Tag Archives: Blackboard


A bunch of stuff happened in 2011.

Like 2010, 2011 was a year of transitions for me: in my relationship with academia, in the way I earn a living, in the way I present myself as a citizen-builder of the internet. Being a parent is the biggest transition of all, forcing me to put into perspective the ways I spend my energy and the ways in which I define myself and what has value to me. (This transition has been overwhelmingly a Good Thing.) Continuing to strive for the right balance in these areas will, I’m sure, be a hallmark of my 2012. (Thankfully, I have no plans to have a child or get married in 2012. A man needs a year off from major life events!)

Happy new year!

Dude, Where’s My Blackboard Contract?

[UPDATE: 9-23-2011 9:54EDT] The original links to vendor searches on Open Book seem to be working again. I guess that means that the issue was a poorly-timed technical outage. In light of this, I take back my tentative speculations about Open Book actively suppressing results – I was wrong. Leaving this blog post up for historical reasons.

[UPDATE: 9-21-2011 1:46EDT] It looks like all vendor information is missing from Open Book at the moment. The contracts are still available by contract number (example). This may point toward an Open Book technical problem. Until a bit more is known, I think it’s reasonable to assume it’s an innocent accident. The general points still remain.

A few days ago I wrote a blog post about how CUNY and Blackboard have, in various ways, inspired my work in free software. In that post, I linked to a page that showed search results for CUNY and Blackboard from Open Book New York, a service provided by the NYS Comptroller’s office that lets citizens see how public institutions are spending tax money (a great idea, right?).

The blog post got many thousands of hits, and many hundreds of those users clicked on the link in question, which showed the amounts of CUNY’s current hosting contracts with Blackboard. This morning, one of my commenters, Brian, let me know that the link no longer worked. In fact, when you search Open Book for Blackboard, no contracts at all are shown for the entire state, while just a few days ago, a similar search turned up lots of results.

My decision to hotlink to the contract details in the original post, instead of spelling the dollar amounts in the text, was completely intentional. While I think that the high cost of Blackboard’s service is indeed an important symptom of a larger problem, I think that the dollar amounts have the potential to overshadow other considerations. So I linked, knowing that few readers would click through.

But now, because I don’t want that aspect of the original post to be lost, I’m going to bring to the foreground what I’d intended to leave in the background.

The original link to the search
Google’s cached copy
Screenshot, 9-21-2011

If removing the results was intentional, ie if Open Book removed the results at the request of Blackboard or of CUNY (I consider the former more likely, given the evidence), it is obviously quite disappointing, and lends a certain irony to the “Open Book” moniker.

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.

Blog-specific email plugin for WPMU users

A quick WPMU hack that I think will help a lot of people using an installation of WPMU for multiple classes.

The plugin Email Users by Vincent Prat allows blog authors/admins to email users in two different ways: 1) by emailing a group of users (such as those corresponding a particular role on your blog), or 2) by emailing individual users. The problem, though, is that this second option brings up a list of every single user on the installation of WPMU. This can be a bit of a pain for the normal blog user, as teachers or students in a class would probably only want to see a list of those people who are in the class, or on the blog.

Here’s a hack that will make the Email Users plugin show list only the members of the current blog for everyone except for the site admin:

  1. In the main plugin file (email-users.php), find the function mailusers_get_users. It should start around line 404.
  2. Look for the lines of code (414-417 in my version) that define the variable $users in the first conditional clause:
    [code language=”php”]
    $users = $wpdb->get_results(
    “SELECT id, user_email, display_name ”
    . “FROM $wpdb->users ”
    . $additional_sql_filter );
  3. Replace that line with the following code:
    [code language=”php”]
    if ( is_site_admin() ) {
    $users = $wpdb->get_results(
    “SELECT id, user_email, display_name ”
    . “FROM $wpdb->users ”
    . $additional_sql_filter );
    } else {
    $wp_user_search = new WP_User_Search(”, ”, ”);
    $user_list = $wp_user_search->get_results();
    $user_array = join(‘,’, $user_list);
    $users = $wpdb->get_results(
    “SELECT id, user_email, display_name ”
    . “FROM $wpdb->users ”
    . “WHERE id IN ( $user_array ) ” );

Here’s the use case I envision. The instructor for a class places the Add User Sidebar Widget (by my boys at UBC’s OLT!) in the sidebar of his or her blog. As part of the first assignment of the semester, the instructor asks each student to register for an account, and click the “Add Me” button on the instructor’s blog. That will automatically populate the email list above.

File this tip under “who needs Blackboard?”.

Blackboard hack: Merging classes from multiple pages

Blackboard has a feature called Course Merge that lets instructors teaching more than one section of a course merge the sections into a single roster and course space. It turns out, though, that in Blackboard 8, if a professor has more than 25 or so courses alive in the system (which can easily happen when lab subsections of a large lecture course are listed separately), the Merge tool breaks. In particular, the list of courses to select as parent/child courses of the merge gets broken up into multiple pages. You’ve got to check the boxes next to the courses you want merged and hit Submit to complete the process. But (O! miracle of UI design) the Submit button only appears on the last page, making it impossible to merge courses on any pages but the very last one.

I’ll pause to say that this bug means that the people who most need to merge their courses – the ones who have big classes with lots of subsections – are the most likely to be unable to do so. Yikes.

So here’s an ugly but functional workaround. I’ve cobbled together the information in the HTML form element on the final step of the merge process into a single form. The value attributes in the input tags have be replaced with the unique identifiers for the classes to be merged, which you can find by viewing the source of the course list. You’ll also need to change the URL in the form tag to point to the absolute location of your Blackboard installation. Save the file to your local disk. As long as the HTML file is run in a browser that is logged into Blackboard as a user with the permission to do the merge, selecting the radio button and clicking submit on the local file will successfully submit the form and complete the merge.

Here’s the code:

[sourcecode language=”html”]


Parsing the box

My friend Matt blogged this morning about how the concept of the Learning Management System is misguided. I agree with the gist of what he says there, but there are some ways in which I think that the anti-LMS rhetoric can be easily overgeneralized. The metaphor of the LMS as a “box” is telling: quite unpleasant indeed, but somewhat ambiguous in just what the problems of the LMS really are. From my point of view, there are different ways in which LMSs function like boxes, and not all of them are equally bad, or at least not bad in the same way.

First, there is the sense in which LMSs fossilize a certain teacher-centered model of learning, preventing both the instructor and the student from pursuing a different kind of learning model. In this sense, the box keeps people enclosed, and this does indeed seem like a bad thing.

Second, the box keeps other people out – this is the box’s tendency away from openness. LMSs are by and large closed to people not directly involved in the class. Generally speaking, openness is a worthwhile thing to aspire to, but surely it must be granted (by anyone who takes seriously the idea of teaching our students the intricacies of identifying and reacting to audience) that there are some classroom scenarios in which pedagogical goals can only be met in a closed space. Aside from this pedagogical consideration, there are more legalistic reasons for wanting a walled garden – the reproduction of copyrighted materials for educational purposes, for example. Now, I realize that there are ways to replicate this feature of the LMS outside of the LMS proper, ways that make closedness optional. Moreover, I think there’s a tendency on the behalf of many educators to default to the closed system out of fear or laziness, and this tendency should be challenged. Yet there remain some cases where the closed boxiness of the LMS is – at least in theory – something to be desired.

Third, the LMS is a box in the same way that this is a box, bringing together a bunch of popular material into one relatively convenient set. The purist will always argue that you’re better off buying the individual albums, that there’s so much richness you lose when you lose the context of the record. But the purist already owns every Zeppelin album and thus has already gone through the learning process, while the intended market for the box set has not. Likewise, the WP purist will always argue that Wordpress (or whatever the pet tech happens to be) is so much better than the bundled version. Like the Zep purist, the WP purist will almost always be right about the superiority of “the real thing”. But the purist is a geek, and speaks from the geek’s point of view. For the non-geek, there are lots of practical reasons to prefer the ease and convenience of the box. And even the staunchest purist would never wish to deprive the neophyte of Stairway to Heaven just because the neophyte doesn’t want to buy every Zeppelin record.

There are lots of reasons to want to rid oneself and one’s university of the LMS. But just because LMSs are, on balance, pretty awful doesn’t mean that everything about them is awful.

Nudging faculty toward paperlessness

I was included on an email sent recently by the VP of our school’s student association regarding the newly implemented pay-to-print policy. The student association is not happy with the policy, and their reasons were good: it’s not so much that students want to print, but instead that their professors require them to print. The email was a reminder to me that, at least in this particular area, it’s not students who are resisting change.

On this note, I’m planning some faculty development for the spring semester related to the idea of paperless teaching. I need to do some brainstorming as to what this means. So here goes:

  • Readings that have, in the past, been photocopied and distributed, should be distributed electronically. There are some procedural challenges here, though. Digitization itself is increasingly easy. More and more, I think faculty members are getting things from online databases, so that no digitization is needed. When the original is on paper and needs to be photocopied, more and more of our copy machines have scan-to-PDF functionality. So faculty need some guidance on using this functionality.

    Where to upload things for distribution? This is one area where Blackboard has some real advantages. For one, Bb courses are set up automatically, and so there’s no real setup on my part. Access is limited to those enrolled in the class, which is (lamentably, perhaps) required by copyright considerations.

    In cases where faculty members use Blackboard to distribute readings to students, it should be made explicit that printing is not required. A brief discussion early in the semester regarding the readings and how best to approach them is a good idea in any class, and considerations of paper vs. non-paper reading could be part of that.

  • Assignments comprise another class of tree-killers. Faculty who adopt wholly online assignments like blogs and wikis for the pedagogical benefits get paperlessness as a bonus. More traditional assignments – essays, journals, and the like – can be collected electronically in a variety of ways: with a Blackboard Assignment, Turnitin (or SafeAssign or whatever it is in Blackboard 8), as attachments to email, as postings to a blog or discussion board (where privacy is not an issue). Faculty members might need a little bit of help dealing with the different kinds of file formats coming in, but many will already be used to downloading and viewing various kinds of documents.

    Grading these electronic assignments can be a little bit trickier. I personally like grading papers with the Track Changes feature in Word or Record Changes in OpenOffice.org or whatever. The big downside of this is that, in order for your students to be able to read your comments, they’re going to need this particular software, or at least a compatible reader – which is a dangerous supposition when you use commercial software like MS Office at a demographically diverse public university like ours. Tablet computers offer an alternative, especially for those faculty members who like to mark papers full of circles and arrows. The problem with tablets is the overhead, though – they aren’t cheap.

How are you trying to move away from paper in your teaching, or in your faculty’s teaching? How do you convince individuals who have been trained to use paper over their entire careers that there are practical benefits to going electronic? Is it even possible to move our current kinds of curriculum, which are so deeply rooted in paper, to the digital realm? Or will the change only happen when the course materials and assignments move away from the old paper metaphors?