In the time between my graduation from college and my enrolling in graduate school (about 16 years), Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook, Steve Jobs saved Apple, and someone unleashed Blackboard from the depths of Hell.
I first encountered Blackboard when I was a graduate student at American University. It was, I was told, where I could join in class discussions, get grades, find assignments and more. Upon first logging in, I remember thinking that it seemed like an unholy marriage between Geocities, Microsoft FrontPage and programmers with no taste.
Later I came to know Blackboard as a professor, and then as a parent. That’s right: my 8-year-old daughter has her own Blackboard account through the Arlington, Va., public schools. Occasionally I have to visit it in order to download her homework or see class projects. This is what her Blackboard screen looks like:
Seriously. This is an impenetrable mess. I realize part of the reason for this is how the teachers set up Blackboard, but the system is so poorly designed, so lousy, so ugly, so horrible that such atrocities are commonplace.
It amazes me that Blackboard is in such widespread use. According to Wikipedia, more than 9,300 institutions use Blackboard.
Actually, it doesn’t amaze me. It saddens me. Why do people put up with such crap? And make no mistake — it is crap.
The biggest problem with Blackboard is that it tries to do too much. It attempts to manage users, communications, grades, blogs, discussions, rosters, and more. Furthermore, the platform is so customizable, that every installation of it is different. The entire experience will vary widely from one class to the next. That means whatever knowledge you gain about the system in one class is rendered virtually meaningless for the next class.
In essence, Blackboard tries to do everything. As a result, it does nothing well.
Although Blackboard is bought and paid for by administrators (with student or taxpayer dollars, of course), I think we’re beginning to see a move away from the system. In the last class I bought, the students set up a closed Facebook group page. Although I couldn’t use it for grading, it offered a far smarter way for them to communicate online using their existing tools and networks.
Meanwhile, iTunes U may become the new way to distribute class materials. Or, better yet, Dropbox. And there are an increasingly number of open source alternatives, like Moodle or even WordPress.
So, as bad as Blackboard is, I’m hopeful — hopeful that teachers and students seeking out easier, simpler and better alternatives will simply stop using it.