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It is becoming apparent to me that, outside my field, use of Blackboard and other LMS software is becoming extremely common. Indeed, a rash of technical problems here is making it apparent students and administrators alike seem to assume that Blackboard is the exclusive (locked) gateway to the course's content. I have had to explain that, actually, my syllabus and homework assignments are posted on the web, freely available to anyone, anywhere.

I have used Blackboard a little bit (to mass e-mail my students and to post grades) and I find it to be slow, kludgy, and buggy. I would find it painful to heavily use this software, and I find it vastly simpler to create a course website.

My question is -- what is it that drives Blackboard's popularity? Is it that most faculty do not want to learn HTML? That faculty prefer to keep their course materials private rather than public? Are there other useful features which I have overlooked? Or other factors?

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    I find it vastly simpler to create a course website. — "What do I look like, some sort of computer nerd? I don't have time to lean HTLM or whatever. Much easier to use commercial software written by professionals. You can tell it's quality because it costs so much. Yeah, it's kinda painful to use, and it's kinda broken, but that's just how computers are. Hey, you're a geek, can you tell me why I can't get this stupid thing to work?" – JeffE Aug 27 '15 at 3:30
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    I hope you don't mind my clarification of your question title. As it was, I was very surprised to find the question actually asking about a particular software, when, based on the former title, I had expected a question about why and how to use blackboards (rather than whiteboards, or rather than multimedia things) in class. – O. R. Mapper Aug 27 '15 at 6:53
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    As for mere websites that don't include special educational features, wikis are often adequate CMS. For instance I see the Helsinki University wiki is huge. – Nemo Aug 27 '15 at 9:04
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    Because we don't have any $%#(&%# choice in the matter. Old joke with the serial number filed off and a new paint job: *Knock, knock. Who's there? ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... blackboard. – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Aug 27 '15 at 15:41
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    A widespread problem in the institutional procurement of software: lack of technical acumen among those making the purchasing decisions, leading them to rely on the largely irrelevant paper qualifications of the vendors. – Kevin Krumwiede Aug 27 '15 at 20:12

12 Answers 12

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Blackboard is used by the university I teach at and I used it at the university I studied at -

Blackboard (BB) is mostly uniform. While you can customize your courses, to an extent, a student moving from one course to another using BB will already know where everything is. BB is simplistic and students have different technical abilities.

Having each instructor learn HTML is a large order. I teach with an 80-year old man who still has a flip phone and can barely use that. Contracting someone to create the webpages would also be an issue because costs and instructors changing the courses that they teach may want to change the webpage.

BB also has (at least where I studied and teach) a copy checker. If a student from Z class uploads the same paper to both Z and Y then when they upload it to Y the instructor is told that there is a paper within the servers (goes back 2-3 years I believe) that is x% similar to a paper submitted in course Z.

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    Plagiarism tools are by no means something special or uncommon in such software. – Nemo Aug 27 '15 at 8:54
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    Correct. BUT different tools run different algorithms and if instructors made their own websites every one of those website would need to use the same tool, and run off of the same server. An institution would likely require certain things to be included and not allow some things on a self-made website for students. It could be no different than BB if an institution has strict guidelines. – Memj Aug 27 '15 at 14:36
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    So... why BlackBoard? Why not Moodle or something less expensive/vendor-locked? – SnakeDoc Aug 27 '15 at 22:12
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    Blackboard somehow has marketed their product to be the de-facto standard for universities and public school systems (at least in America). Compare with TI-82 compatible calculators, which are overpriced, underpowered, teach no valuable skills, and yet somehow are required for all students above a certain math level in most public school systems in America. That's because Texas Instruments has done a good job of marketing or conning school systems, depending on your point of view. – Todd Wilcox Aug 27 '15 at 22:29
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    To a student studying a dozen courses, it's easier to work around something which is ten times as complex and annoying as twelve easy to learn microsites. – Dan Sheppard Aug 27 '15 at 23:37
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You opinion about the state of Blackboard is pretty much what most of us who use it also think.

At the institution I work we (the faculty) are required to use Blackboard for all modules and there is a minimum level of information we have to post there about our modules in a standard format. This does at least ensure that there a minimum standard is achieved for each course and that it is consistently presented to students - the alternative of having everyone use a different system would lead to chaos and confusion for students. This is how it used to be before there was an institution VLE. This minimum standard is really a least common denominator and not too bothersome to set up.

Another perceived institutional advantage is that the management and running of Blackboard is outsourced. In principle this means less IT staff needed to maintain it however in practice we still need dedicated internal staff to assist faculty in using Blackboard and to act as a buffer between the institution and Blackboard when issues do arise (and there are still many bugs and idiosyncrasies in Blackboard).

Those of us who wish to use technology more effectively do find the limitations of Blackboard an issue. Some colleagues link from Blackboard to external sites to overcome this. My solution has been to write a set of tools that integrate with Blackboard that provide the types of approaches I want to use. These are actually run on another server but from the student and staff user point of view it appears as part of Blackboard. The only limitation is that I cannot integrate into the grade centre of Blackboard for collating marks. In any case my own feedback and marking system actually provides much more flexibility and statistical analysis and copes properly with multiple teaching assistants marking different students so it isn't much of a disadvantage.

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    Nobody I know would use it if we didn't have to. – cfr Aug 28 '15 at 1:52
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    A lot of my colleagues that teach ground courses just refuse to use any online software. They believe that if that course has a classroom then it doesn't need to be taken online too. Personally I don't mind BB, mostly because I've gotten used to it. – Memj Aug 28 '15 at 3:24
  • There wouldn't be a demo of any sort, or a more detailed explanation of what you're talking about as your solution anywhere on the internet, is there John ? – Иво Недев Dec 10 '16 at 10:15
  • No my own tools are used across departments internally but are not at a state I would want to release or support externally. I don't like having to do this type of cottage industry internal development. There are institutional risks but it does make my job more efficient. – John Dec 11 '16 at 19:47
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I currently work for the department at my university that supports Blackboard, other LMS software and a variety of educational technology tools.

The implementation of Blackboard at my current university, and a different LMS at my previous college, were not faculty decisions. The choice to implement the system is done at a much higher level. In my experience, there are typically strong initiatives or requirements to get faculty to use these systems.

Here are some of the advantages of using a widely-supported LMS such as Blackboard:

  • It provides students a consistent user experience across their courses, especially concerning the submission of assignments and checking grades
  • It allows the university to more easily provide across-the-board training and support for instructors
  • It allows for secure content storage and integration with other tools
    • It complies with FERPA and other student privacy and data regulations
    • Blackboard supports LTI, SCORM and Tin Can modules for integration
  • It's use of educational technology standards allows for other developers to easily create tools that also work with Blackboard.
  • There are many modules and features that are optional or able to be customized, which allows for the university to have an LMS tailored more closely to their needs
  • A large number of instructors and students can be supported by a relatively small number of support staff
  • Universities may be able to request new features to be developed for the next iteration of the LMS software

It's very typical, in my experience over the past few years, for there to be what seems like an inordinate number of technical issues at the beginning of each semester. However, there are some explanations for this:

  • The LMS software isn't a static implementation, and there are updates and patches available that can get installed or applied between terms (sometimes during). These updates may introduce new bugs that are hard to discover during the testing process.
  • There's an extraordinary server load at the beginnings of terms: courses are being created, students are being added, content is being upload, and general site traffic increases.
    • The university will likely have built their LMS infrastructure based around a typical usage amount, rather than for the peak loads seen at the start of semesters. This would be a cost-saving measure. Considering most of the issues disappear after a couple weeks, it's likely the right choice.
  • Instructors can get consistent training, but it doesn't mean that they do, or that it's complete.
  • There is a lot of user-error. I've especially noted it with problems that occur during class: typically a setting wasn't applied correctly. The downside of such a large piece of software is that there is a lot to know.
  • There are a lot of costs associated with maintaining and improving the LMS, and how much your university is willing to pay in total cost-of-ownership expenses will affect the quality of the implementation.
  • Thanks for your reply. I am curious, to what extent does your university require your faculty to use Blackboard? For example, if professors want to post students' grades online, I understand that this must be done securely in accordance with FERPA, and that Blackboard is a suitable way to do this. If professors want to do something that does not require security (i.e. post a syllabus, a homework assignment, or anything else that they have written and which contains no student information) do you require them to use Blackboard to do so? – Anonymous Aug 27 '15 at 15:51
  • @Anonymous I don't believe my university has any requirements to use Blackboard, and some instructors or departments opt to use other tools (such as Moodle for alternative LMS software), or none at all. Some use it just for posting grades/announcements, some use it for the entire course, including all content (and reading material). While instructors can essentially use whatever they want (as long as it follows FERPA/restrictions), Blackboard is one of the few that gets official university support. – user30980 Aug 27 '15 at 16:03
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    Rolling your own FERPA and ADA compliant application and then having to do the imports and constant updating of users and maintaining passwords is all complex and well beyond the abilities of almost all faculty (including many CS faculty, who are often not that interested in building web applications). Blackboard is painful but I'd rather spend my time on teaching and research. I do ask everyone in my department to at minimum make their course available and to post their syllabus since students expect that and the office staff can also tell students who come with questions to look there. – Elin Jan 1 '19 at 4:50
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    +1 security. A professor writing his own web site cannot be certified to meet the security requirements. (In the US) the university (not the professor) is the one who can be sued if sensitive student information is released. – GEdgar Jan 1 '19 at 15:48
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If an organization provides Blackboard for their faculty, then they're much less likely to also provide other services that accomplish the same general goal (like private web page hosting, course-specific fileshares, etc). IT departments don't like having to maintain redundant services. In those environments, users generally don't have any other option than Blackboard.

I believe the real question is why Blackboard in particular is so popular. A big reason for this is that Blackboard was one of the first CMS systems available that focused on the educational sector. Educators could try it out for free and since most schools didn't have any sort of CMS at the time, IT departments got a lot of requests for it. Over time, Blackboard has bought out several of their largest competitors, further entrenching themselves and making it more difficult for a rival product to compete. Blackboard also had a patent on an "Internet-based education support system and methods" that they've used to scare off competitors (the patent was eventually ruled invalid).

The real competition in this space is from open-source systems like Moodle. They're insulated from the problems listed above since they don't live or die based on market share, and since Blackboard has pledged not to assert their patents against open-source or non-profit entities. Unfortunately, it's hard for an open-source CMS to gain the same traction as a proprietary product like Blackboard, regardless of the quality of the product. Blackboard puts a lot of resources into advertising and marketing, and open-source projects generally can't come close to matching that. Decisions about which CMS to use are generally made by high-level management (not IT, faculty, or anyone else who actually has to use it). These folks aren't likely to even know what "open-source software" is, much less what options are available, so they tend to base their decisions on what they hear from sales representatives. If there was a company behind Moodle that was pushing it as aggressively and consistently as Blackboard, I have a strong feeling that you wouldn't see Blackboard anywhere near as often as you do now (surveys frequently show the overwhelming majority of blackboard users don't like it).

This isn't a unique tale. You can replace "Blackboard" above with the name of almost any other piece of "popular" enterprise software and the story is pretty much the same.

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There are a lot of answers already, but I want to add to @CreationEdge's answer: one of the benefits of LMS software is that it provides some features that would be hard to do using HTML.

Probably the most important is providing a secure gradebook which shares each student's grade with that student and no one else. (In my experience, this alone is the "wedge" which drives LMS adoption---students love being able to check their grades online.) Once you've started using one, there are often some other features---class discussion forums, support for online turn in of assignments, and a course calendar, for example---which are doable in other ways but which good software can do automatically and easily.

Just about every specific piece of LMS software seems to be pretty unpopular, in part because the underlying problem is hard. It turns out that every professor wants to do something slightly different. So either the software tries to accommodate everyone, requiring you to search through lots of options and get them configured just right to get what you want, or it's inflexible so a few people think it's perfect and everyone else loaths it.

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    "It turns out that every professor wants to do something slightly different." The reason why most software is complex to use. – Ian Aug 28 '15 at 22:56
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My university uses Blackboard, so I am required to use it for entering final grades. I use it for only that, because I find Blackboard to be not very user-friendly.

There are alternatives that are free, better, and don't require any knowledge of HTML. I use Piazza to host course information, distribute announcements, and as a tool for students to ask and answer questions.

  • We had two different systems around here for a short while. Students hated them with passion, not the systems themselves but the fact that they were just different. Now we have only Moodle, and as long as no extensive customization is done, it works fine. Yes, it is quite dumb in some operations, I'd much prefer to have e.g. a command line tool to set up homework than the endless clicking around for a routine, repetitive task. But it works. – vonbrand Aug 27 '15 at 12:50
  • You're allowed the enter final grades into BB? Where I work we can put the final score of the final letter grade but final grades have to be submitted directly to the schools student information system (SIS). BB has a feature to hold such things and transcripts of grades but I was of the opinion most places do not use this feature to do security. – Memj Aug 27 '15 at 14:40
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I think the reason why BB is popular in the US is that it was one of the first enterprise apps to hit the education market. There's a lot of other nice tools out there, but schools have been invested far too much in this broken product that getting rid of it is either difficult to justify or simply bogged down in internal politics.

There's some nice paid and free alternatives out there that do a much better job than BB. One good example that I have seen taking momentum in the open source community is Moodle but it doesn't have the marketing drive that BB enjoys and will take time to become mainstream.

  • +1 This is a good point, since my school requires 24/7 enterprise support from any LMS. – Geoff Hutchison Dec 10 '15 at 21:55
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I think it has a lot to do with software patents. From the wikipedia article on blackboard:

The United States Patent and Trademark Office granted the company U.S. Patent 6,988,138 for "Internet-based education support system and methods" in January 2006. The patent established Blackboard's claims to the concept of connecting together web-based tools to create an interconnected university-wide course management system.[83] The firm announced the patent on July 26, 2006, and on the same day it filed a patent infringement lawsuit against rival education software company Desire2Learn Inc.[83][84] According to news reports, the awarding of the patent and the lawsuit against Desire2Learn led to concerns about patentability in the electronic learning community.

In short, they got the patent on this kind of software, and they started muscling people out of the business on the same day. While there are plenty of alternatives now, I think that for a long time, it was slim pickings. There were open source alternatives, but they were specialized projects not getting many contributions.

I can't find the version history online, but I remember that in the 8 years I was a student (don't ask), my university used Blackboard 6, and after those 8 years, Blackboard 7 came in, which looked exactly the same. Which suggests to me that Blackboard acquired a monopoly through the patent system, and then sat on their asses.

And of course, even now the whole thing is a far cry from what you'd expect from a modern web-application. Considering they employ 3000 people, I shudder to think what the whole operation looks like behind the screens.

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I can't comment on the specifics of Blackboard (we use Moodle) but Course Management Systems (CMS) / Learning Management Systems(LMS) / Virtual Learning Environments (VLE), whatever they're called, don't usually do anything that you couldn't do by other means, such as a web page, emailer, whatever. Their advantage is that all of these functions are contained in a common environment, with a single user interface, and so staff and students don't waste time with the distraction of learning how to drive multifarious systems.

BTW, @MJeffryes, I agree that free software isn't necessarily more suitable for universities but the open-source aspect of a VLE like Moodle might be an advantage over Blackboard, etc. There's a fairly healthy hacker community for the former.

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    Their advantage is that all of these functions are contained in a common environment — This is not obviously an advantage. I like toast and eggs at breakfast, but it's hard to imagine a single device that does both well. Similarly, I don't necessarily want to post lecture notes, securely store grades, and send email with a single program. – JeffE Aug 28 '15 at 1:16
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    @JeffE: isn't it useful to be able to cook your eggs and toast in the same room? – rdt2 Aug 30 '15 at 14:18
  • Sure, just like it's useful to have all those functions available on the same computer. But I prefer to use software crafted for each task, just like I prefer to use separate kitchen tools instead of throwing everything into the microwave. (Even if it does mean washing more dishes.) – JeffE Aug 30 '15 at 18:25
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The main reason that we were given is that students expect it, or some similar uniform interface. Additionally, fFaculty in non-science departments may not have access to a general-purpose HTML server, and it becomes a major drain on staff resources if computer staff have to implement a course web page using whatever database system the college set up for personal web-pages. BB and its ilk somewhat require you to get on board with a particular uniform way of thinking about course content, and uniformity is a virtue these days. And it does make it easy to turn in materials online, by a fixed time, which is technically doable with some script writing, but many people in arts and humanities are not so familiar with scripting.

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BB might be popular but is by no means the only game in town. My University used to use BB but then we switched to Sakai which is cheaper. We are not forced to use Sakai. I post problem sets in my personal page. That said how do you make student grades accessible to them without violating privacy laws and wasting lots of your time? I can not see any good alternative to a system like BB or Sakai?

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Is it that most faculty do not want to learn HTML?

On the contrary, I find that faculty who insists in writing their own HTML even when it is inappropriate is a very common trend.

Maybe you are an exception, but you should ask yourself a few questions to make sure you are not biased.

Are you sure you should write your site by directly editing HTML? Is your HTML accessible? Do images have alt tags, for instance? Does it have a readable color scheme? Is it responsive / does it scale well to mobile? Does it have a look that does not resemble a Geocities website from the 90s? Have you tested it on several common browsers? Does it take you more or less time to write than Markdown or the visual editor that you'd probably find in Blackboard? How long does it take you to publish a PDF file? Do your students find your website better and easier to use than Blackboard, on average?

I interact daily with both mathematicians and computer scientists, and I have found that on average computer scientists have learned not to mess with hand-written HTML in the past years, while mathematicians seem very resilient on it. It is a trend that probably comes from Latex-induced perfectionism. (And, looking at your profile, it seems to me that my guess that you are a mathematician is correct.)

  • In practice, these highly legitimate arguments end up taking the backseat versus public access (many lecturers want their materials to be public; university-installed CMSs don't normally even offer the option), quick access (on a typical HTML class page, each file is 1 click away; in Canvas/Moodle you have to navigate for a while) and exportability (Canvas/Moodle have their export options, but you're getting too much -- you don't want your students' homework). I'd love to have a more programmatic way to set up my class websites; it's just I don't. – darij grinberg Jan 1 '19 at 14:23
  • @darijgrinberg Moodle offers the option to make your course public. – Federico Poloni Jan 1 '19 at 14:25
  • Interesting -- I guess I should have looked more closely. – darij grinberg Jan 1 '19 at 14:25
  • @darijgrinberg On a course page, Users -> Enrolment methods -> Guest access -> Allow guest access. – Federico Poloni Jan 1 '19 at 14:27
  • Also, while these are arguments against LMSs, they are not arguments in favor of writing your own HTML from scratch. There are plenty of other choices: wikis, Wordpress and the like, static website builders like Jekyll. All these should allow you to set up new courses easily by cloning existing ones (but I think Moodle does that, too). – Federico Poloni Jan 1 '19 at 14:30

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