1.22.2012

Dirty Secret: I Don't Hate Blackboard

Dirty Secret: I Don't Hate Blackboard

It begins a few days before the start of each semester. Tweets of frustration. Tweets of anger. Tweets of stupefied ambivalence. Tweets of unfettered rage. Many of the educators that I follow on Twitter have serious problems with Blackboard or similar “learning management systems.”

I’m no fan either, and I never have been. My first peer-reviewed publication attempted to describe why learning management systems are especially stifling for instruction in writing and rhetoric. I’m also sure that I too have tweeted something to the effect of “Blackboard/WebCT is horridly horrible” in the past. But I feel as though I’ve been harboring a dirty secret, especially when I read those tweets tweets of frustration.

I don’t hate Blackboard.

Over that last couple of years I’ve really backed away from a militant anti-LMS perspective in everyday practice, in large part because it’s simply not conducive to getting things done with what we have.[1]

A rhetorician, after all, makes do with what’s available.[2]

Because of any number of limitations, many instructors simply find ways to play their hands with the cards that they’ve been dealt. For me, this means working within the constraints of the LMS in the most effective way possible, and with the least amount of time, energy, and headache. I wonder if much of the frustration that instructors feel is borne of simply trying to make the LMS do more than it is actually capable of accomplishing on a day-to-day basis.

In point of fact, Blackboard does few things well. Its constraints are massive. Once acknowledged, this perspective actually frees the instructor (and students) to make a deliberate move toward metis.

So, let me begin with some basic premises: first, a locked-down LMS is simply not designed to facilitate public or semi-public discourse; second, the usability of Blackboard and WebCT (the two learning management systems with which I have first-hand experience) is notoriously poor for all users—instructors and students alike; and third, with its profound ontological and epistemic limitations and soul-sucking user experience, it makes sense to spend as little time in the LMS as possible.

Given these premises, then, of what use is Blackboard? Well, there are a couple of areas where the university-sanctioned LMS actually excels: first, it’s great at storing stuff; and second, it’s intentionally designed to facilitate assessment.[3]

I don’t hate Blackboard because I recognize and accept that its limitations are enormous, and as such, I don’t try to make it do anything beyond its extremely limited capabilities. Blackboard, therefore, doesn’t frustrate me in the least.

Here’s a quick rundown of how I use Blackboard:

  • To store my syllabus (which includes lots of hyperlinks and can be viewed in-browser)
  • To store supplemental reading material (PDFs of articles and such)
  • To store assignment descriptions and rubrics
    • To store student deliverables in a knowledge work model, so that everyone in the class can see what everyone else did for a given deliverable
  • To privately message my students with feedback and assessments

That’s it. I use Blackboard to do basically the two things (only things?) that it does reasonably well: store stuff and provide private, individual feedback.

And because this is all I do with the LMS, usability improves by simple subtraction.[4] The homepage basically has nothing (I use none of Blackboard’s faux-clever mix and match modules for “assignments,” “announcements,” or anything else; I delete them all). I have a simple left-hand menu which lists:

  • Home
  • Syllabus
  • Supplemental Readings
  • Discussions
  • Messages

The Discussions area contains one forum, called “Deliverables.” Within this forum there are several threads, each of which corresponds to a given assignment (e.g., “Practicum 1”). The first post in a given thread is my assignment description and any attendant documents; when students have completed a deliverable, they simply reply to a message in the thread and upload their document (or hyperlink).

I use Messages to give my students feedback; they have a running tally of exactly where they stand at any point in the semester by simply consulting their private messages.

To reiterate: my Blackboard experience begins with deleting almost everything the LMS suggests I use; then I add only the things that the LMS can handle with reasonable efficiency. I store stuff there so it can be easily retrieved by students, and I provide feedback that can likewise be easily retrieved and maintained throughout a given semester.

This scenario leverages Blackboard’s few strengths. It means students can upload huge files (like PDFs with video and audio files related to their qualitative studies), that they can safely retrieve copyrighted work (such as articles provided as part of the course readings), and that they can safely maintain a record of their achievement in the course.

For everything else, there’s our face-to-face discussions and the interwebs, where they can have meaningful public and semi-public interactions with authentic audiences.[5]


  1. This is certainly not meant to shame anyone who tweets about the ontological frailties of Blackboard. I rather enjoy them, actually. Instead, I’ve chosen to take a more Stoic approach: some things are up to us, some things aren’t, and we would do well to focus on the things we can control, and those things alone. I don’t have the energy or influence to overturn my university’s LMS policy; I can offer my students interesting workarounds to the limitations of the LMS, however.  ↩

  2. I believe it was either Aristotle or Morrissey who argued that “Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”  ↩

  3. I can hear you screaming at you screen: “It’s terrible at assessment!!1!” Stay with me here; I don’t use it for assessment in the ways that the designer intended…  ↩

  4. Figuring out Blackboard’s Messaging UI, however, remains a serious problem for first-time users. I’m not sure how one could design a poorer messaging workflow. Honestly.  ↩

  5. A final note. I have a colleague who grew up in Berkeley; I grew up in the East Bay as well. When I found out he was from Berkeley, I asked him if he hated Piedmont, an affluent enclave in the Berkeley hills that I resented when I was an angsty youngster. He replied, “No, I don’t hate Piedmont.” He understood why some folks did, but he didn’t see the point of hating something like an entire city. “What good could that possibly bring me?,” he wondered. Any residual disgust I harbored towards Piedmont disappeared on the spot.  ↩

4 comments:

Jen said...

I'm an instructional designer and also project manager on an LMS selection project at a school that currently uses ANGEL. I think there are a few other things to take into consideration with people who "hate" the LMS. Each school deploys and supports their LMS in a different way. Poor support, can mean a poor user experience, as can poor implementation. Also, the experience level of the instructor can make a big difference. You have experience and know to shut off the things you don't use. However, there are many instructors who are new to using an LMS, who work at schools where the course shells are generated with every option "on." When that's combined with poor support and lack of quality professional development, it can be a big source of frustration.
I also think one underused feature of an LMS is the ability to track student activity. If you use it to store course materials, it's easy to see who has accessed the materials. I try not to make assumptions, since I know sometimes students work together, so it may not be entirely accurate. But it's a great way for instructors to provide early support for students who are falling behind. We know that students who don't access the course within the first few weeks are more likely to have a poor outcome. Early tracking of students, can help an instructor contact the student and find out how to help, or even how to provide alternate accommodation if it turns out there are learning challenges that can only be identified in contacting the student directly.
Thanks for encouraging readers to learn to work creatively with the available tools, and to recognize the limitations and plan for the best use of the tools for the individual learning ecology.

Brian J. McNely said...

@Jen

Thanks for your comments! These are excellent additions.

I generally agree with you regarding support and professional development, but I also think that instructors simply need to be more willing to get their hands dirty in order to determine appropriate affordances of a given LMS for a given course and teaching style.

We're often loathe to do so, however, in fear that we'll break something. This is where sandbox courses (and the support team's obvious and persistent advertisement of such) can be very useful. In a sandbox course, an instructor can tinker without fear and then determine what works and what doesn't for their class. Once they've got this down, they can simply eliminate any remaining cruft (and it's mostly cruft).

Unknown said...

Brian, thanks for the thoughtful post. Your perspective applies to the use of not only Blackboard, but all traditional LMSs.

I agree that users get frustrated when they expect the system to do more than it was designed to do. Setting reasonable expectations (focusing on its core strengths) is an honest way to promote use of the LMS.

Additionally, one of the enduring strengths of the LMS is its ability to deliver scores and grades privately to students. Gone are the days of posting exam results outside office doors. (But really, don't you miss those huddled masses?)

I think the posting of scores in a secure online gradebook provides a great service to students and helps them continue to take ownership of their learning.

Bill said...

Everything you list (which I agree are the only worthwhile parts) could be done with a distribution list in your email client. I made the mistake once of using SafeAssign, since an email client can't check for plagiarism. Let me assure you, you don't want to check for plagiarism if that's how you have to do it.

One thing Bb does better than Outlook: posting grades for final exams. Build a column and punch'em in. But that's it. I wouldn't do if for any grades that the students get a hard copy of (i.e. tests and papers returned in class). And I certainly wouldn't trust it to calculate grade averages.

Oh, and Outlook is far, far better at emailing, because Bb doesn't even keep a record of outgoing emails.

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