Blog Post

Blackboard, Please Give Us Some Joy!

I just read the news about Blackboard this morning.  Blackboard, "a company that designs an education software for school groups, has acquired mobile messaging provider Saf-T Net for $33 million. Saf-T-Net develops AlertNow, which is a mobile messaging technology aimed to the K-12 marketplace."  

Great, buy more bells and whistles, corner the education market, and spread even more joyless technology to the K-12's.

Can't someone work on attractive interfaces for Blackboard?  This company has been a monopoly way too long.  Where's Steve Jobs when we need him?   Before I will be happy using Blackboard in my classes, it needs to have a user-friendly appeal that inspires me to learn not hide.  Right now, Blackboard sends the opposite educational message from the one I want.  It seems stern, unrelenting, proprietary to the point of extreme micro-managing of my life. It seems to be spying on me, not inspiring me. There is little room for creativity and who, looking at that dreary interface, has any interest in being creative.   


Is there anyone else out there who agrees with me and believes Blackboard doesn't deserve to be a virtual educational monopoly? Talk about sending the message that technology is drudgery, that learning should be sanitary and joyless and hierarchical and proprietary, that surveillance is more important than collaboration . . . and that edTEch should be as surveillant as humanly-computationally possible.   Every time I open it, I think to myself "This is software for the panopticon."


On snow days this winter, some local eight-year olds have spent time in our office playing with Little Big Planet, set up as we collaborate with Sony on learning applications for this popular game.  I see them rapt in their attention, and LBP is truly beautiful and delightful.   When we asked if they were learning, they laughed hysterically, as if having that much fun couldn't possibly teach them anything.   Why?  No doubt because, for them, working on a computer is living in the grey and blue and drab one-dimensional land of Educational Software, two of the most dreaded words in the educator's vocabulary.



Okay, I admit I'm grouchy today but please, please, someone out there, build me a better, more joyous Blackboard!



From last weekend's TED event in New York:

"If Facebook worked like Blackboard it would delete all your friends and posts every 15 weeks" @davidwiley at #tedxnyed

(source  )


As someone who deals with LMS systems (and yes, the dreaded Blackboard) on a daily basis, I feel compelled to chime in here. I'm sure Blackboard won't be getting any love from HASTAC-ers on this thread, and I'm not about to give it any either. I do, however, think that we (educators, instructional technologists, etc) need to take some responsibility for the current, dreadful state of these monolithic systems. In other words - as far as Blackboard is concerned - we got just what we asked for...every little feature that every instructor teaching anything ever suggested has been, at least haphazardly, shoe-horned into this big ball of a system we call Blackboard.

Now - somewhere along the way, we've encountered the explosion of social media and the increased public exchange of ideas, of knowledge, online. This has shifted the desire to teach 'in the dark' or 'behind closed doors,' leaving many of us to desire systems that are more 'open,' more 'friendly,' more 'social.' We look back at LMSs like Blackboard and see reflected there rows of tab-armed desks, chalk dust, and podiums for lecturing.

Like many schools, Duke is in the middle of re-evaluating its elearning needs - and a big chunk of that conversation, of course, involves the present and future learning management system. I would encourage any Duke folks reading this to take part in the public discussions sponsored by the eLearning Roadmap Group. One of the conclusions I keep coming back to over the course of these discussions, especially during investigations into other Learning Management Systems, is that the time of the the 'learning management system' might be coming to an end. The problem is people still want 'one tool to rule them all' - one central place to manage course materials and interactions - but the sad truth of that is that once you set up a 'system' to 'manage' something as potentially abstract as a 'course' - the ugliness of a rigid system rears its head.

Blackboard's main issue is that it wants to please everyone - and by doing so - pleases no one. When Cathy talks about Apple and joy, she's really talking about good interface design - and good interface design not only takes into account what the end user is asking for - but makes decisions about what options to withhold from the end user in hopes that the interface will be more usable, more 'clean.' I seriously doubt Blackboard can take this sort of approach - they're too far in. They have too many people to try to please - too many instructors who still want (and yes, sometimes need) to teach behind closed doors.

It's perhaps, a little bit ironic that the above mentioned eLearning Roadmap Group's website is being hosted by Duke's WordPress pilot. I've been fortunate enough to be one of the leads on our WordPress pilot the last two semesters (read more about that on our pilot's site). One thing I've noticed, in my capacity as an instructional technologist, is that when we show faculty (and students!) how to use WordPress - when they have that 'aha!' moment - they are actually happy - excited even. I don't think the happiness comes so much from WordPress per se (though I do love and adore WP), but it comes from the flexibility - the possibilities - that the technology just opened up to that person. To a small degree then, I'm hopeful that the more folks who start experimenting with these kinds of open, flexible technologies, the more we'll see their pedagogies begin to open up and become more flexible as well.


You're absolutely right, Cathy, and "joy" nonwithstanding, you'd think they could at least make a product that was simply efficient and flexible.  There's no excuse these days for a company their size to do such a poor job with basic communication and content-management tools....  I've been making my own course sites for years, for exactly that reason....


I'm nearly finished with a 2 year online master's program, using Blackboard. I complained loudly to the professors about the usability of the interface for about the first two classes, and then when I realized mine was a voice among many, I stopped, mostly to stop annoying the profs. I also came to realize the responsibility on the part of the professor to input actual current content was not always met. The other aspects of elearning, such as communicating in various media to provide more of an 'experiential' class, were also not taken into consideration.

My theory is, what happened early on is that people became enamored of the tool and forgot to focus on the goal: to enhance the experience and accessibility of learning.

Really, what we need is a tool that is invisble, partnered with administration/faculty who truly understand what an online learning experience should be. Students should be enjoying the experience, like those 8 year olds in Cathy's office, no matter what level of education.

Thanks for bringing this up!


I love these comments.  Keep them coming!  And, yes, those of us who use the tools also have to be willing to speak up and make our ideas and wishes known.  Blackboard became a monopoly early on and, instead of innovation., it went with more and more add ons and, as someone said above, what was lost was the fact that tools should help the learning, not dampen enthusiasm for learning and invention and creativity.  


There's no good reason for any university to maintain its contract with Blackboard.  (Which is phenomenally expensive, by the way.)

In the meantime, nor is there any good reason to use it.  There's nothing that Blackboard does that can't be done better some other way, and free to boot.

What are you using Blackboard for, Cathy?


I wrote back last night but my comment disappeared.  That kind of a day.  I use Word Press 95% of the time but my students sometimes post pdf's to Blackboard which is linked to our E-Reserve system and it is also linked to our grade rosters so sometimes I use it for that, official business.   Otherwise, Wordpress.  


I don't think this site supports trackback, so just thought I'd note that this post has prompted the following discussion:

Jim Groom is an interesting and (I think) important voice in educational technology, as are several of the other commenters there.  It would be nice to find a way to make it easier to bridge between communities.

Cathy, regarding your reply, understood.  Actually, I'd say that generally the only use for Blackboard is to take advantage of its ghettoizing function, and post copyrighted pdfs.  Which doesn't say much for Blackboard, either.


Blackboard/Compass is apparently not a great tool for instructors, but my students (undergrads and grad students who work at the library) also HATE Compass. Mostly what the students complain about concerning Blackboard/Compass is lack of consistency. They view many of the problems as being user (instructor) generated. 

We are trying to set up student circ desk and shelving training using Compass, and it is a pain in the tail.  Particularly since I feel that our work is going to be unappreciated and unused by staunch individualist circulation supervisors who want to continue training students the way they always have in the past.

I agree with the comment by @Dorian Van Gelder: Really, what we need is a tool that is invisble, partnered with administration/faculty who truly understand what an online learning experience should be. Students should be enjoying the experience, like those 8 year olds in Cathy's office, no matter what level of education.




Amen, Cathy!

Is part of the issue with Blackboard that it allows for effective shielded use of copyright material? That is, because it is so proprietary, it allows us to effectively use e-reserve type material, stream video and music, and so on, freely for educational purposes?

Northwestern seems to be moving toward an integration of Blackboard and Bgoogle (I love saying that word out loud, as fast as I can, many times in a row). Bgoogle -- which is, I think, Google's effort to create educational web 2.0-type interfaces -- allows for a bit more design creativity and navigational logic. But it's still not what it should be.

Bbest Bwishes,



A perceptive student of mine once remarked that it didn't matter what subject I showed my Intro to New Media class: if it was in a video, the lesson was that New Media is about video; if on a Web site, the lesson was that New Media is about Web sites.

When we use closed, monopolistic software in class, our subliminal message is that the world is closed and monopolistic. Blackboard belongs in the same trash can as TurnItIn, PeopleSoft, and all the other top-down tools so easily marketed to gullible university administrators.


YES!  "When we use closed, monopolistic software in class, our subliminal message is that the world is closed and monopolistic."


It is certainly painful that Blackboard has pretty much a lock on the CMS market, but there are ways to force openings for the use of other tools.  As Michael notes above, Northwestern has introduced Bboogle, a development project (open sourced at that significantly modifies the traditional sage-on-the-stage paradigm that Blackboard has been built around. 

Northwestern's effort here (basically allowing instructors to "escape" Blackboard by moving into Google Apps for Education) was not our first.  We've done integrations with RefWorks, Xythos, Plone, and a library catalog search tool as well, all of which bring new software into easier reach of all our students and faculty.  If one thinks about an institution's Blackboard infrastructure a bit more abstractly, one may see that the enrollment data in every Blackboard course can be a boon for more, not less, diverse possibilities for deploying new learning tools using the Web.

Brian Nielsen


Related to these issues, interesting (distopian) article on issues of proprietary software, free software, and software as a service.

Richard M. Stallman, "What Does That Server Really Serve?," Boston Review.



The BlackBoard software is ok to use, but what I dislike in the company is it's number of lawsuits filed by or against them. Some of the latest ( the source is PDF ok ) are the following:

  • On February 22, 2008 a Texas jury found Desire2Learn liable for infringing on the Blackboard, Inc. patent.
  • On March 25, 2008, the US patent office issued a non-final action rejecting all 44 claims of Blackboard's patent
  • On July 27, 2009, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled on the appeals that resulted from the trial in Texas Desire2Learn, confirming that all 38 patent claims asserted by Blackboard were invalid. Blackboard said it would appeal to the Supreme Court. against
  • On Dec 15, 2009 Desire2Learn announced that, for the benefit of the users of their software, they were settling all pending litigation with Blackboard, and that they were making cross licensing agreements for all the patents

I understand the importance of virtual learning environment, but everything related to education has to be done legally.

David Z