I develop free software because of CUNY and Blackboard

For two reasons, Blackboard is the key to why I develop free software.

The first reason is historical. I first got into free software development because of my work with the CUNY Academic Commons project. As spearheaded by Matt Gold, George Otte and others, the Commons is intended to create a space, using free software like WordPress and MediaWiki for members of the huge community of the City University of New York to discover each other and work together. The project is not pitched as a Blackboard alternative, for a number of reasons (primary among which is that the Commons’s Terms of Service prohibit undergraduate courses from being held on the site). Still, the Commons was conceived, at least in part, out of frustration about the near lack of collaborative tools and spaces in CUNY. And more than anything else, Blackboard (by which I mean Blackboard Learn, the proprietary learning management software that has been CUNY’s official courseware for quite a few years) is the embodiment of what can be so frustrating about academic technology at CUNY: central management, inflexibility, clunkiness, anti-openness. In this way, Blackboard begat the CUNY Academic Commons, and the CUNY Academic Commons begat Boone the developer.

There is another reason why Blackboard is integral to my free software development. It is ideological.

Short version: I love CUNY and I love public education. Blackboard is a parasite on both. Writing free software is the best way I know to disrupt the awful relationship between companies like Blackboard and vulnerable populations like CUNY undergraduates.

Here’s the longer version. I’ve been affiliated with CUNY in a number of capacities over the last decade: PhD student, adjunct lecturer, graduate fellow, full-time instructional technologist, external contractor. I’ve seen many parts of CUNY from many different points of view. Like so many others who have philandered their way through CUNY’s incestuous HR departments, my experience has rendered a decidedly love/hate attitude toward the institution. You can get a taste of the what CUNY hate looks like by glancing at something like @CUNYfail. The love runs deeper. Those fortunate enough to have “gotten around” at CUNY can attest to the richness of its varied campus cultures. In every office and every department on every campus, you’ll meet people who are innovating and striving to get their work done, in spite of a bureaucracy that sometimes feels designed to thwart.

And the students. CUNY is the City University of New York, the City University. It belongs to New York, and its history is tied up with the ideals of free education for New York’s residents. While the last few decades have seen the institution (as a whole, as well as a collection of campuses) evolve away from these ideals in various official and unofficial ways, it’s impossible to step into a CUNY classroom without getting a sense that CUNY still serves as a steward for New York’s future. CUNY is too huge and its population too varied to make general statements about the student body, but I’ll say anecdotally that, of all the universities I’ve been associated with, none even approach the level of racial, economic, and academic diversity that you find on a single campus, to say nothing of the system as a whole. CUNY is (to use a lame but apt cliché) a cross-section of New York: her first-generation Americans, her first-generation college students, her rich and her poor, her advantaged and her vulnerable. (See also Jim Groom’s I Bleed CUNY, which makes a similar point with a lot less abandon.)

Public education is a public trust, maybe the most important equalizer a state can provide for its citizens. CUNY, with the population of New York City as its public, could demonstrate the full potential of public education in a more complete and visible way than perhaps any other public university. It’s for this reason that it breaks my heart and boils my blood to see CUNY money – which is to say, student tuition and fees – poured into a piece of software like Blackboard.

In virtue of their age, undergraduates are inherently a vulnerable population, and CUNY undergraduates – reflecting as they do the full demographic spectrum of New York City itself – are doubly vulnerable. Many CUNY undergraduates go to CUNY because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t go to college at all. This imposes certain moral strictures on those responsible for managing and spending the money paid by CUNY students in tuition and fees. Wasting CUNY money is a far worse crime than wasting, say, shareholder money in a private company. Shareholders have freedom; if they don’t like your management, they vote with their feet/wallets/brokers. CUNY students, by and large, do not have the same freedom; it’s safe to say that, for most CUNY students most students, big-ticket NYU and Ivy Columbia are not reasonable alternatives. CUNY students are, in this sense, captive, which means that their hard-earned tuition money is captive as well. Thus it is a very bad thing to spend that money on things that aren’t worth it.

And Blackboard is not worth it. Vats of digital ink have been spilled expounding Blackboard’s turdiness, and this is no place to rehash all the arguments in depth. A short list, off the top of my head:

  • The software is expensive [EDIT 9-21-2011: See this post for more details on cost]
  • It’s extremely unpleasant to use.
  • It forces, and reinforces, an entirely teacher-centric pedagogical model.
  • It attempts to do the work of dozens of applications, and as a result does all of them poorly.
  • Blackboard data is stored in proprietary formats, with no easy export features built in, which creates a sort of Hotel California of educational materials
  • The very concept of a “learning management system” may itself be wrongheaded.
  • As recently reported, the software may be insecure, a fact that the company may have willingly ignored.
  • Blackboard’s business practices are monopolistic, litigious, and borgish

In short, Blackboard sucks. Blackboard supporters might claim that some, or even most, of the criticisms leveled above are false, or that they apply equally to other web software. Maybe. And I certainly don’t mean to downplay the difficulty of creating or assembling a suite of software that does well what Blackboard does poorly. But the argument against spending student money on something like Blackboard goes beyond a simple tally of weaknesses and strengths. As Jim Groom and others have argued for years, shelling out for Blackboard means sending money to a big company with no vested interest in the purposes of the institution, which in the case of CUNY is nothing less than the stewardship of New York City’s future, while the alternative is to divert money away from software licenses and into people who will actually support an environment of learning on our campuses. Frankly, even if Blackboard were a perfect piece of software, and even if its licensing and hosting fees were half of what it costs to hire full-time instructional technologists, programmers, and the like to support local instances of free software; even if these things were true, Blackboard would still be the wrong choice, because it perverts the goals of the university by putting tools and corporations before people. The fact that Blackboard is so expensive and so shitty just makes the case against it that much stronger.

As long as our IT departments are dominated by Microsoft-trained technicians and corporate-owned CIOs, perhaps the best way to advance the cause – the cause of justice in the way that student money is spent – is to create viable alternatives to Blackboard and its ilk, alternatives that are free (as in speech) and cheap (as in beer). This, more than anything else, is why I develop free software, the idea that I might play a role in creating the viable alternatives. In the end, it’s not just about Blackboard, of course. The case of Blackboard and CUNY is a particularly problematic example of a broader phenomenon, where vulnerable populations are controlled through proprietary software. Examples abound: Facebook, Apple, Google. (See also my Project Reclaim.) The case of Blackboard and its contracts with public institutions like CUNY is just one instance of these exploitative relationships, but it’s the instance that hits home the most for me, because CUNY is such a part of me, and because the exploitation is, in this case, so severe and so terrible.

On average, I spend about half of my working week doing unpaid work for the free software community. Every once in a while, I get discouraged: by unreasonable feedback, by systematic inertia, by community dramas, by my own limitations as a developer, and so on. In those moments, I think about CUNY, and I think about Blackboard, and I feel the fire burn again. For that, I say to CUNY (which I love) and Blackboard (which I hate): Thanks for making me into a free software developer.

I develop free software because of CUNY and Blackboard by Boone Gorges, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

50 thoughts on “I develop free software because of CUNY and Blackboard

  1. J C

    Interesting. I’ve had similar experiences with bad software like this at a public high school, a public university, and a private college. I think a big part of the issue is that the model of education on which these institutions all operate is flawed. Educators have to spend a lot of their time putting up with bureaucratic crap, including lame attempts to make them use software like Blackboard. They spend much of the rest of the time repeating lectures about the same material, interrupted only occasionally by real interaction with students. Additionally, administrators at many educational institutions view technology as only a liability, rather than a means of decreasing costs like a businessperson would. For example, the public university I attended charges $100 extra per credit hour for online courses. That’s right; a course that doesn’t require a classroom, facilitates reuse of lecture recordings and other content, and uses the same “learning management system” as every other course somehow costs $9000-12000 extra (3 credit hours, 30-40 students), at least in their minds. University students are also pushed to buy textbooks, when the same information is available cheaper in online resources. Fees that every student has to pay for things like sports, and that frequently are not covered by grants to assist low-income students, are another problem. Changing the software used by existing education systems is not enough.

    1. Boone Gorges Post author

      Changing the software used by existing education systems is not enough.

      Agreed – it’s not sufficient. But I do think that it might be necessary, if only because the relationships between public institutions and software vendors are an emblem and enabler of larger systematic problems. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Ben Winston

    I totally agree with you; I’m thankful to all those big corporate machines pumping out closed software, if only for the inspiration to create something more open, and by extent, better.

    As for the Blackboard software, I have no personal experience. However, the college I attended also hated the software with a passion (most likely for the reasons you mention here), and when the learning management software they used was bought by Blackboard, they began exploring some other, open-source opportunities. They introduced both Moodle (http://moodle.org/) and Sakai (http://sakaiproject.org/) as possible alternatives, and ultimately picked Moodle. Both of these are open source and dedicated to a more open education system. Also, I believe the cost is much less than Blackboard (I think the foundations will host the LMS for a reasonable annual fee, or the institution can host it themselves with the server overhead cost).

    Thanks for the great read!

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  5. Linda Harasim

    This is such a great post. I feel heartened. Hopefully it will stir up other developers and folks with technical know-how, and engage you to work with we who are on the education design and implementation side. We need you and we need to work together. Great, awesome solutions are possible but corporate Blackboard, nor the confused moo Moodle will never get us close. These approaches are without vision, commitment or knowledge of how to support effective terrific learning.

    I have been working in online education since around 1983–am of one of the inventors—coming from the side of educational design and pedagogy (and a major researcher in what works and how.

    I think that WordPress has some really great potential. Thanks to those of you who are exploring new educational paths, and remember that pedagogy is key to successful technology.

    I hope to hear from folks in this blog. How terrific to hear this chorus of voices that is damning these crappy elearning software vendors!
    Good for you,

  6. Will

    Ever heard of Piazza (www.piazza.com)? A lot of professors seem to be having success with using piazza as a forum for their class.

  7. Croce

    I have been using BlackBoard for my classes for the last 2 semesters. Mainly uploading syllabus, handouts etc, with the idea of students accessing the material whenever they want to.

    For this simple function, it’s not great (take s a lot of time to upload multiple documents), but it’s not bad either (when and if it’s done, it’s there and can be re-used next semester). Uploading extra material for students to get something else beyond the classroom (TED talks, blogs, videos) results in an obscure section of the online course, with minimal clicks- the hassle of navigating in BB turns many students off.

    At the end of the day, the important thing as you said is about CUNY investing correctly and I fully agree with you on this, they spend a shitload of money on bad ideas.

    And that’s only half of the story; many of us offer to do free service to promote CUNY as a whole, one way or another but inside politics do not allow for a change in status-quo. The only other way to do it is without CUNY’s help.

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  10. Brian Hanifin

    You do great work Boone! Keep it up, don’t get discouraged, we believe in you! :) I found your site because of your terrific Ning to BuddyPress importer. I used it on a test site, and then users started donating money to cover the costs of paying Ning. So the project got put on the back burner. But I really appreciate having that option should we need it.

    My son’s Elementary school is technologically and linguistically progressive. They teach Mandrin and Spanish to K-5 grades. They use digital whiteboards, laptops, and iPads in the classrooms. And while the administration uses Blackboard Connect to send Email newsletters parents, at least his Kindergarten Mandrin teacher uses Moodle, hosted by San Diego State University to share homework assignments. Although, his English teacher apparently uses the District’s Schoolwires website to upload homework PDFs. It is nice the teachers are free to explore different software for their needs.

    It appears someone hid Blackboard from their “Open Book” site. Your above “expensive” link does not return any results, and even a search for “black” contained in the vendor name does not return any results.

    1. Daniel Schulz-Jackson

      What did you eventually do with your site? I’m constantly trying to get a read — Buddypress? Ning? Buddypress? Ning? — advantages and disadvantages. It sounded pretty awful for me as a BP fan when you said your users started donating to keep Ning over Buddypress :-(

      Any and all thoughts are appreciated. Thanks,

  11. Brian Hanifin

    Note: the following comments are intended to encourage you to solve your problem, not discourage you. Please view them as such. :)

    You proclaimed your frustration with Blackboard, but did not recommend an alternative. It doesn’t matter how much Blackboard software costs if there is no alternative. Perhaps you would find your open source project time more fulfilling if you spent it creating a Blackboard alternative?

    I am not directly involved in an academic institution, so for selfish reasons I would prefer you to continue working on BuddyPress. :) However, until you have a compelling alternative to Blackboard you will not have any chance at convincing the administration to change software… right? Or perhaps there a project that has a decent start that you could help mold into a better alternative?

    Thank you for inspiring me to get back to work on my Open Source app project. :D

    1. Boone Gorges Post author

      Thanks for your comments, Brian.

      I am peripherally involved in the development of https://github.com/scholarpress/buddypress-courseware, which is a BuddyPress courseware add-on. (I was the mentor for the Google Summer of Code project where it was first developed.)

      I also happen to think that working on social software like BuddyPress is, in a sense, better than working on dedicated edu software, for two reasons. One, social software affects more people, and similar arguments to the ones advanced here about CUNY and Blackboard could be made about individuals and Facebook, with the exception that with Facebook you’re not spending money but are handing over your photos and other intellectual property. Two, social software like BP poses a viable alternative to dedicated LMS-type software. So, while I take your “put your money where your mouth is” challenge in the friendly spirit in which it was intended :), I have to say that I am putting my money about as much where my mouth is as possible.

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  15. Aram Zucker-Scharff

    I could not agree with you more. Blackboard is a terrible system and a terrible company and the money that many universities waste on the system is shameful.

    That being said, the problem that we face if we want to get rid of Blackboard is huge. Larg

  16. Aram Zucker-Scharff

    I could not agree with you more. Blackboard is a terrible system and a terrible company and the money that many universities waste on the system is shameful.

    That being said, the problem that we face if we want to get rid of Blackboard is huge. Larger than most people think. The issue is that Blackboard is like an iceberg. Most of us only see the Learning Management System services, which I think could be replaced by WordPress without any real issue.

    What really locks universities into Blackboard *isn’t* the LMS, that’s just the hook. The reason why our institutions buy into Blackboard and keep buying in is their transaction services (see: http://www.blackboard.com/Platforms/Transact/Overview.aspx ).

    I know that at GMU, and I suspect many other universities, every cash register built to process meal-plan transactions is running Blackboard software. Blackboard may be behind the card-scanners that let you into your office or a dorm and they may even be the software behind your financial aid.

    These solutions are what keeps universities addicted to Blackboard and they are far more difficult to replace with open-source software than the LMS.

    That’s the real problem. Blackboard isn’t just trying to run your class, it’s trying to run your whole institution, and that’s a much more insidious trap to escape.

    1. Boone Gorges Post author

      Blackboard isn’t just trying to run your class, it’s trying to run your whole institution, and that’s a much more insidious trap to escape.

      You’re right, and it’s more insidious in a couple of different ways.

      First, it’s bad because it shows Blackboard’s true colors. They’re a business, and their goal is to make money. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But this kind of diversification opens the door for scenarios where the higher-ups at institutions make decisions about academic software based too much on the other “perks” that get thrown in. Clearly, choices about institutional LMS should not be directly influenced by choices about, say, the point-of-sale software used in the cafeteria; but with Bb’s setup, it might be.

      Second, Bb’s multi-tentacledness is a kind of amplification of the most insidious of all software techniques: data lock-in. It happens already on campuses where Bb is only used as an LMS – the difficulty of moving to a new system is cited as a reason to stick with the status quo, nearly at all costs. When you start adding in stuff like the card scanners on pop machines, then you really get to a point where the hold that Bb (or whatever company we happen to be talking about, though Bb is the one I know about) has on your campus becomes truly impossible to wrest free.

  17. Howard Rheingold

    Blackboard LMS sucks. Blackboard Collaborate works well, however. I’d love to see Big Blue Button developed enough to compete — and Google+ Hangout is coming along. I don’t know whether you know about it, but I worked with Drupal developer Sam Rose, financed by a small award from MacArthur/HASTAC, to create a free and open source social media classroom. I use it at Berkeley, Stanford, and for the purely online courses I offer. We’re upgrading it to Drupal 6 right now. We welcome adoption, collaboration. http://socialmediaclassroom.com

    1. Boone Gorges Post author

      Howard – Thanks for stopping by. I’d heard of Social Media Classroom in the context of #rheingoldu and other exploits, but I didn’t realize it was a distributable software package. When I get a free minute, I’ll grab a Mercurial checkout!

      You might be interested in BuddyPress Courseware, which adds LMS-type features on top of the WordPress social plugin BuddyPress. It was a Google Summer of Code project by a student named Stas Sușcov in 2010; I was a mentor. I wonder if there might be some points of contact with SMC. In the case of BP Courseware, the underlying principle was that learning happens in social spaces, and thus that education-specific tools (stuff like “assignments”) should be introduced into spaces that are inherently social, rather than forcing “social features” onto an LMS. I’ll have to do more experimentation with SMC, but the name alone suggests a similar conceptual thrust.

  18. Linda Harasim

    [btw: I’m glad, Howard, that you comment on online education in various venues. You and I been fellow travelers since the early 1990s when you wrote a chapter on Virtual Communities for my book, and we’ve also shared a fondness for brugmansias.]

  19. Linda Harasim

    I’d like to follow on Howard’s recent comment.

    It is positive that someone with Howard’s stature and profile has taken on issues of online education, because my field really does need informed positive attention.

    I’d like to invite or incite Howard and others in this blog to delve deeper into what could/should constitute a significant ‘game changing’ online education environment, one that promotes a 21st century educational paradigm, pedagogy and practice. I’ll throw out a few thoughts on what I mean:

    1. Online education needs environments customized to support 21st century pedagogies such as collaboration, knowledge construction, problem solving. Those of us in the field have been struggling with generic online software environments since Day 1 (1980): First problem is that it takes too much effort on the part of each instructor or prof to create an online classroom using a forum or computer conferencing system, and second, the online education software that has emerged in the late 1990s is developed as LMS—to “manage” 20th century paradigms of learning ( information transmission, retrieval, and recitation). Hence, online education software such as BB, webCT, etc employ an outdated 20th century paradigm: i.e., lectures, quizzes, courseware.
    2. Frameworks for 21st century online education exist in research and should be investigated and discussed by software developers. Theories of Online Collaborative Learning, along with ways to study and to assess learning and progress in learning offer very important and powerful suggestions for software design. These frameworks, if embodied in code as software, could really assist online educators and help to change the education paradigm and field of practice.
    3. Educational design must guide technological design: Since the early 1980s, Murray Turoff, Roxanne Hiltz, I and others have been articulating the need for online environments specifically designed to support active and collaborative learning (Roxanne’s Virtual Classroom research; Murray’s related TIES software development in the 1990s; I developed the Virtual-U web-based system). We failed, not necessarily because of bad design or pedagogy but naivete (ours and that of the market) and we DID NOT MARKET. A lot of today’s LMS’ simply replicate outdated boring 20th century didactic classrooms. Thus, the struggle remains true, if not truer today.
    4. I think that it is terrific that Howard’s SMC enables easy access to various social media. But, I am not sure that that alone is the solution: professors and educators do not know how to use these media effectively for education. Therefore, I propose that learning frameworks (and perhaps scaffolds) be primary in any new online environment that we develop: i.e., frameworks like collaborative learning, knowledge construction, problem solving, etc. Not more didactics (quizzes, podcasts).
    5. The software should highlight various learning processes —and then offer access to media which can best support each learning process. Teachers are confused as it is; they do NOT want or need lots of social media. They are lost because there are no guidelines as to what works best for effective learning. Or how to use new media in a meaningful way.
    6. Software developers should become familiar with the research on online education (a rich and powerful resource) as part of any efforts to develop online learning environments. Don’t reinvent the wheel or ignore educational input.
    7. Constructivism is a cool catchall phrase, a child of the 1970s. —unfortunately it is a label, without much meaning in helping teachers understand their role, beyond ‘learning by doing’. Learning by doing needs a theoretical framework: learning what? To do what? Constructivism is, arguably, a feel good. Let’s use the term ‘knowledge construction’, so that the means and the goals become focused. I think that the discussion in this blog is an excellent example of knowledge construction, advancing knowledge thru discussion and thru problem solving.
    8. I’m trying to get access into the SMC software. I would like to show case it in my classes next week.

  20. C. Brooks

    Some friendly observations and thoughts, FWIW. Apologies for the length.

    “Short version: I love CUNY and I love public education. Blackboard is a parasite on both.”

    Some other parasites: Textbook publishers, Dry erase board and marker manufacturers, desk manufacturers, computer manufacturers, etc. (With apologies to Richard Widmark re: Tarkovsky.)

    It’s one thing to complain about a company’s product and pricing (complaints in which I happily join in). It’s another to suggest they are parasitic because they saw a need in the marketplace and moved in to try and fill it.

    Regarding those criticisms of Blackboard:

    •The software is expensive [EDIT 9-21-2011: See this post for more details on cost]

    No argument here. But how about we get some “love” for the even more expensive student information systems that schools (K-16) rely on? The fact is that support, marketing, and of course profit margin, push up the prices of most software. Competition is the best response, but that doesn’t make the product itself inferior.

    •It’s extremely unpleasant to use.

    This is, of course, a matter of opinion. I’ve heard both sides of this argument. I fall somewhere in the middle, but mind you, I’m picky about apps – I hate Office 2007-10 for example. What’s interesting is that for years the knock on WebCT is that it wasn’t as *easy* to use as Blackboard. Of course Blackboard owns both LMSs these days, and ANGEL, so another question that pops up is, “Just which Blackboard are you writing about?” Are there things I would change? In a heartbeat. However, I know of faculty and students who actually like the system, and one of my fundamental rules about any application, suite or otherwise, is that there is always a group that will hate it. Somewhere, there’s a guy who hates Photoshop. (Go ahead, laugh, but it’s true.)

    •It forces, and reinforces, an entirely teacher-centric pedagogical model.

    I don’t think I can agree with this contention, and I’ve heard it made in a few places. Part of my disagreement is based on the fact that Blackboard, particularly the current version (bugs and all) is quite flexible in terms of content distribution and contains a number of social media tools (and one can like to others outside the system as needed. There are a variety of ways to set up a course. Making a course learner-centric is in part focusing on the learner needs and making their actions and experiences an integral part of the process. I don’t see how Blackboard’s design prevents this.

    The other part of my disagreement stems from the alternatives that people present to Blackboard on this ground. One example is in the Chronicle today, a pastiche of Posterious, and other social media. But the collection was managed from a central, instructor-created site and the social media was linked and integrated in a way that could be easily managed in a Blackboard course.

    As for Word Press as an LMS replacement, as has been suggested by some, well, it’s a bit like using Word to do everything in Office. WordPress is a fine Web publishing tool (I’m a Blogger man, myself), but it’s not designed to facilitate courses. Combined with other apps, perhaps…

    •It attempts to do the work of dozens of applications, and as a result does all of them poorly.

    I’d give half credit on this, as some of the applications in Blackboard Learn don’t work as smoothly as they might or suffer from a bit of redundancy in the tool pages (moreso on the instructor side than the student side, IMHO). But this is true of many LMSs. (From what I’ve seen of Moodle, it’s as rampant there as anywhere.) I find it hard to believe that an independent software producer or collective is going to provide as comprehensive a suite without some issues of its own.

    In other words, it’s easy to play the critic, and even necessary, but as an argument against a particular LMS, it’s thin, and Blackboard, if they’re smart, will improve the weak links in their system (and in some cases, seem to be moving in that direction).

    •Blackboard data is stored in proprietary formats, with no easy export features built in, which creates a sort of Hotel California of educational materials

    This seems more like a criticism of proprietariness in general. The problem is that open source has it’s own …well, problems.

    •The very concept of a “learning management system” may itself be wrongheaded.

    This is obviously a weak point on the basis of the wording (may), but I appreciate the honesty in admitting the question is still an open one. For me, it’s less so, because what many LMSs do, to varying degrees, is provide a suite of tools that can be applied in very diffferent ways. Maybe it feels like an attempt to recreate the Web in a closed environment, but given that learning spaces need to relatively private and relatively safe, that doesn’t strike me as a bad thing. Also, I’ve yet to see the LMS that doesn’t allow wider access to the Internet in general.

    As with many criticisms of LMSs, my feeling is that they are often based on a very straightforward estimation of what they are capable of (and some are better than others). However, my impression is that they are what you make of them.

    •As recently reported, the software may be insecure, a fact that the company may have willingly ignored.

    This is a problem, but the criticism is a bit uncharitable. Blackboard isn’t the first software company to respond to security issues defensively. Their press releases have suggested that the latter part of the comment is not the case, but for my own tastes, Blackboard responds to everything (bugs, product imporvements, etc) far too slowly.

    •Blackboard’s business practices are monopolistic, litigious, and borgish

    Except for borgish (I’m a TOS guy, what can I say?) I don’t have much disagreement here. Blackboard are the big dogs in the LMS yard right now and they have a tendency to behave like it. They’re not much different from many other big dogs in the software world (Microsoft, Apple, Sun, etc.) but yes, they have a tendency to behave as though the yard is theirs and not to play nice with others.

    But to be honest, it’s their success, their bigness, that also inspires critiques like these. Other LMSs (including the open source variety) are as flawed (or more, in some cases).


  21. Howard Rheingold

    Linda –

    I believe we need to educate educators about how to best use social media in teaching and learning. It’s not something that can be easily or effectively automated or captured in FAQs, although scaffolding is needed — I tried to get a start via the Help tab in the SMC. As I said before, we who believe in open platforms need to somehow induce Big Blue Button to add functionality and stability to compete with Blackboard Collaborate and Adobe Connect — we need both synchronous and asynchronous platforms.

    Please email me via howard at rheingold dot com and I will connect you with my partner, who is setting up a new hosting arrangement for the SMC.

    1. Linda Harasim

      Right! Educating the educators is THE challenge because as you know there is a huge disjuncture between what young people do in their ‘real’ lives vs what happens in the classroom. Classrooms have not adopted any significant technological change since the introduction of electricity. Social media premises a tsunami, and major paradigmatic shift in education.

      Teachers are not necessarily against technology, but they feel confounded and have been given no guidance or training in how to use or best use social media. Most adoption is as an add-on to old paradigms.

      New technology can, however, assist in teacher adoption: for example, by providing scaffolds (as you suggest), reducing the overhead in simple administrative functions and providing templates for various online collaborative learning options such as seminars, role plays, debates, etc. We can also do some really neat things with analytics.

      Teachers do teach to the test, or teach to what they can assess. If we can provide ways to analyze learning advances and progress in online discourse, teachers and students are far more likely to embrace and benefit from new pedagogies and social media.

      I look forward to joining you in SMC. Thx.

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  23. Jim

    This post rules, and it even got Luke Waltzer blogging. I love that you frame out so clearly the fact that there is a moral imperative to the work we do. And it is class-inflected and real, and if I piggyback this on Luke post, it is about getting people informed and hopefully pissed about the railroading of options and possibilities that happens across the nation (and well beyond) when it comes to the delivery, archiving, and experience of teaching and learning around the world.

  24. Linda Harasim

    Blackboard sucks, but so do open source variants that emulate an “LMS” solution.
    What is the point? LMS is a box of 19/20th century tools: quizes, assignments, gradebooks. Being open source does NOT make this approach better educationally or more holy. LMS sucks most of all.

    The term “LMS” is polluted. It is courseware, solutions in a box. Avoid it. Howard references constructivism; I propose knowledge construction. But NOT LMS.

    Open source is great only if the developers have the astuteness and humility to grasp what teachers and learners need—not what the developers think we need.

    Bottom line: are you or not, part of the solution?

  25. Howard Rheingold

    I’m happy with knowledge construction. Even better, knowledge co-construction. My students have become co-learners. I’ll have to look into Buddypress. I used WordPress for a while and then my attention was sucked into the SMC. SMC is Drupal — I don’t know how easy or hard it would be to connect it with WordPress. In regard to LMS, I simply use the wiki portion of the SMC for syllabus, schedule, and other administrative functions.

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  27. Pingback: I develop free software because of CUNY and Blackboard | Elsewhere

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  32. hamid qaasim

    I am working pm a project to either export student data from Blackboard or develop an elearning solution that does not need Blackboard. We could really use hour help . Can you contact me?

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