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Christ, I hate Blackboard
January 27, 2014 9:29 AM   Subscribe

"I will return to all of you then to bear witness, in a rapturous tornado of filth, to my contempt for that unholy system of course mismanagement software."

davenoon of Lawyers, Guns & Money vents about learning management software Blackboard. In case you're unacquainted with it: six reasons to hate Blackboard, or ten. Some more criticisms and possible solutions (Boing Boing thread). Previously on the blue.
posted by Halloween Jack (83 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
Having been on the student end of both, I think D2L is slightly better than Blackboard, but they both suck ass.

On the school staff side, though, all I know is that the Blackboard / D2L rivalry generally leads to competing blowout vendor parties at conventions, and you have not lived until you've seen a room full of middle-aged university IT folks getting funky in a hotel ballroom while a DJ whoops and hollers for big props to Blackboard.
posted by COBRA! at 9:41 AM on January 27 [18 favorites]


The university I work for is one of the biggest users/developers of Sakai. It's got its issues, but if you're in a decision-making position, please, please, please check out Sakai. It's way easier for everybody involved.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:42 AM on January 27 [10 favorites]


Is there more to his story than the four paragraphs I'm seeing? If not, it's a fun exercise in writing about a post-apocalyptic future world as a long build-up to a link to search Google for Blackboard sucks.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:43 AM on January 27 [4 favorites]


Ah, Blackboard. And the horse it rode in on.
posted by El Brendano at 9:43 AM on January 27 [3 favorites]


I'm quite happy my exposure to Blackboard was limited, and I was using a Windows system. From the comments:
i had to install sun jre on my wifes debian box so she could access the class content.

blackboard crap required a specific version of sun jre, that was already deemed insecure by the entire world… to play a wav file.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:44 AM on January 27 [3 favorites]


Is there more to his story than the four paragraphs I'm seeing? If not, it's a fun exercise in writing about a post-apocalyptic future world as a long build-up to a link to search Google for Blackboard sucks.

Pretty much it, but the punchline is actually "Only in these horrific conditions can the words to describe Blackboard be created, and I'm so infuriated with Blackboard that I'm going to travel to the future and back again to bring these words back for the present to see/hear."
posted by 3FLryan at 9:54 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]


The university I work for is one of the biggest users/developers of Sakai.

And I was just coming in here to bitch about how godawful Sakai is...
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:55 AM on January 27


If you've only used Sakai, I can totally see hating Sakai. If you've used Blackboard or D2L and prefer one of those, I don't know how you judge things.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:58 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]


Haven't used it in a decade but I remember hating it. I seem to remember the chat room "feature" that needed Java and made my browser crash about half the time.
posted by octothorpe at 9:58 AM on January 27 [2 favorites]


I started a whole company as a reaction to this particular brand of software. At least at the time, in the studies we did, not a single user - not the learners, the educators, the administrators - enjoyed using it. I've moved on, so I don't know if this is still true, but it used to be the epitome of checkbox software: products sold based on the list of features, rather than if anyone actually could or wanted to use it. Not to mention their predatory business practices over the years.

I love this post.
posted by bwerdmuller at 10:01 AM on January 27 [8 favorites]


Ugh, yeah, Blackboard is pretty bad, but the idea is so good! Course management software -- awesome! You can get PDFs and stuff at home without having to go to the library every damn time (NB I went to the University of Chicago and not having to leave the house in January was definitely a plus). You can (in theory) have discussions without people interrupting each other because they're all text. You can submit assignments online. Access to syllabi, reading lists, assignments, class announcements -- these are all really, really valuable things that make people's lives better and unfortunately Blackboard does them really, really shittily.

There is absolutely space for a good, simple, non-tech-savvy-elderly-professor-friendly interface that allows people to do all these things. Too bad it doesn't exist yet!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:03 AM on January 27 [5 favorites]


Blackboard is the Lotus Notes of course management software. Unfortunately all the alternatives are also the Lotus Notes of course management software.
posted by komara at 10:06 AM on January 27 [36 favorites]


There is absolutely space for a good, simple, non-tech-savvy-elderly-professor-friendly interface that allows people to do all these things. Too bad it doesn't exist yet!

As near as I can tell, while there is conceptual space, there is no actual space because Blackboard (and I suppose whatever other vendors of total shitware Blackboard hasn't yet stuffed into its all-consuming maw) is (are) so effective at sucking all the oxygen out of the market.
posted by brennen at 10:07 AM on January 27 [4 favorites]


I've taken online courses via a Moodle-based system, but I have no experience with Blackboard or Sakai as either a student or teacher. For those who have encountered both, any preferences on Moodle versus Blackboard or Sakai?
posted by King Sky Prawn at 10:07 AM on January 27


As near as I can tell, while there is conceptual space, there is no actual space because Blackboard (and I suppose whatever other vendors of total shitware Blackboard hasn't yet stuffed into its all-consuming maw) is so effective at sucking all the oxygen out of the market.

Yeah, that's almost definitely true. Part of the problem with stuff like this too is that it decreases buy-in which decreases the utility of future, better stuff. If you keep being told "this new thing will make your life better and be the best!", something that happens a lot in schools at all levels, and then it's replaced by something that is the new best thing within a year, you can be forgiven for not taking time to learn how great and useful each thing is.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:10 AM on January 27


So when I was an undergrad in the mid-nineties, I remember having to get the professor's lecture slides for a class from the math library and xerox them. You couldn't remove the slides from the library and there was only one xerox machine there and the library was only open during totally unhelpful hours for this commuter student. To add to the fun, the xerox machine only took copy cards which you could only add credits to in the main library not the math library. Also, the professor's slides were so old and dog-eared that you had to place each one on the copy glass individually since they would jam if you tried to load them in the hopper. All told, it took me about three hours to copy the semester's set of slides.

So I'll admit that downloading PDFs from BlackBoard was easier than what I'd had to do in the past. But that's the only good thing I can say about it.
posted by octothorpe at 10:16 AM on January 27 [7 favorites]


I've been a professor with both Blackboard and D2L, and share the view that they both suck but D2L sucks a little less. They both have major interface problems, but D2L has been far better at actually doing the things it's supposed to be able to do. During our Blackboard era, we had a ton of upload failures -- probably 4-5% of students trying to upload files couldn't do it for any given assignment, with no apparent pattern. If they were finished before the deadline they'd go to another computer and probably be fine, but I'd get pleading e-mails from the ones working to the deadline. That's only happened once with D2L, and it was a guy trying to upload an enormous file that I think was probably just too big for the system.
posted by aaronetc at 10:16 AM on January 27


Blackboard discussion boards!

Lololol
posted by sonic meat machine at 10:18 AM on January 27 [2 favorites]


I've taken online courses via a Moodle-based system, but I have no experience with Blackboard or Sakai as either a student or teacher. For those who have encountered both, any preferences on Moodle versus Blackboard or Sakai?

Somehow, I've managed to teach at two different institutions that both used Moodle (or a local version of Moodle, since it's open-source.) My impression is that it's very good at a few core tasks, but you can run into a wall very quickly when you try to step outside of those bounds. For example, giving a student a grade greater than 100% on an assignment (due to, say, an extra-credit problem)? Can't be done.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:21 AM on January 27


The other complication (my university is a D2L shop) is that the UI is fine if you do not have much course material BUT if you have a great deal more you will end up with an overwhelming experience. Students have reported that they do not handle material because the UI overwhelms them. This was more true of the previous D2L version but I notice that students still seem do not want to interact with the D2L site.

The iOS app for D2L blows and actually caused my ipad to reset when I tried to grade material. I thought it was a malware attack at first. Gah!
posted by jadepearl at 10:27 AM on January 27


octothorpe: So I'll admit that downloading PDFs from BlackBoard was easier than what I'd had to do in the past. But that's the only good thing I can say about it.

It is literally better than nothing, but not by much, and that's something considering how bad nothing was.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:28 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]


That was a splendid, wonderful rant. :)
posted by Mistress at 10:29 AM on January 27


Thankfully, most of my professors only use Blackboard minimally. Until this semester. Last night I spent about 15 minutes trying to figure out how to post an assignment to Blackboard. It is not intuitive at all. I spent most of that time clicking on the wrong navigation button, which would send me to the course home page or some other area of Blackboard that I've never seen before. I hate Blackboard.
posted by mcmile at 10:35 AM on January 27


Having used Blackboard I agree: it is better than nothing, but only just barely. It's nice to be able to download files; it would be nicer to just batch download all (or all new) files. It's nice to be able to submit online, timestamped.

Other than that, though, nothing is nice.
posted by jeather at 10:36 AM on January 27


Hi! I spent most of my career building learning management software! Chances are if you've used an LMS, I worked on its UI at some point in its history! In other words, this is all my fault!

(I never worked directly for BlackBoard, just a bit as a freelancer. I am responsible for several LMSs they've acquired and merged into their core over the years, though. I am leaving out a lot of details in the following, keeping it to just details you'd be able to know by being generally familiar with the industry.)

Here's the thing: this kind of software is one of those things that looks really easy to build -- I mean jeez, it's just a specialized content management system after all, just spin up wordpress or django, add a quiz template and call it a day, right?

But it's actually one of those impossible-to-please-everyone software niches.

You have to cater to everyone from the super-tech-savvy power users who want to customize every damn thing to the which-side-of-the-mouse-is-up elderly professor working at a community college still on dialup access. Your UI has to make sense for courses ranging from three students and a syllabus, to tens-of-thousands on a MOOC, to just fifty but spread across ten campuses with separate tracking of grades for each. Every school or institution has its own quirky data storage requirements or some home-brew grade management system they need you to interoperate with. 508 accessibility requirements are actually a thing that you need to care about for reals, not just pay lip service to. And (especially in the K-12 market) the state and federal regulations you need to comply with are just unreal.

And every single teacher or professor or student who uses the thing has their own oddball must-have why-haven't-you-implemented-THIS-you-idiots feature demands, each individual one of which ranges from trivial to literally impossible, and which even the 'trivial' ones are impossible to fulfill en masse without making the interface look like the control panel for a couple of Boeing 747s.

For example, just to go through the "6 reasons to hate Blackboard" list:

1) When you need a notice like this on your log-in screen, it's a hint something is badly amiss That notice is a list of browsers, most all of which are marked as either "supported" or "certified". The unsupported ones are, like, FF3 and ancient IE. I'm not sure what he's complaining about here.

2) It's 2011, ever hear of "drag and drop"? Ever hear of "508 compliance"?

3) It's 2011, ever hear of batch delete? Ever hear the screams when that elderly professor accidentally batch-deletes his entire course for the third time this week and you can't restore it because the campus is self-hosting and their IT department only backs up their data once a month, if they remember?

4) If I can set up a blog online with a minimum of intuitive clicks (and those include setting templates, etc., which BB does not allow), why is it so hard for BB to do it? Because LMSs are a couple of orders of magnitude more complex than your blog?

5) BB quizzes get a special place in Hell. In addition to the drag and drop (not) above, the software has some special "features" that make it difficult if not useless for those of us teaching language-related courses. Everybody wants different features. Every one of the things he's complaining about needing here, someone else needs the opposite of -- and everything he doesn't want, someone else is depending on.

6) No ability to prevent cutting and pasting of quiz questions Because that is physically impossible to prevent, dude

LMS development is a thankless, impossible task, and I hope never to have to work on another one as long as I live.
posted by ook at 10:36 AM on January 27 [79 favorites]


If you've only used Sakai, I can totally see hating Sakai. If you've used Blackboard or D2L and prefer one of those, I don't know how you judge things.

This, this, a thousand times this. Having seen all three as both a student and an administrator, I find it so impossible for someone to claim they genuinely prefer Bb or D2L to Sakai that I just have to presume they're lying (for whatever reason) about what they really feel (or having genuinely tried Sakai).
posted by trackofalljades at 10:38 AM on January 27


Your favorite software sucks.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:40 AM on January 27


I met a man who had a Sakai tattoo. True story.
posted by thelonius at 10:50 AM on January 27


We had a few moodles. I sysadmin'd the things, and it was a lovecraftian horror to use that even I struggled to follow - the nginx custom configs to get the things to run was a doddle in comparison. The two staff that actually understood how it worked have since left, and we ended up buying firefly instead. It's not too bad, if a little convoluted when staff don't understand the difference between a link to a file and the file itself and spam multiple links to multiple versions of the files, and then complain that they don't all update in sync. I have used blackboard back in the day, and welll, I'm not sure which is less fun to use between that and moodle. At least moodle doesn't rely on java.
posted by ArkhanJG at 10:50 AM on January 27


Heh. I did my masters paper on Sakai. My university was moving from Blackboard to Sakai at the time. Fun fun.
posted by tarheelcoxn at 10:53 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]


The Man with Sakai Tattoo aka Dr Chuck.
posted by humanfont at 10:58 AM on January 27


D2L sounds like an acronym used to describe an anonymous sex act: "Meet me at the motel, I'm D2L."

I've used blackboard just enough to dislike it, but also to be aware of a few of the complications ook describes. I agree that conceptually you can do better, but perhaps not practically.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:59 AM on January 27 [4 favorites]


My D2L shells tend to have two links: one to a class Wordpress blog, one to a shared Dropbox folder. Oh, and the friggin gradebook. I have heard no complaints from my students yet. The school can make me "use" the system, but they can't make me use it.
posted by bibliowench at 11:01 AM on January 27 [2 favorites]


I met a man who had a Sakai tattoo. True story.

I hope by all that is holy it was a Hiroyuki Sakai tatt.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:03 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]


when i started out in academia in about 2001, I was hosting a Slashdot-clone in Zope on the computer (a 486 running redhat) i built in my office out of spare parts, to do "content management" for the math classes I was teaching. by the time i was finished, office computers were firewalled off, i had a unix shell on the department servers with a hosted directory, but the corporate drone refugee they hired had configured the servers so that changes didn't get updated to webserver for about 5 minutes, which made making quick changes to class websites absolutely maddening.

BB et al are fundamentally about the centralization and corporatization of the academic internet. instead building frameworks and investing in resources so that academics can build what they need, university administrators, who think of themselves as business execs, get the funding for these big IT projects which suck in the way all big corporate IT projects suck.
posted by ennui.bz at 11:10 AM on January 27 [9 favorites]


(meanwhile, academic programming positions have been slashed, outsourced and centralized and campus IT has been remade in the image of Dilbert-land)
posted by ennui.bz at 11:13 AM on January 27 [6 favorites]


Ugh D2L is the worst. It's broken more than it isn't.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:13 AM on January 27


Moodle is marginally better than D2L and Blackboard, IMO, and you kind of get to feel like you're suffering for a cause. Very confusing documentation, however.

I think the point about the complexity of LMSs is valid, but most of my frustrations have been a result of various ways systems are locked down or assume you teach in certain ways. Quizzing in a casual way, calculating grades, grouping students... Ugh.
posted by Mngo at 11:21 AM on January 27


I've been a professor with both Blackboard and D2L, and share the view that they both suck but D2L sucks a little less. They both have major interface problems, but D2L has been far better at actually doing the things it's supposed to be able to do. During our Blackboard era, we had a ton of upload failures -- probably 4-5% of students trying to upload files couldn't do it for any given assignment, with no apparent pattern. If they were finished before the deadline they'd go to another computer and probably be fine, but I'd get pleading e-mails from the ones working to the deadline. That's only happened once with D2L, and it was a guy trying to upload an enormous file that I think was probably just too big for the system.

I have also used both Blackboard and D2L as a professor, most recently D2L. Overall I hated D2L more, although as you note, it did have far fewer upload failures, so there's that. But the UI of D2L - ugh WTF? It always seemed to me to be very counterintuitive, and took many more clicks to accomplish anything. Important settings seem to be hidden in bizarre places. The quiz tool is its own special level of hell.

That said, I do feel for people in ook's position, having also had the experience of training faculty to use D2L. I also think that the decisions about LMS implementation are often made by administrators who have forgotten (or never knew) about the realities of teaching, and are based more on a bottom-line price mentality than any actual research into the user base.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 11:22 AM on January 27


Alot of the reason why Academic Enterprise IT has gotten centralized and locked down to a ridiculous amount is because data breaches keep happen especially due to professor X losing his laptop with 20+ years of student data including SSNs and shit like that.

University Presidents, CIOs, and CISOs are tired of appearing above the fold when student data is compromised and are sick of having to plunk down a huge amount of money for identity and credit monitoring after the compromises.

So as a result you get a bunch of really shitty software that promises some degree of security (however illusory) because fear and audit findings drive an increasing percentage of IT spending especially in academia.

My school has a massive Blackboard implementation and a huge distance ed userbase. It seems like blackboard sucks but it really doesn't seem to suck much more than anything else and at least we have it as a hosted solution so it's not our fucking problem when it breaks.
posted by vuron at 11:24 AM on January 27 [2 favorites]


So what you're saying, ook, is that education is so fragmented, at least in the US, that making a good, general-purpose learning management system isn't really feasible?

Makes sense to me. All educational institutions are similar in a way, but with 50 states, each with its own legislation, and dozens of institutions per state, you'd need a costly custom solution × hundreds. Each solution would be a sizable IT project that is, as all large IT projects are, likely to fail.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 11:25 AM on January 27


I'm a developer and a hating hater of hateful websites and I didn't find my (sole) experience with D2L too bad. That said, I was a student and didn't have to manage things on the backend which I'm sure is probably twice as Byzantine. It did require IE to upload things properly which was an (unecessary) hassle but worked pretty well for what the professor wanted to do with it. It was miles better than my previous all-digital class where we burned a good 10% of class time sneakernetting assignments to the professor via USB or else emailing them to his account which guaranteed he'd lose about 20% of them.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 11:27 AM on January 27


but most of my frustrations have been a result of various ways systems are locked down or assume you teach in certain ways

Oh yes, this! Having become chummy with the academic technology people at my former institution, it became apparent that at least some of my frustrations with D2L were due not to the LMS itself, but the specific features (or lack thereof) that the state system had decided they would pay for.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 11:31 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]


I have been using Blackboard heavily for the last few semesters at a Virginia CC. I really haven't found it to be all that terrible. No problems using Chrome on my mac. In a math class the teacher is using Blackboard Collaborate to record all his note taking and audio. You can login remotely to watch this live or go back later and re-watch past lectures, which is nice.

I haven't used other learning management software so I can't compare.

I can understand people wanting a more spiffy, ajaxafied interface, etc.. However, having used yahoo's new fantasy football website, where they attempted such an update (it's almost unusable), I'm not sure how good of an idea that is..
posted by meta87 at 12:01 PM on January 27


I've used Moodle for a number of years, ever since our university moved off Web CT. My wife used Blackboard during her MA. As far as I'm concerned, they're all awful and I'd use a static webpage and edit it by hand or use a simple wordpress installation for the courses I teach, except that Moodle controls user access and handles assignment submission with little work on my part.

(The worse part about Moodle is that every time there's a minor upgrade some part of the basic interface changes its default behaviour. This year, activities and resources stopped appearing on the main page and students had to click trough to get to them. Result: students complaining that resources were not available. It took me half an hour to find the non-obvious change to the settings that reverted that behaviour.)
posted by sfred at 12:02 PM on January 27


So, we've moved from our old locally written system to Blackboard, while I was away on sabbatical and then medical leave, and there's a whole wack of things I can't do.

I know this sounds stupid, but how the hell do you allow students to submit things online (a hand-in folder) without locking yourself into doing all the marking online? I'm sure that there must be some way of doing this, but how?

I'm old-school and boring: everything is manually entered into templates on my various computers. I will not trust a years worth of data to any system.
posted by jrochest at 12:07 PM on January 27


So what you're saying, ook, is that education is so fragmented, at least in the US, that making a good, general-purpose learning management system isn't really feasible?

Well, NCLB sure didn't make anyone's life easier, but even leaving that aside... there are just too many ways to teach a course, all perfectly valid, for any one piece of software to support all or even a lot of them.

Let's take one simple feature: grades. Alice scores all her assignments on a 0-100 scale. Bob, a different professor at the same institution, prefers letter grades. They're all going into the same database, though, and one of the things the institution cares a lot about is comparable metrics on teacher effectiveness, so you cook up an equivalence scale: A is 100, B is 90, C is 80, and so on. You have to do some special handling to differentiate between a zero for "didn't turn it in" and a zero for "got everything wrong" but okay. Carlos also uses letter grades, but with pluses and minuses, so you have another equivalence scale. In fact let's just save ourselves the headache and make that configurable by the profs (so now we have another interface to design and for them to find and use.) Dave uses percentage grades but weights each of his assignments differently toward the final grade. Edgar wants to allow extra credit, so scores higher than 100 are possible. How this maps onto the letter-grade equivalents is sort of indeterminate but we'll hand wave past that. Frank grades on a curve based on the number of students (top two get an A, next five get a B, etc.) George grades on a curve based on individual assignment difficulty (best score in the class maps to 100%, worst to 0%, scale everyone else accordingly.) Harvey uses a curve but only at the end of the term. Iona doesn't trust the automated scoring, and wants to go over everything by hand and override the automated scoring. Jack doesn't ever want to score anything by hand (but keeps assigning essay questions and wondering why the software can't figure out how to score those on its own). Aaaand so on through the alphabet.

Every one of them wants the interface to be super simple, and to just do what they want, and to not have to see any of the controls or widgets that the others are depending on.

None of these people are wrong. (Well except Jack.) But you can't possibly make all of them happy.
posted by ook at 12:07 PM on January 27 [5 favorites]


BB et al are fundamentally about the centralization and corporatization of the academic internet. instead building frameworks and investing in resources so that academics can build what they need, university administrators, who think of themselves as business execs, get the funding for these big IT projects which suck in the way all big corporate IT projects suck

Yeaaaah.... This mentality is very very common in the (vanishingly small) percentage of instructors capable of "hosting a Slashdot-clone in Zope on the computer (a 486 running redhat) i built in my office out of spare parts, to do 'content management' for the math classes I was teaching".

Most instructors aren't capable of that. Most of the ones who think they're capable of it aren't capable of it either (because 508 compliance, data security, NCLB compliance, and all the rest are difficult! and require expertise!)

And even if every instructor was a rockstar software developer, should they really be spending their time building individual home-rolled LMS software for their courses instead of, y'know, teaching?
posted by ook at 12:16 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]


I haven't taught in a couple of years now, since my younger child was born, so it's possible you can do this now (I doubt it), but I had a continual hate-on for the fact that Blackboard didn't have an easy way to keep attendance unless you wanted to fuck around with the gradebook. I kept my GRADES in gradebook and they were continually removing the good and easy views of gradebook and making it more and more torturous to navigate, so I did not want to clutter it or introduce extra possibilities for error and student complaint.

It seems like it should be trivially easy to implement an "attendance" module of some sort where I can call roll and click checkboxes and it'll mark the date and save the attendance thingie, and then let me see student attendance and missed classes whenever I want, especially now that the federal government is all up in college's business about attendance and last date of attendance and whatnot.

Instead, my attendance roster was in a separate spreadsheet on google docs as a kludge and I did it all manually there and then entered in the final semester value into blackboard.

But the fact that you can't keep attendance on Blackboard is one of the biggest signals that they have basically zero input from people ACTUALLY EDUCATING STUDENTS on what they want or need in their course management system; it's all from administrators who are like, "You know what we need? A better way to include youtube links. And more multimedia. Definitely more multimedia."

I also am continually grumpy that it basically only accommodated two grading styles (when, again, gradebook is basically a complicated interface dropped on top of a spreadsheet, why does the spreadsheet suck at math?), that it was really, really into percentage weighting (I know so few professors who do that because students are shit at figuring their own grades that way and then they get mad about it), and that you couldn't tell it "take these 10 quiz scores and keep the best 8" (or "group and drop"). I can seriously set up a google docs spreadsheet to do all of these things in under half an hour and I am not good at spreadsheets.

Plus whenever you figured out how to use any advanced feature, like grading discussion board, Blackboard would completely change it in the next update, so there was hardly any point to getting any training because features never evolved or iterated; they just disappeared and were replaced with something completely different that fucked up some entire component of your now-planned-around-blackboard's-limitations syllabus. It is software that rewards you for NOT learning how to use any but its most basic features, and punishes anyone who dares to learn to do cooler stuff.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:20 PM on January 27 [2 favorites]


Oh god, yeah, I forgot to include the "keep the best N" method of scoring in my list, there's yet another variant to deal with.

This is why I stopped working on LMSs. All the users are CONVINCED that the way they personally like to do things is the only right way, and it's just so simple, see, I can totally set this up on my own in like five minutes why can't you just do it my way and then it would all be perfect
posted by ook at 12:26 PM on January 27 [2 favorites]


But the fact that you can't keep attendance on Blackboard is one of the biggest signals that they have basically zero input from people ACTUALLY EDUCATING STUDENTS on what they want or need in their course management system; it's all from administrators

Blackboard has had attendance tracking for a while now. The system is configurable and it is possible that your institution has not enabled that feature. Blackboard is a highly flexible and configurable system that can be endlessly customized. There are also a number of third party apps that connect to Blackboard for attendance management.
posted by humanfont at 12:35 PM on January 27


It's not about being perfect, it's about being any good at all. When I worked helldesk/assistant BB admin, I never saw a healthy discussion on a blackboard discussion board. It just didn't happen: the things were too uncomfortable to use, too weird compared to everything else on the Internet, too hard to find. Couple that with meaningless customization options that the instructors loved (let me make all the buttons pink instead of blue) and you get a really confusing and busy UX, especially if the students are in five different courses.

The upload issues were constant—there were teachers who wouldn't "allow" students to get resets if their upload screwed up, but I saw it happen so many times even in our computer labs that I eventually just started doing the resets as necessary. If I hadn't, there would have been people failing courses for no good reason beyond technical ineptitude on the part of Blackboard. Once, when a student called me over to look at a weird widget he had never seen before (on a test, naturally), I saw the clock suddenly speed up and count off a lot of time (minutes) in a few seconds, and time him out.

I ended up teaching classes about "Blackboard awareness" to teachers. Talk about sad.
posted by sonic meat machine at 12:38 PM on January 27


I have had a really positive experience using Scholar, Virginia Tech's local implementation of Sakai. On top of that, my students conducted research and found that their peers also like our CMS a lot and actually wish professors used it more extensively and effectively.

No matter the CMS, I think most faculty members are overdramatic about how much they hate it. Technophobes and technofiles both bristle at them, but if you're in the middle I believe you can usually make them work just fine. It helps that I grade on a points system and that I grade work digitally.
posted by Tesseractive at 12:48 PM on January 27


Ah Blackboard. Probably the biggest contributor of stressed out calls of anxious students I have fielded. All these moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain.
posted by yoHighness at 12:55 PM on January 27 [2 favorites]


Mrs. Pterodactyl: Course management software -- awesome! You can get PDFs and stuff at home without having to go to the library every damn time (NB I went to the University of Chicago and not having to leave the house in January was definitely a plus). You can (in theory) have discussions without people interrupting each other because they're all text. You can submit assignments online. Access to syllabi, reading lists, assignments, class announcements -- these are all really, really valuable things that make people's lives better

The thing is, we can already do nearly all of this nearly as well via email, which is simple, ubiquitous, and familiar. Course management software doesn't actually add a whole heck of a lot of value, for the way most professors and students use it, compared to a big ol' list of email addresses. There are some advantages, but it's such a PITA to use that they're frequently not worth it.
posted by Scientist at 12:58 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]


I ended up teaching classes about "Blackboard awareness" to teachers. Talk about sad.

That actually seems like the least sad part of your story. Seems like an intensive faculty education program would be necessary for any LMS.
posted by echo target at 1:06 PM on January 27


Can I just say - that only HP Quality Center is worse than Blackboard - But try Blackboard for Android - that is possibly the most useless piece of shit in the entire universe.
posted by mattoxic at 1:09 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]


how the hell do you allow students to submit things online (a hand-in folder) without locking yourself into doing all the marking online?

Do you mean online, like connected, or online, like on the computer?

I have my students submit their files as .pdfs, export them to Dropbox, and then use iAnnotate to grade them on my ipad, which I can do offline. I've also used Word in the past, but I'm to go an entire semester without opening any Office products (besides Outlook). Otherwise, you could just print them and grade them by hand.

Also, if D2L would just recognize that more and more students and professors are using tablets, and actually provide apps and interfaces that worked, I'll be much more likely to hate them a little less.
posted by bibliowench at 1:10 PM on January 27


Wow!
Who knew there was so much Sakai love here on metafilter. I've worked with them in the past on a site overhaul and also some assorted graphic design/marketing things, lots of very smart and committed people involved.
If you are struggling with Sakai may I suggest this book? My sister wrote it!
posted by stagewhisper at 1:24 PM on January 27


That actually seems like the least sad part of your story. Seems like an intensive faculty education program would be necessary for any LMS.

We had those, too. Blackboard awareness training was more like: "Look, guys, stop telling your students that if they get locked out twice in a semester you will fail them for cheating. Stop giving people one hour windows to upload their paper. Err on the side of really simple questions (not easy, but essay or multiple choice style rather than using fancy widgets)."

Basically, "Remember those cool things we trained you on? They suck."
posted by sonic meat machine at 1:40 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]


Where's the hate for ANGEL?
/Have to use ANGEL at work...
posted by dhens at 2:05 PM on January 27


Heh. Just having to use BB for the first time, since i'm taking a course this year.

What is it with school IT depts and their systems? This institution has two online registration systems apparently (fulltime and continuing education) except this isn't immediately apparent. Then, after you request a student ID, you have to wait 24 hours before you can log in and book a course (oh wait, this search engine doesn't recognise that course number because this must be the fulltime registration not CE). Then the login doesn't. And there's either two or 3 different help desks, each with a different diagnosis.

I ended up completing and printing the PDF reg form, then scanning and emailing to the department head, who printed it and walked it to registration.

yes, it's for an IT course.
posted by Artful Codger at 2:31 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]


ms scruss works in a place which was a BB shop, and just when she'd achieved rockstar status by working out how to grade "best 3 of five" quizzes (srsly; other teachers would buy her lunch just to learn that), the place changed to D2L. Well, not quite; they thought they could develop some additional features in-house, so have D2L for some things, plus this other not-quite-connected homebrew PHP system for doing other stuff.

To add insult to injury, there's a third system for managing marks and attendance that's in a department that's so paranoid it only runs on an island of four networked PCs. As there are 29 teachers, and they have to print some reports from D2L then retype them into this other system, it's not popular at all.

As a former IT guy who actually quite liked his users, I'd like to sentence these tech drones to typing in system-critical code badly printed in a font where I, l, 1 and | were identical glyphs.
posted by scruss at 2:41 PM on January 27


Blackboard bought out ANGEL five years ago, dhens. If you're using ANGEL at work, I'm pretty sure you're actually using Blackboard Learn. Or else your IT department doesn't do updates very often.

I did a ton of UI work for ANGEL, much of which never saw the light of day due to that buyout.
posted by ook at 2:43 PM on January 27


I took a certification course not too long ago at a community college that was in the process of moving from Blackboard to D2L, and my course used both. It was such an unpleasant user experience. I'm a pretty capable user, and I was consistently frustrated, once nearly to the point of tears. I really felt for my less-savvy classmates.

If the demands of your market are such that it isn't possible to make a quality product, maybe take another stab at defining your market.
posted by pajamazon at 2:47 PM on January 27


Canvas is better, so I'm surprised it hasn't won a mention yet. Now, the font for basic pages is sucky and you can't do quite enough customization via HTML for your front page. The social media links and whatnot are cool, though. And the Interface is easy to figure out if you've used WordPress or any CMS, looks cleaner and more modern than Blackboard's by many miles.
posted by raysmj at 4:00 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]


I've been a student on Web-CT and BB. Currently a student again on WordPress.
Set up my own Moodle way back when.
Helped get Moodle adopted university wide.
Switched unis and had to go back to BB.
New uni decided to drop BB, but skipped D2L, Moodle, or Sakai and chose WebClass (think crappy Japan-only lobotomized BB clone dosed with thorazine).
Set up my own Moodle again.
Now, I pretty much just use Google Docs/Drive.
posted by Gotanda at 4:01 PM on January 27


I shared this with a colleague today. I wrote him to say that we had set up a competitior, Angel, which BB promotly bought. When we switched to BB, I was delighted to hear it was being hosted. And that's based entirely on its reputation, without ever seeing the UI or the back end. Dodged a bullet, we did!
posted by wenestvedt at 4:03 PM on January 27


The Man with Sakai Tattoo aka Dr Chuck.

link is 403 forbidden, but it's probably the same guy, he was a big Sakai person. I saw his Sakai shirt (first) on an airport people mover train, and introduced myself, told him my uni was switching over. He was pleased.
posted by thelonius at 4:08 PM on January 27


In my itinerant travels through academia I've had the misfortune to use Blackboard, Angel, Sakai, and Moodle. I hate them all pretty fiercely, but I'd say that Sakai was indeed the least egregious of them all.

There's also a special hellfire for PeopleSoft.
posted by TwoStride at 4:29 PM on January 27 [2 favorites]


I taught on-line using Angel and Blackboard, and now am an on-line student at a school that uses Canvas, and I'm seconding raysmj that, from the student side at least, it's much better. A nice clean interface; every class has a "start here" splash page that helps students find their way in at the beginning of the semester; it seems to be easy for profs to put different types of materials in one "module." So for, say, lesson 14, the prof can put pdfs of readings, the video lectures, files to download the lecture slides, and so on, all in the same place. I remember that not being possible in at least some early iteration of Blackboard I used, so my students had to go here for the lecture, to another area for the reading, to yet another area to download documents...

I don't know how Canvas is to use from the teaching side, but from the student side I've liked it pretty well.
posted by not that girl at 5:49 PM on January 27


But don't worry folks, when you graduate/bail from academia you can start using such high quality corporate tools as Sharepoint.
posted by rockindata at 5:51 PM on January 27 [10 favorites]


I would put course management software in roughly the same category as project management software, in that the only solution that would actually really work for most people is a bespoke solution tailored to a particular client's needs.

In both cases off the shelf solutions catering to large numbers of clients with slightly different needs and processes leads to the developers diluting the focus of their product in an attempt to please everyone, the clients trying to change how they do things in an attempt to more neatly fit the framework of the software, and both the developers and the clients end up miserable and angry.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 5:58 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]


I used BB awhile back (decade plus) and it was certainly cruddy for its niche even then. Still a student now, and my school has just gone from Canvas (clunky and overly modular, but useful) to something called Catalyst. It ain't perfect, but a far-sight better than anything else I've seen.

I don't know how well it plays from the admin side, but if you make these decisions, look into it!

The student end can be configured to look pretty much like a normal web-page (which professors love to fill with buckets of information). There are some issues about browser back buttons vs reversing course on a navigational tree or changing between courses, but I can say that I normally don't mind using it.
posted by cult_url_bias at 6:13 PM on January 27


Who knew there was so much Sakai love here on metafilter.

Yeah, I mean... I have used Blackboard, Sakai, and $my_universitys_predecessor_to_sakai. They all suck, but I do have to agree that Sakai sucks less than the rest of them.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 6:16 PM on January 27


There's a conversation going on at HN about this:
It's funny to me because there's so much low hanging fruit in the business training industry but the clients tend to be absolutely fearful to make decisions beyond the norm.
--columbo

Here a contributor talks about trying to launch a competitor:
We offered it for free to individual teachers with the strategy of enlisting an evangelist group of dedicated and passionate teachers at institutions. The plan went that once a critical mass of teachers from a given institution where onboard and using it, we would trigger the enterprise sales approach and sell the product to the institution.

We had some uptake from teachers, who universally loved the product. They raved about it in fact. We were super excited. We thought we were onto a winner.

They told their friends and colleagues who in turn signed up, and they too loved it. And raved about it. And told their friends about it.

Unfortunately the vast majority of them never actually delivered a course on it with live students. We were stunned.

After prodding and asking, and eventually getting to the bottom of it, we found that whilst the vast majority of teachers loved the product, and loved the idea of using it for their courses, they wouldn't use a product that wasn't centrally supported by the institution
--shimms

I'm convinced this sort of inertia really hinders innovation in a big way. "No one ever got fired for buying Intel/Cisco/IBM/etc."
posted by Brian Puccio at 6:46 PM on January 27 [3 favorites]


Unless you understand the world of "Enterprise Software", you'll never understand why crap thrives.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:44 AM on January 28 [2 favorites]


Chuck is Chuck Severance and has a Blackboard tattoo too! He gets one for each application that supports the Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) standard.

Blackboard is a big, complicated piece of software that has to work for small institutions and very large ones. It does a lot of things, some of them quite well, some of them half-ass-edly. Many of our students and faculty are not comfortable with technology and having something that gets them to the basics adds a lot of value.

It's been rewritten under the hood over the years from primarily a perl-based piece of software to a java-based one on the server-side, while mostly supporting backwards compatibility.
posted by idb at 8:04 AM on January 28


For example, giving a student a grade greater than 100% on an assignment (due to, say, an extra-credit problem)? Can't be done.

I use Moodle and I've done this. I think it is a system-wide thing that the administrator needs to handle.
posted by chainsofreedom at 11:10 AM on January 28


My company has a plug-in for major LMS systems to connect to our software. So I spend a lot of my time trying to get school IT to install it and then training instructors how to go back and forth. Blackboard sucks but they all suck, even in the limited way we need to work with them. Sakai isn't any better but in my (limited, I've only been doing this for six months) experience it seems to be better managed.
posted by marylynn at 5:30 PM on January 28


I don't know anything about these college level course management programs, since when I went to college a computer was called a mainframe, but all the public K-12 schools around here use something called Schoolloop, with great web pages for parents.

It is worth it for the shocked look in my kids faces when they come home and I ask them why they didn't turn in a homework assignment in their English class last week. They may not be so thrilled about that part, but they like being able to print out assignments if they forgot them in their locker.
posted by eye of newt at 12:02 AM on January 29


Moodle finally integrated Drag-n-drop, doing away with something like 10 steps in its file upload process, and there are still a whole bunch of hoops to jump through to upload a file.

I appreciate that the people willing to work on Moodle are doing it mainly for love, but I still hate Moodle with a passion.

LMSs are so good in theory...
posted by man down under at 12:55 AM on January 29


But don't worry folks, when you graduate/bail from academia you can start using such high quality corporate tools as Sharepoint.

And if you're going to work for IBM, the Blackboard of mail programmes, Lotus Notes.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:23 AM on January 29


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