Do you use Blackboard?
April 25, 2005 4:22 PM   Subscribe

Do you use BlackBoard Learning System? I want to hear your *usability* problems. Blackboard is complained about alot around here (the U of Washington) As a school project, I will take issue with its usability and redesign it.

So I want to know your complaints, or something that you actually like. I have a list, but don't want to spoil your reactions with it. The result will be sent to them!
posted by uni verse to Computers & Internet (24 answers total)
My major complaints are the high number of links you have to click to go anywhere--it feels like everything is buried three or four pages deep, which is bad when you have to login to the front page each time, and the rather non-intuitive side tabs. Things don't tend to be where I expect them to be.
posted by Jeanne at 4:26 PM on April 25, 2005

Labelling of sections within courses is not consistent. It takes forever to load. Everything is buried. The bulletin board system doesn't allow you to easily go from one topic to another.

Argh. No more distance learning for me.
posted by amandaudoff at 4:28 PM on April 25, 2005

I have the exact same complaint about clickiness, except I am asked to use WebCT. To add insult to injury, I found out that we are using the old crappy version, and that we have to pay more for the newer, slicker version of WebCT.

As a response, I installed the open source "moodle" on my Imac and use it with the classes I teach.
posted by craniac at 4:28 PM on April 25, 2005

I have had problems with the labeling and inconsistencies in the announcements section. My account, despite having many announcements posted this semester, only displays last semesters announcements on the front page. I have also had a lot of inconsistencies with the digital drop box feature, it just wont work sometimes which is a royal pain in the ass when working with deadlines.
posted by mervin_shnegwood at 5:02 PM on April 25, 2005

I've used WebCT and Blackboard. They're both pretty much the same. What really pisses me off about both is the lack of interconnectiveness. It's been awhile since I've used Blackboard but I think it was pretty much the same:

To receive private WebCT mail you must login to each individual class. The mail doesn't come system wide. I don't see how this would be hard to tie in. It's extremely annoying to go to each course to see what's new. When I go to new threads or mail it pops up in a separate individual window. This is extremely annoying (I can't tab, opening multiple messages goes to the same child window, so effectively only one message can be opened at a time).

Not to sound cliche, but just go to google and copy their design. Notice how you don't have to go through more than a couple clicks to do anything. The same with Metafilter and any site worth a damn. WebCT and Blackboard try to cram too many features in without any overall design.
posted by geoff. at 5:04 PM on April 25, 2005

Best answer: uni verse, I applaud your desire to actually do something proactive. I work for a company that does similar stuff (web-based software for higher ed) and it's very difficult to actually get useful feedback. I would love to have someone give me a bunch of useful suggestions. Just be constructive about it. Will you post your list eventually? I'd like to see it.

I think I can address a few of the things people are mentioning here. I am in no way defending Blackboard, but I feel compelled to at least explain why some annoying things are done.

First -- buried functionality. These software systems have to be very flexible to be able to work at all kinds of institutions without being rebuilt over and over. So, what you think makes the most sense might be totally different somewhere else. For that reason software often has to have a lot of distinct pages which guide the user to the place they want to go. It's very difficult to build the perfect "control panel" page for everyone.

Also, the pop up window thing. This is common trick to help users deal with lists of things. Often you get a complex list of results for something. If you just click through to perform an action on something and then return to the list page, you're probably going to have to re-run whatever created the list. A popup page allows you to just go through the list without reloading the list page. Everything is loading in the same window because they are using the same window name for similar functions. This really does make sense in some cases. Not sure about yours exactly. Most people have trouble managing a lot of different windows, though.

Finally, and this is most important, users are dumb. You may think it's obvious that you can just launch an operation in a new window, and that's the best way to handle something, but most users do not. Sadly, this kind of software has to account for the dumbest people out there, and more savvy users suffer. sucks.

Oh, and copying Google's design just isn't going to work. Think about how simple most of Google's functions are. Searching, Maps, Email - these are all very simple tasks for the end user. When you have people working with a complex data model like classes and assignments, it just doesn't work so well any more.
posted by frufry at 5:35 PM on April 25, 2005

Blackboard is not as standard as it seems; depending on (I assume) an instructor's decision, a feature such as "Discussion Boards" may appear on the left nav-bar, or it may not.

The digital drop box is awful. The option to just put something in your drop box makes no sense and can be very confusing. Also, nothing gets sent without clicking "OK" about five times.

A number of instructors I've had have complained the courses from past semesters stay on their list for ever -- this is partly the admin's fault, of course, but it could be made easier.

On the discussion boards, there's no easy/readily apparent way to format text or add links without the use of HTML.
posted by dagnyscott at 5:45 PM on April 25, 2005

I would like to second frufry's request for you to post your list eventually. I also work for a company that offers an on-line learning package for higher ed.

Having seen WebCT for the first time a month or so ago, I am not surprised at your feelings, however, I have to again second frufry and add this: PROFESSORS ARE TECHNOLOGY RETARDS. This may come as a shock - it certainly did to me - but the vast majority of professors are not hugely web savvy and these are the people making the adoption decisions and designing your courses within programs like WebCT. Interfaces have to be dumbed down.
posted by spicynuts at 5:47 PM on April 25, 2005

Blackboard is a horrendous monstrosity and the people who created it should be ashamed.

Things about it that suck:

1. Empty sections should not be visible to the user. If there is no syllabus, there should be no 'syllabus' section visible. That way I won't click on it and see an empty page.

2. It is incredibly slow to load. It should be all CSS and use no images.

3. Class email and discussions are underpowered. At least where I've used it, there is no RSS, and no email forwarding (I have to log-in to each class). I should be able to request that all new bulletin board posts are forwarded to my email address so that I don't have to log-in to the board. I should also be able to email my posts to a course email address and have them distributed to either board or list, according to user preference.

4. And, as far as I can tell, professors just hate using these things, which is why they are never, ever used in any quantity or with any energy or commitment. Obviously some professors are simply unexcited about technology; but I think the unattractiveness of the end product has a lot to do with it. A beautiful course webpage would go a long way as an incentive towards an regularly maintained site.
posted by josh at 5:57 PM on April 25, 2005

Gathering this kind of information is great for your project. You may already be planning to do this, but I would also suggest gathering a handful of Blackboard users at your institution and asking them to do things in Blackboard while you watch. Not only will you be able to see what frustrates them and what they try to do (and be thwarted in doing) without necessarily remembering it afterwards, but they'll also be prompted to remember what drives them nuts about the software. My experience is with WebCT, which has much in common with Blackboard, and I'll list my main complaints below, but I know I'd think of a lot more things if I were trying to use it while I talked to you.

1. As Josh says, incredibly slow to load. I have the impression that the images are but a tiny part of this problem -- all the database queries must be terribly processor intensive. That said:

1a. Those images are ugly and pointless. An attractive layout without extraneous images would be far better.

1b. Please work on optimizing the backend to make things faster.

2. Slow to use! There are lots of times when I'd like to do the same thing for every student, or every assignment, or every question in a quiz, or what have you, and instead I have to go through and do it for each one. I guarantee that everyone sufficiently tech-savvy to deal with this software at all shares this sentiment.

3. Ugly.

4. Options for receiving almost any subset of stuff via email would be very useful. I don't particularly want to get the homework assignments emailed to me, but I bet someone does. The same goes for discussion board posts, quiz results, and everything else.

5. If it used Ajax for people in browsers that were up for it, that would be awesome.

All these things said, I like the software enough to use it. I love being able to manage homework in the WebCT system; quizzes that students can use for practice are also great. I'm thrilled that it exists and think that the options it provides, broadly speaking, are on the right track, even if I am far from thrilled with the execution.

I sympathize very much with the PROFESSORS ARE TECHNOLOGY RETARDS problem. But! I think that it is entirely possible to make elegant interfaces that are easy to use for everyone. Making things simple for the clueless does not necessarily mean building in millions of extra steps or excluding "power user" tools. Watching your users in action and providing good, intelligent defaults goes a long way. Providing a good, clear system for the admins at individual institutions to (a) customize the system and (b) figure out how and why to customize it also goes a long way.
posted by redfoxtail at 6:34 PM on April 25, 2005

I would love to have someone give me a bunch of useful suggestions. Just be constructive about it.

I think this is a lot to hope for. Ideally, you should (I understand that the circumstances of your actual job may make this very difficult or impossible) get out there and see how people are using the software, what makes them nuts, what weird workarounds they are cobbling together, etc. Constructive criticism is not what most people will produce. But their reactions are still valuable information. More work is involved in translating the nonconstructive feedback into something approximating a workable suggestion for development, of course. But real patterns of real people's use, misuse, and abuse are still important!

(I'm sure you know all this. I have a little hobbyhorse on this subject. And I know that plenty of people are ungrateful, dimwitted numbnuts -- I would never suggest that you try to accomodate everyone.)
posted by redfoxtail at 6:40 PM on April 25, 2005

I hate that the message board (at least when I see it) doesn't have a click through arrow from message to message- you have to close one, and then open the next one on the list. It's a pain in the butt.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:26 PM on April 25, 2005 [1 favorite]

I am teaching 140 internet students this semester on Blackboard, and have been using the system for 6 years now. I am amazed at how little the software has improved in that time.

Here is a specific gripe--there is no easy way to put an image into the announcements. No Blackboard control supports this. Instead you have to move the image to a server yourself, then create the html to display it in another program, then insert the html into the announcement and hope Blackboard does not throw in some funky formatting along the way. In-fucking-credible for such a simple task.

I also despise the clickiness of it, referenced above. If a student goes over the time limit on a quiz, for instance, Blackboard records an ! in place of the grade. To fix that, I have to go through--let me go check--seven screens! Every one of them as slow loading as can be, despite a fast connection. Multiply this times 30-40 students who go over the time limit on each weekly quiz and much of my teaching time is spent clicking on little grey buttons marked "OK." Everything I need to do is like that, click click click click.

Inserting links in announcements and such is also difficult.

I strongly disagree with the idea that it has to be this way because people are stupid. No they aren't. I got to talk to one of the Blackboard developers at a Syllabus conference maybe seven years ago. I complained that I wanted to be able to change the names of some of the navigation buttons on my course sites. Oh no, he replied, we can't let you do that, because then navigation will not be consistent between course sites, and students will be confused. Arrogance makes for bad software.
posted by LarryC at 7:40 PM on April 25, 2005


1) The gradebook feature is lacking. At UTexas most every class that posts grades online makes you log on to a seperate interface.

2) I had an "Organization" set up to try to do web-based group management. It was COMPLETELY worthless.
posted by fourstar at 7:44 PM on April 25, 2005

1. Gradebook sucks
2. Bulletin Board/Discussion groups - no way to go to the next message. You have to go back to the list, click on the next one. That's so stupid for a discussion - should either all be on one screen (for threads) or be able to click to the next thread ON THE SAME SCREEN.
3. Announcements are lame. Should be way easier to access from the front page, not buried in the control panel. There should be an option to automatically make the announcement ALSO an email that is sent out to all/specified users.
4. S-L-O..............W
5. Customizing features are totally user-unfriendly. They may even be user-mean.
6. The "add a link" section is also uselessly complicated. It's not that bad for me [fairly tech savvy grad student] but try putting a old Norweigan prof on there, or even a moderately email friendly prof, and they're in over their head. It shouldn't be that complicated.
7. The e-Reserves feature gets totally screwy for many classes.
8. Our school has some kind of set-up situation where only registered classes and groups sponsored by a faculty member can get a Blackboard site. Working groups, reading groups, grad departments -- we should have the ability to create ad-hoc groups with a minimum of official fuss, but that may be this particular intsitution.
9. Drop box sucks.
10. AHH! Right about this time in the semester, I really hate Blackboard. Well, this and the beginning of semester, when I'm trying to get the whole thing sorted out YET again.
posted by fionab at 8:07 PM on April 25, 2005

i presume from the comments that most of the commenters are faculty; I am a (soon to be graduated) law student whose law school uses Blackboard. (I graduated undergrad in 1999, before my undergrad institution at least implemented stuff like Blackboard).

1. uniform communication to the entire class.
2. discussion board features usually easy to use.
3. easy to post and retrieve documents.

1. sometimes wonky within my browser (Mozilla Firefox).
2. empty sections are always present and annoying to have to click through.
3. trying to enroll oneself in a class when it's not automatic is a huge exercise in futility.

Hope that was helpful.
posted by LilBucner at 8:17 PM on April 25, 2005

Awesome project idea. I remember hating things all already mentioned: Something as simple as putting links in announcements was absurdly hard; calculating and posting grades was ultra-laborious and not at all in tune with my gradebook; the whole thing moved way slowly; etc, etc.

The only good thing thing I remember (and it's been a year since I had access) was some feature for copying content from one class to another. There's no way I could have done all that work three times over.

Good luck!
posted by climalene at 8:28 PM on April 25, 2005

In the discussion forum text box, make it easier to format text. You know, with like, indentations and stuff.
posted by mai at 11:42 PM on April 25, 2005

A year and a half ago, for some reason, I became extremely annoyed with the locked-down environment that Blackboard creates. A web portal that more strongly encouraged user interaction, using some tried-and-tested structures like blogs, wikis, RSS-style content aggregation, etc., might be able really contribute to education (and university life in general). Blackboard seems to have no interest in developing in that direction though, and I expect that the reason is that those structures necessarily decentralize control of the content, and the university administrations that actually purchase their software aren't clamoring for that. For the record, though, experiments in portals along these lines have been tried by students (examples: Yalestation, the Dogears Network) and have been reasonably successful.

Anyway, over a summer, I scratched the itch and coded my vision of what university portals should be (in the process falling in love with the free software movement). It was much more student-centric than Blackboard, but included all of the academic collaborative tools that the normal Blackboard Learning System offers (which isn't hard to do, since their $15,000 Learning System is little more than a bugfixed CMS from circa 1999). I offered it to my school's student government if they'd pay for hosting; no interest, so I burned it to a CD and forgot about it. But if universe's enmity for Blackboard increases enough, I'd be happy to offer it to you.
posted by gsteff at 11:55 PM on April 25, 2005

have you seen Moodle, an open source CMS/VLE?
posted by handee at 1:03 AM on April 26, 2005

Moodle - ah! Thanks for that. I was just thinking that most of what you need can be done with Spip. I think a nice project might be to ask students to see how it could be used for class. But Moodle looks good.
posted by TimothyMason at 6:47 AM on April 26, 2005

In my experience, whether profs use blackboard is highly dependent on a) their personality and b) their syllabus. A lot of my classes are based around one major text and then lectures or in-class discussions. Blackboard has little to offer there. But in classes based around journal articles, it's very useful to download & print everything from the site, & has worked fine in that capacity. I also use it for a class I teach (I'm a grad student); student interest in the bulletin board has been very limited, but no one's had trouble getting hold of the readings.

I agree that listing 8 categories when really only one or two have anything available in them is dumb: at least there should be an external notifier as to whether the prof has put anything in that folder.
posted by mdn at 12:47 PM on April 26, 2005

As someone said earlier the Digital Dropbox sucks really badly. So many people in my class have missed assignment deadlines and things because of the fact you can add something but that isn't the same as adding and sending. Confusing as hell!
posted by daveirl at 12:55 PM on April 26, 2005

Response by poster: Yes I will post the solution, and thank you all for the great comments. For the users, did any of you happen to make use of the customizable modules? I think that is a greatly unused option (and resource heavy).
posted by uni verse at 1:32 PM on April 26, 2005

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