“Blackboard: Another well-intentioned but remarkably poor education fad.”

JMU's implementation of Blackboard, fall 2003Blackboard, for those who haven’t been in college lately, is an online information system designed for professors to put stuff online for reference or discussion and such by their students. At JMU, it was first introduced in 2000. Now, a lot of professors use it, and act like it’s the best thing since sliced bread. However, the system is actually rather cumbersome to use in practice. Things aren’t laid out logically, with multiple sections that all mean the same thing, and each professor doing things differently from the next one. And this particular educational fad replaced a different educational fad: the course Web site. Before Blackboard, professors whipped out FrontPage or Notepad (depending on their level of expertise, but usually FrontPage) and actually made up a Web site tailored specifically to their class. They had announcements. They had relevant information on them. They had contact information on them. Nothing extra, and it was quite to-the-point. Enter Blackboard. Replaces course Web sites entirely, and professors still don’t know how to use it, or they use them and then abandon them mid-semester. My favorite case is where professors try to force Blackboard on their students. I had one professor that sent a mass-Email to the class through Blackboard, saying to go to Blackboard to get the reading we had to do. So into Blackboard we go, and find that instead of a document on there, it’s a link to an external Web site. Needless to say, I was more than irked, having had to spend several minutes on a slow connection pulling up Blackboard, figuring out where the professor put the information in the first place, and then finding that it’s an external link anyway that he could have pasted into the Email that he sent us anyway. So I sent out an Email politely suggesting that he include the URL in Emails in the future. The response I got was, “You detect my deviousness in making sure you visit the Blackboard.” Rrrrrr… Frustrating. This is a fine example of when technology has officially stepped in the way of common sense, and made things more difficult with the new technology than it was without the new technology.

Date posted: September 21, 2003

Notes: It seems I'm not alone in my dislike of Blackboard. Of all the students I talked to at JMU, and all the people I talked to online, no one said that they actually liked Blackboard, and many had the same complaints about it as I had. Some people liked specific features of Blackboard, like being able to look up grades on it (if the professor used the feature), but as a whole product, it got a major thumbs-down from the audience. I also found an interesting article on the Mac News Network site about a school system in California that used a system called E-Backpack/Universal Locker by Apple. While the article didn't mention Blackboard specifically, most of the comments after the article talk about how poor Blackboard is, and how this Apple product appears to be a lot friendlier.