Three Things about Blackboard

I am not a “Blackboard Hater”, but I have to admit to being baffled by Blackboard, our Learning Management System, a good bit of the time. On the one hand, the University of North Dakota has (apparently) a fair Blackboard complete suite of Blackboard services, applications, and plug-ins, and Blackboard does seem able to do an almost bewildering number of teaching related things.

On the other hand, Blackboard seems to lack some of the simple functionality that most of us have come to expect from software these days. I’ll be the first to admit that well-designed software has made me soft. I’ve come to expect almost infinite flexibility from even the least expense web-based application and I have become increasingly reluctant to adjust my workflow to accommodate limitations imposed by the tools that I rely on to accomplish my daily tasks.  And, since I teach online, managing my History 101: Western Civilization class, which has seemingly innumerable moving parts and sometimes close to 100 students is a daily responsibility. So, any friction that I encounter in setting up and running this class can easily multiply.

Over the past week, I have encountered three little issues with Blackboard that have produced a significant amount of friction in my set up and management of my class.

1. Copying Group Discussions. Each semester I break my History 101 class into a groups of 30-40 students to make it easier for them to participate in an online discussion board. Mostly my discussion board questions or prompts ask them to write short (200-300 word) essays on a particular historical questions and draw together the primary source readings, my lectures, and secondary source readings.  While most content copies easily from one semester to the next, these discussion board prompts do not. As as a result, I have to re-enter the discussion board prompts for each of the 15 discussion forums for two or three groups each semester.

This is time consuming and, more than that, annoying. I am sure there is a technical reason why this doesn’t work, but from the end user perspective, this doesn’t seem a particular unusual or strange request.

2. Copying Quiz Instruction. A similar area of friction involves managing my 15 weekly quizzes. Each quiz has the same format and the same instructions, but there is no way to batch change the instructions on the quizzes. So when I changed my quiz format slightly this fall, I had to change the settings on 15 separate quizzes. Not only is there a good chance that I messed this up in some way (e.g. forgot to change the settings or instructions on a quiz), but this also took me the better part of an hour to accomplish. While an hour is not a huge amount of time in the greater scheme of a semester, it is still amazing to me that this simple functionality is absent in Blackboard. I have to think that batch editing quizzes would qualify as typical faculty behavior.

3. Preventing Students from Creating Discussion Board Forums. I discovered this semester that students could create their own Forums in group discussion boards.  From what I can tell, a Forum in Blackboard-speak, is group of threads centered around a particular topic. Oddly enough, it is possible to prevent students from creating new discussion threads within those Forums, but not to prevent them from creating the Forums themselves. This is baffling. Maybe the strange character of the Forum (is it a thread or what?) allowed it be overlooked by Blackboard developers? Because students can create Forums on their own, the first couple weeks of the semester involves me asking them not to do that and, instead, focusing their energies of responding to the prompts that I have provided rather than creating unique and typically unrelated threads.

While none of these issues are major, they consistently add friction to my experience with Blackboard and online teaching. None of these issues seem particularly idiosyncratic to my style of teaching or evaluation and none of them – from the end user experience – seem particularly tied to security, design, or software logic issues.  In short, there is no reason why these things should not be fixed and work, except that the software has design problems.

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