptop? Are you allowed to use gmail as your e-mail program?"

The general answer to those two questions is: yes and no, in order.

More specifically: Grades and "communication that contains sensitive information, such as a student's full name, grade on any test, quiz, or assignment, or student-specific feedback regarding the course" must be given either in-person or through the "secure messaging facility" built into the courseware. "Cloud" hosting, absent specific agreements, is usually verboten.

On preview, the absurdity that FelliniBlank mentioned. Grades go through the online system but you can't tell a student why he or she got that grade, except face-to-face or over the telephone.
posted by fireoyster at 1:06 PM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


They deserve each other.
posted by urschrei at 1:06 PM on July 1, 2011


Ray Henderson a senior executive at Blackboard has a blog commenting on the purchase.
posted by humanfont at 1:07 PM on July 1, 2011


And there's all sorts of vague sullen grumblings now about the possibly world-destroying repercussions of keeping even ungraded student papers in a Dropbox folder.
posted by FelliniBlank at 1:08 PM on July 1, 2011


Huh. I've taught at six different institutions, three public, and never had to deal with any such nonsense. All but one used Blackboard, though, and it's always kind of sucked, though online paper submissions and the online grade book is a nice time saver.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:09 PM on July 1, 2011


Ugh, Blackboard. We don't have to support it here--thank God--but we do have it in our labs. Those of you who interact with Bb in any way (student, faculty, whatever) will appreciate this poster if you haven't seen it yet.

I will say that Bb is the worst LMS I've ever dealt with, and I've used it as both student and staff. I've also used Moodle (go UCLA for implementing it campus-wide) and WebCT (god, that was disastrous) and of them all, Moodle's definitely a clear winner. It doesn't crash and it's far more flexible than Bb's modules. Moodle probably does require some campus IT staff buy-in, though. One reason I secretly suspect CIO types are so into Bb is because of FERPA; they seem to think there won't be any FERPA issues with Bb because it's so big that they're 'just handled' and not nearly the concern that they might otherwise be.

To vent a bit: every time it has a major system update, Blackboard crashes on us. At the start of our accelerated six-week summer term, Blackboard updates crashed Bb for over a week. 1/6 of an entire term, at the very beginning when students didn't even know what was on the syllabus because of course the professor didn't have a copy available anywhere besides Bb, all for a regular system upgrade!
posted by librarylis at 1:13 PM on July 1, 2011


just wanna drop in to say that it's the software (and the generalized academic attitude towards learning online) that I have stupid ragey problems with -- not any specific people and certainly not any mefites.
posted by boo_radley at 1:13 PM on July 1, 2011


"That's weird. Do they object to you having the grade book on your personal laptop? Are you allowed to use gmail as your e-mail program?"

Honestly I think more and more universities are getting uncomfortable about the amount of student data stored on both personal and university owned laptops. More than once there have been issues with professors storing decades worth of student data (including SSNs) on personal machines. End result people are supposed to leave student data on network shares that you can attach to via VPN. I also expect full disk encryption to be mandatory before too terribly long.

Students and professors are expected to use university provided email (nevermind that student accounts are live@edu accounts) although plenty of professors insist on doing there own thing.

Honestly as more and more student data gets compromised at US universities I think more draconian data security will become the norm rather than the exception.
posted by vuron at 1:15 PM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


FelliniBlank: You don't know the half of it. At one point, we were told we could of course post grades in the WebCT course site gradebook but could not under any circumstances answer a student question about grades via their campus e-mail.

Both of those things are accessible, for professor and student, through the exact same single campus portal with the same login and password.


Is that because of transparency, and a pleasant nod to personal privacy? I'm guessing administrators can get easy access to WebCT, but cannot snoop on your email. Fear of legal actions are strong motivators towards seemingly bizarre regulations.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:16 PM on July 1, 2011


About a year ago, I was tentatively set to start doing some remote teaching with the state's community college system. I was required to learn to use Blackboard. Holygawdalmighty, what a cretinous, horrid excuse for software. It was like your worst nightmare of what a couple of teenage Linux geeks might cobble together in their mom's basement over the weekend. Utterly non-intuitive, buggy, and crippled as a tool for communicating with students.

Luckily, I had to drop-out from the teaching gig to have back surgery. Yeah, Blackboard was that bad...Where having back surgery was preferable.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:19 PM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Educational technology is an oxymoron.

From my experience (10 years in IT at a very large school district), most (not all, but most) companies in the educational IT field are just low-budget hustlers trying to exploit clueless administrators. And some school districts are so desperate to do anything to save money or improve standardized test results (thanks, NCLB!) that they will buy anything that offers them the dream of even a little improvement.

And don't even get me started about administrators who are keen to move everything to "the cloud" without even the simplest understanding of privacy laws regarding student information.
posted by SPrintF at 1:27 PM on July 1, 2011


When Blackboard came on the scene, they were the easiest product on the market to use and they took the classroom experience online without trying to transform it. It genuinely was better than anything else then. That pretty much explained their early dominance. They then adopted a strategy of buying competitors to get their customer base, and buying some new products. I too would not be particularly surprised if some asset-stripping went on, e.g. selling of the Transaction system, Outcomes system possibly.

I administer a Blackboard installation and I know a fair few of the BB folks and there are some good, smart people there (and one or two incredibly annoying ones too, mostly in sales :-). Chasen isn't really a technical guy. He's a self-styled "visionary" perhaps. Their annual conference starts on the 12th and we'll see what they have to say then.

People tend to get a bit hand-wavey about Moodle and Sakai while complaining about Blackboard (btw, Canvas is the hot kid around these days), but there's an incredible amount of institutional momentum behind Blackboard. Faculty and students know how to use it. Many are not the more technically savvy types that hang out here. It would take us probably three years (evaluate, pilot, train, migrate, train, retire) to migrate away from it unless some event forced our hand. Heck, we're still running a 30-year-old mainframe system that should have been retired 20 years ago or more.

Also, I'd say it's only fairly recently that Sakai hasn't sucked.

It's also now critical "enterprise" software. It's a core part of our business. It can't be offline. It needs to work. It needs to be supported. It needs to be integrated with our directory technology and our student information system. It needs to comply with our policies and federal and state laws. It needs to be backed up all kinds of different ways. It needs to scale (really, really scale for some of us). It needs to work with standards and publishers' technologies (for whom a special level of hell is reserved). There are lots of things that Blackboard (the software) does pretty well that aren't particularly visible to end users. People keep begging Google to develop an LMS (myself included), but it's a very tricky space to operate in.

BB has been frustratingly slow to adopt some technologies, and their approach to bug fixes drives me nuts, but they have improved their technical architecture over time, and their APIs.

We do have to still deal with our own institutional deployment issues (Blackboard has encouraged many to go with their Managed Hosting package which some do like). Many CIOs and academic deans still consider the SIS to be the core technology they are responsible for, and don't think very hard about really innovative learning technologies. There are definitely some new ideas out there on the cutting edge that put the student experience more at the center of things, but I'm not sure the tools have been developed yet.
posted by idb at 1:28 PM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think most schools have Bb because the one real strength it has is dealing with student data from weird legacy registration systems. I'm not saying it does a good job handling, storing, or making use of that data, but they have a track record of automatically sucking in student data from even the ugliest home-grown registrar system. I suspect this is a pretty attractive feature to the people writing the checks.

When it used to be my job to teach people how to use Bb, my most popular class was basically "How to rid your Bb course site of all the needless, confusing, redundant, and worthless options" all of which are turned on by default.

There have been somethings that have gotten better in the last 9 or so years, but they haven't removed any of the things that didn't work, so it's moot. Most bloated web app ever.
posted by activitystory at 1:31 PM on July 1, 2011


"How to rid your Bb course site of all the needless, confusing, redundant, and worthless options"

I would totally take this seminar or read this blog post.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:37 PM on July 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm guessing administrators can get easy access to WebCT, but cannot snoop on your email. Fear of legal actions are strong motivators towards seemingly bizarre regulations.

It's the opposite, actually. Some goon could sneak into my campus e-mail pretty quietly, but anybody going into a WebCT site leaves a bright, shiny tracking trail, which then becomes a giant grievable offense (we're a union shop and admin. entering a faculty member's classroom uninvited without serious cause is a big no-no.)

I think the bureaucrats honestly believed their "student e-mail can get hacked, but WebCT is safe" malarkey despite the fact that these are simply two unprotected icons adjacent to each other.
posted by FelliniBlank at 1:38 PM on July 1, 2011


Wow. I've been using Blackboard for something like eight years and until this post I had no idea it was commercial software. I just assumed it was a fucking project for the smart kids in INFO101.

Has it gotten any better?
Seems to crash less, but that may be because I use it less.
posted by doublehappy at 2:10 PM on July 1, 2011


Blackboard is the most horrible service I have ever used. My hatred of it exceeds that of the Helots for Sparta, of Cicero for Antony, and Achilles for Hector. And that is a lot of hate.

Naturally, my university not only uses it but seems to worship at its altar. We recently had a re-assessment of what we should use ... that useless piece of junk came out the winner. Again.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:20 PM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


We've got ANGEL, which is...OK, I guess, if you're using it for basic functions. I don't do online teaching--I just use the software for grading, gradebooks, attendance, communication, and other such tasks. After a while, the number of keystrokes it takes to get anywhere becomes annoying.

On preview, the absurdity that FelliniBlank mentioned. Grades go through the online system but you can't tell a student why he or she got that grade, except face-to-face or over the telephone.

*blink* Really? I don't discuss grades over e-mail as personal course policy, but we don't have a blanket ban. Not allowed to mention grades in letters of rec, though.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:26 PM on July 1, 2011


My Blackboard-using alma mater is about to spend some obscene amount of money - a million, I think - on developing their own blackboard clone.

I very very strongly believe they could save a TON and get a better deal if they hired students to develop and maintain it. Not only would the university save a buttload of dough, the university would have a custom-built software program supported RIGHT ON CAMPUS. Hire a couple people to take the lead on security and uptime issues, and otherwise make it a club or work-study or credit based project. I would have LOVED to contribute to something like this.
posted by ghostbikes at 2:40 PM on July 1, 2011


Does anyone know if this affects the transaction system at all? I had the unfortunate job of administering a HUGE Bb transaction system site for 5 years. Shudder.
posted by capnsue at 2:49 PM on July 1, 2011


Has it gotten any better?

I'm currently in college, and the latest update to Blackboard seems to have slowed things down for us (Cincinnati State). To me, it feels more bloated and heavier. I preferred Blackboard back in '09.
posted by jwmollman at 3:11 PM on July 1, 2011


boo_radley, you do realize that the most common use of blackboard is the aforementioned consolidated lecture list, paper submission screen and online grade book.

I'm honestly befuddled on how that can work someone into a tizzy? I mean, the software isn't great.. But, it's better than the hodgepodge of professors email addresses, FrontPage designed class websites and desperate calls to the prof for an extra copy of the syllabus.

Now - I agree that for what it does, Blackboard Inc extracts way too much cash from institutions. But, welcome to enterprise software..

If you're college IT guy, and you install Moodle, and another one of the random PHP security bugs hit and you're students id's, grades and other info gets spilled out, wouldn't you want someone else to point to.
posted by PissOnYourParade at 3:36 PM on July 1, 2011


"...Out-weariers of Apollo will, as we know, continue their
Martian generalities,
We have kept our erasers in order.
A new-fangled chariot follows the flower-hung horses;
A young Muse with young loves clustered about her
ascends with me into the aether, . . .
And there is no high-road to the Muses.

Annalists will continue to record Roman reputations,
Celebrities from the Trans-Caucasus will belaud Roman celebrities
And expound the distentions of Empire,
But for something to read in normal circumstances?
For a few pages brought down from the forked hill unsullied?
I ask a wreath which will not crush my head.
And there is no hurry about it;..."


-Pound
posted by clavdivs at 3:39 PM on July 1, 2011


It depends what version a particular institution is running too. The currently released version is 9.1 (sp6), but many institutions will be running earlier versions of 9.1, many running 9.0, a good number running 8.x releases and possibly even some 7.x installations out there. There are pretty significant differences along the way, particularly in the user experience, even from 9.0 to 9.1. It's only recently that they've done some smarter things like gzip compression and minification of their outrageously profligate javascript and css, and implementing ajax-style interfaces. Like other developers they have to worry about backwards compatibility with browsers, etc.

In-house development sounds like fun, and it is, but it becomes a burden after a while. George Washington was ready to get rid of Prometheus when Blackboard came calling, as I understand it.
posted by idb at 3:44 PM on July 1, 2011


Blackboard is klugey and ugly, and i've never seen it used well. I can never figure out how to make a genuine community out of it.
posted by PinkMoose at 4:45 PM on July 1, 2011


I very very strongly believe they could save a TON and get a better deal if they hired students to develop and maintain it. Not only would the university save a buttload of dough, the university would have a custom-built software program supported RIGHT ON CAMPUS. Hire a couple people to take the lead on security and uptime issues, and otherwise make it a club or work-study or credit based project.

You do realize that what you pay for in software is not so much the code, but the support and maintenance? Everybody likes to develop but maintenance is a pain in the ass that you have to pay people to do, unless there is a gigantic community supporting it. Continuity of developer knowledge is not easy to ensure. Check out the troves of academic abandonware on sourceforge, or just check out an academic journal and see how many grad student databases are still online 2 years after publication.

Blackboard seems terrible but this seems naive.
posted by benzenedream at 4:56 PM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ugh. I work for a WebCT university (from way back in the 4.x days when I started at my $DAYJOB) who is still heavily using Blackboard CE 8.x and are in the process of migrating to Moodle 2.0 starting this fall. I'm fighting Moodle right now because the available webservices API for 2.0.3 is severely lacking. One nice thing about Blackboard 6-8 was a consistent API that actually worked. Moodle? Not so much.

We evaluated Blackboard 9.1, Moodle 2.0, and Sakai mumblemumble. I'm really happy the evaluation team didn't pick Sakai. Supporting Blackboard has been frustrating enough, Sakai to me looked like it was an ulcer waiting to happen.

And I guess Moodle 2.1 is about to be announced (if it hasn't already), so I don't know what that means to our plans.

WebCT hasn't been so bad since they switched from Perl (v4) to Java (v6), but what I don't like is the amount of time it takes to start/stop the service, and the fact that Blackboard still insists on storing every uploaded file in a SQL database.

I'm super glad we're getting away from Blackboard, and it looks like we're jumping ship at the right time...
posted by narwhal bacon at 4:57 PM on July 1, 2011


Last I heard they were trying to patent learning. How's that Supreme Court appeal going?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:11 PM on July 1, 2011


If you're wondering why some universities are still using Blackboard, take a look at the cash registers when you go into the dining halls. I'll bet you they're Bb registers. When you start looking for it, you'll see that little "Bb" logo on a lot of different things. It's a no-brainer to go with the "solution that can handle everything" until you realize it handles everything poorly.

I brought up Moodle or Sakai. I would likely be allowed to install either on my server for small projects or to supplement my own courses. But as a whole, we're stuck with Bb because moving away from them would need to divest ourselves entirely from the company. Something along the lines of, "the discount on the registers goes away if you stop using the software." And vice versa.

Here's hoping the sale improves some of the offerings. I'm going to be realistic and just hope for some improvements, like an iPhone app that's marginally functional and a web interface slightly faster than cold molasses.
posted by johnjreiser at 5:16 PM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Go Daddy was also recently sold to an investor group. They also hold lots of patents (none of them seem to be on terrible sexist commercials, either). Coincidence?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:21 PM on July 1, 2011


The patent lawsuit was settled a long time ago. Blackboard also issued an irrevocable non-assert pledge which would seem to protect the main open source apps from patent claims.
posted by humanfont at 5:51 PM on July 1, 2011


ghostbikes: "I very very strongly believe they could save a TON and get a better deal if they hired students to develop and maintain it. Not only would the university save a buttload of dough, the university would have a custom-built software program supported RIGHT ON CAMPUS. Hire a couple people to take the lead on security and uptime issues, and otherwise make it a club or work-study or credit based project. I would have LOVED to contribute to something like this."

I work for a department that developed their own LMS for a university. I think you're trivializing the work proposed and overestimating the cost of a simple LMS. A few thoughts:

1. You're assuming students paying tuition or joining a club are untapped slave labor. We exist to serve students, not the other way around. Work-study will not give you the talented students you think exist in quantities required. The output you will receive from them won't meet your institutional needs anyways. You will have to pay for this labor, period.
2. Our department has 50 people. Granted, much of it is dedicated to other things, but you're underestimating the amount of work required for initial development, and the ongoing requirements for QA, and regulatory compliance. And you get to upgrade it every few years when security patches stop being released for your language runtime.
3. Migrations. You probably already have a system in place. These things are notoriously hard to migrate between. Even Moodle, a cherished open source LMS, doesn't export to "common interchange format."
4. FERPA. Thankfully I don't have to deal with the worst parts of this, since most data I deal with is classified as "directory information". But you'll need authorization and auditing capability to demonstrate students aren't changing their grades. Blackboard captures a great deal of value by being the scape goat, and they'll likely fight lawsuits that implicate them.

Blackboard LMS contracts I've seen run about $10k annual. The value proposition can't be saving on an a few thousand dollars, and it probably won't be whatever nit you have with the implementation. What we get out of self-hosting development is expert local customization, implicit leverage on other software contracts, and a hidden place for talented students to become experts. These companies don't just sell LMS's. They automate large portions of the university, and at a certain point, your competitive bidding procedures exclude all but two options. And now that Bb is private, its possible they buy Sungard for BANNER HE. Garage startups don't have much chance when bidding requires proof of business liability insurance, audited statements documenting $FOO dollars in the bank, and an import suite from (undocumented) blackboard backups. Which are now encrypted / obfuscated.
posted by pwnguin at 6:51 PM on July 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm honestly befuddled on how that can work someone into a tizzy? I

When you're required to use an application three to four times a day, often for medium to long periods of time, and that application is maintained by lecturers' assistants who have no interest in using the tabs as intended, and that application has a poor interface, poor labelling, and a tendency to log you out after a short period of inactivity, it's very easy to get into a tizzy.

One of my papers a couple of years ago had an entire lecture devoted to teaching us how to use the social networking aspects of Blackboard to facilitate discussion outside of class. About two weeks in, someone posted a new message: "anyone wanting to do this in person meet gb114 mon tue thu 4pm". Someone followed up with an alternative time and that was the last message ever posted.

Waste of fucking time.
posted by doublehappy at 7:03 PM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Blackboard really is terrible. It's poorly designed for reading, offers no real methods of interactive instruction, has the absolute worst message boards I have ever seen, and has a million useless features that nobody ever uses (now you can add an interactive calculator to your class! or make a blog inside it!).

I made my own site containing the readings for my students, and people complained because it wasn't in blackboard...
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:37 PM on July 1, 2011


These comments are making me miss Blackboard less. I had it for grad school teaching, then WebCT when I started my current position, but a couple of years ago we moved to a new LMS from Jenzabar. It's frustrating sometimes because things all seem set up for the major players, and new features show up slowly over time. But, really most faculty use just the main features anyway, and we don't seem to have the problems with crashing that others mention.
posted by bizzyb at 9:29 PM on July 1, 2011


Blackboard has no way to keep an attendance roster (or at least one separate from a gradebook). Have to keep that separately. They introduced some new "grading in discussion board" feature but NOBODY I've talked to can figure out how to use it ... since participation in discussions is often a required, graded part of online courses, profs sit there with printed class rosters and make tally marks while reading discussion board and then transfer that back into gradebook.

Creating quizzes is a nightmare. You have to click and scroll through SO MANY SCREENS to create questions. There's no way to do simple bulk actions that should CLEARLY be bulk-able. (Like, why can't I hide or show multiple assignments at once? Why do I have to do every single one separately?) It requires so many clicks and loads of screens to do simple things that I'm always wondering where the banner ads are -- there's no reason for that much reloading unless you're seeking page impressions for advertising. In-program documentation for rarely-used functions (once-a-semester class archiving, for example) is non-existent, and you sit there trying to remember if you do THIS will it just remove the student responses to the assignment or will it delete the assignment? And if you do THAT does it clear the discussion board but leave the subject headings intact, or does it delete the whole discussion board? Because let me tell you how much I love TYPING IN NEW DISCUSSION BOARD FORUM HEADINGS AND DESCRIPTORS, ONE AT A TIME, EVERY SEMESTER, BECAUSE I CAN'T DO THAT IN A BULK FASHION.

And the one that makes me craziest -- Blackboard has no way to group and drop grades. You can't tell it "Of these 11 quizzes, take the 10 best scores." You can do all kinds of shit with weighting, weighting things in complex ways I have never seen ANYONE take advantage of, but you can't group and drop grades. It's just such a simple and obvious thing; everyone has one thing about Blackboard that they say makes it clear Blackboard can't employ any actual teachers, and that's the one for me. It has still NOT YET occurred to them that some teachers might want to do this?

The new gradebook display is horrendous too, although the gradebook interface generally improved in the latest update.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:59 PM on July 1, 2011


I've been both the teacher and the student with Blackboard and for the life of me I can't figure out which experience is worse.
posted by winna at 10:21 PM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


The U of Washington is not a Blackboard campus; they built an in-house LMS called Catalyst that works pretty well and has solid UX. (Some departments also run Moodle on their own.)

But last summer the Housing department, which runs all the food services on campus, wanted to start taking credit cards. Blackboard was more than happy to sell them a POS system to SOLVE ALL THEIR PROBLEMS.

There was just this one tiny problem -- all the registers had to call back to a single underpowered server Blackboard put in an office on campus. Every time a register had a card run, it had to call back and get the OK to complete the transaction. If too many hit at once, the reigster would hang, then crash. And also, the software had nasty memory leaks that also could cause the call to be hung.

Over the course of eight weeks Housing lost thousands of dollars in sales because they couldn't take cards. People just took their business elsewhere.

Blackboard eventually ended up having to deploy programmers and engineers on-site to solve the problem, but they didn't understand the software, and it also became clear in a hurry that the solution's deeper problem was it was totally unscalable. It could have worked if every cafe had its own server and deploy, but Housing couldn't afford it, and Blackboard wouldn't pay for it.

Eventually, Housing fired Blackboard. Instead they got those little POS card runners small businesses get from Costco. When one machine fails, you point someone to the register behind them. And, crazily, it was a cheaper solution that Blackboard if you include the thousands in lost sales from the Blackboard fail.
posted by dw at 11:17 PM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Recently tried out a recent release of Blackboard (9.1). What a nightmare--unresolved database problems and features that just plain don't work. Support for most problems was limited to kludgy workarounds--and suggestions that some features were better not to use. The grade book didn't allow input for complex formulas. My general takeaway: Lobotomized and non-functional as installed.

Of the closed-source systems, Desire 2 Learn looks pretty good--at least from a support POV. Closely resembles Blackboard, though, and seems to be marketed partially as a replacement.
posted by LucretiusJones at 11:01 AM on July 2, 2011


Our school just switched over to Moodle last year and Blackboard is slowly being phased out. Moodle is way better than Blackboard, but still a far cry from what educational software should be like. It's improved a lot in terms of basic functionality - you can actually open a page in a new link, you can go forwards and backwards without making your browser vomit code - but it still has some problems with regards to UI.

A lot of its problems can be eliminated simply by considering redundancies: if you have two links going to the same thing, don't give them different names; I really don't need to have five different RSS feeds of school news; there's an established standard for messaging boards, you don't have to reinvent the wheel and come out with an ovoid, etc. The other thing that would really help is if the designers considered the way a typical user parses a given page and put important elements where a user would expect to see those elements rather than trying creative and 'dynamic' layouts, but even that seems like it's a bit too much wishful thinking.

I wonder what an open-source educational software offering, à la Firefox, would be like.
posted by Phire at 12:54 PM on July 2, 2011


What exactly does this software accomplish that couldn't be done without it, and apparently more easily to boot?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:42 PM on July 2, 2011


Is anyone('s institution) using Canvas? I'd like to hear how that is working out from any perspective (student, instructor, IT); my institution is considering it.
posted by muddled strawberries at 2:47 PM on July 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


What exactly does this software accomplish that couldn't be done without it, and apparently more easily to boot?

Well, it's really very good at getting university administrations locked into five or six-digit annual contracts by manipulating their bureaucratic herd instincts, sowing FUD, and data-format lock-in.

Oh, you meant what does it accomplish for faculty and students? Not a goddamn thing.
posted by RogerB at 5:40 PM on July 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm peripherally involved in making content for LMSs, and I've always wondered why anyone would use them instead of just sticking some files on a basic HTML page (or some kind of template) on a network. But then I guess staff and students would ask for a few extra features, and then once those had been added, stuff gets added for the edge cases, and gradually you end up with a fairly complex system. I suppose that's how Blackboard, etc got started, as someone's project to fit their unique needs, and then things got out of hand.

It just seems to cause so much pain for everyone involved. I'm friends with a guy who's just found out that the API calls we've used for our clients for ages just silently stopped working in Bbv8. Which makes me wonder why we were including them, if no-one noticed when they stopped working.
posted by harriet vane at 10:27 PM on July 2, 2011


Phire: Moodle is way better than Blackboard, but still a far cry from what educational software should be like. ... I wonder what an open-source educational software offering, à la Firefox, would be like.

Moodle is open-source, isn't it?
posted by stebulus at 11:22 AM on July 3, 2011


You can't tell it "Of these 11 quizzes, take the 10 best scores

Not true. That is fairly easy to to do. Create a calculated column in the grade center, select the quiz grades you want to use and drop lowest score.
posted by humanfont at 12:35 PM on July 3, 2011


Shouldn't that be just automated, humanfront? In that case you might as well use a Google Spreadsheet.
posted by Phire at 7:52 AM on July 5, 2011


What do you mean? Which way are you automating it? You could
also set the a calculated column for all grades of type quiz and apply the rules. Also google spreadsheet struggles to handle anonymous marking.
posted by humanfont at 5:46 PM on July 5, 2011


Disclaimer: I don't know what the backend of Blackboard is like, I've only ever used it as a student. I just mean that it seems kind of redundant to have to manually select the lowest grade to drop for every student. It seems like any sort of education CMS should by default have "take the top x of y grades" type functions, given how common these types of grading schemes are.
posted by Phire at 12:27 PM on July 8, 2011


You select the columns or categories of grades not the individual grades. Then you select the rule for your calculation of the combined grades the students from that selection. For example you give a weekly quiz during the class. And then you tell the grade book that for "weekly quizzes" drop the lowest grade. You might also decide that the student can take each individual quiz multiple times, but you'd like to use the latest, first, or highest grade as the basis of the score for each individual grade.

Here are some video walk through I've found pretty helpful

See also CourseSites to poke around with the latest release.
posted by humanfont at 5:29 AM on July 9, 2011


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