In the past, I’ve been close to clarifying my vitriol about Blackboard and CMS/LMS in general. Reservations have kept me from doing so, though. I’ve had doubts about whether or not I dislike Blackboard for what it is, if maybe my frustrations had to do with broader concerns about higher education, if perhaps my operating methods and preferences were just different. I’ve wondered if I just needed to be more patient, more willing to discover how this CMS/LMS organizes and values the efforts of students and teachers alike.
Pushing up against those doubts are my recollections of past experiences with Blackboard. Having to comply with it this fall semester has only brought back all my prior frustrations. Atrocious loading times, a convoluted submission system, scrolling-heavy forums, and the requisite number of OKs for any given action collectively cause a rage within me to go from boiling to white-hot.
The option to download students’ submitted work in a single .zip file becomes just another obstacle as unzipped files have extensions removed and names that make finding certain documents impossible. The persistent disconnect between different screens regarding graded and ungraded work is an additional problem. I could keep better track of such course aspects with a notebook and pencil.
At the 7:38 mark of the above video, Douglas Rushkoff talks about Blackboard from two perspectives. From the student/teacher perspective, Blackboard is a terrible piece of software. However, from the programmer’s perspective, Blackboard is brilliant because it decreases user agency and increases user dependency. According to Rushkoff, Blackboard was “written for the Blackboard company to dominate education in a particular way.” In other words, students and teachers don’t use Blackboard so much as they have to figure out how to comply with it.
While I agree with Rushkoff, I no longer think of Blackboard as software. Instead, I think of Blackboard as “institutionware.” For as much as Blackboard is about preserving itself as the top CMS/LMS option, it is also about preserving the traditional aspects of higher education. It is about keeping the ivory tower closed off from the rest of society. It is about grades and instructor control. It is about stifling creativity and minimizing opportunities for students to create fuller identities. Even more recent ‘features’ are about containment, keeping within the overall system. These are particularly frustrating as they often mark the introduction of new environments and tools for learning that only serve lectures and exams.
It pains me that many of the faults of Blackboard are also the faults of higher education, but I want to believe that raging against the machine isn’t a fruitless endeavor, that higher education can be salvaged from the CMS/LMS wreckage.