This post is part of our ongoing Blackboard Week.

For our first post in our Blackboard Week, we will be giving a state of the union. This post will go over how Blackboard came to be what it is, some of the competition out there and some of the big problems with the software. Throughout the week, we’ll be offering up ways to solve these problems.

The Origin Story

Blackboard came to be in 1997. Two guys by the names Stephen Gilfus and Dan Cane started the company CourseInfo, LLC, which would eventually become Blackboard, Inc. Their first product was the Blackboard Learning System, but they have added a few other products since 1997. They have absorbed a few companies during the march to where they are today. Blackboard has been involved with a decent amount of legal issues stemming from patent lawsuits. The Blackboard Learning Management System (LMS) is currently on its ninth iteration.

Today Blackboard has nearly 1,000 employees and are a publicly traded company (NASDAQ: BBBB). In business terms, they appear to be doing very well.

Competitors

Blackboard has its fair share of competitors. Given that the LMS space is not rocket science, we’re seeing plenty of new startups enter the area.

  • eCollege.com – A “comprehensive, on-demand eLearning solution”
  • ANGEL Learning – A statistics gathering and student portfolio management system recently acquired by Blackboard.
  • Moodle – Probably the most popular open source LMS (my high school uses it)
  • Sakai – A close second to Moodle when it comes to open source solutions
  • OLAT – Another open source LMS
  • Claroline – An “open source eLearning and eWorking platform”
  • Desire2Learn – A fast-growing, sued-by-Blackboard competitor
  • JoomlaLMS – A nifty component that can be installed on top of Joomla!, an open-source CMS
  • haiku – An LMS in da cloud

(Note: If I’ve missed one (which I most definitely have), please shoot an email to corrections@hackcollege.com)

Problems

If it’s possible for an entire industry to succumb to feature creep, this industry would be it. While doing research into competing platforms, it’s obvious that all of these systems are behemoths and are being reviewed as such. For example, edutools.info reviewed eCollege.com and commented that it did not have “Bookmarks” in its “Productivity Tools” toolset. Isn’t that what a browser or fancy Firefox extension is for? The problems plaguing current LMSs is not that they don’t have enough features, but that the things aren’t that useful.

That being said, Blackboard also has its fair share of curable problems, outside of feature creep-related shenanigans.

Different Versions, Different Skill Levels, Many Locations

One of the key problems with Blackboard is that there are many versions of Blackboard in the wild with each university having its own team dedicated to maintaing each system. The same system is installed thousands of times around the country, making it prone to user error through configuration and corner case problems. A common response to features not working on a particular campus is that the on-campus team didn’t install it correctly. This leads to a blame game where there is only one loser: the student. This is a problem. Software should be easy to install and maintain, and it doesn’t need a team of 30 holding up a fragile system. Blackboard 9 is surprisingly fragile for such a mature system.

This also has some upsides for Blackboard. Because they’ve inadvertently created a Blackboard community, they can do things like offer training and consulting on how to use/install the product.

While Blackboard offers the Managed Hosting option, many university personnel are still wary of letting data leave the campus (which is no fault of Blackboard’s). But university’s need to get with the times. A countless number of legal and credit card transactions are performed every day online. I think it’s okay to transact with secure information online. The Managed Hosting option is also not cloudlike: someone on Blackboard’s end has to set up Blackboard in their end for every school. When I sign up for a GMail account, I don’t have to wait for Google to install some software on a server on their end. Boo.

Focus on Useless Features

Blackboard seems very interested in promoting some features that are useless. Blackboard 9 comes with a slew of new features and reasons for upgrading, among them:

  • Themes – Themes are not new features, just new skins.
  • Blogs and journals – I am all for “interactive dialogs.” I think they are great. They should probably take place inside the classroom.
  • Connecting with multiple learning environments – If a school is running different pieces of software, that school is stupid. Have LMS import functionality, or implement the popular features of your competitors.
  • Facebook integration – Facebook is a time-waster, not a productivity enhancer
  • NBC News on Demand – Who needs this?

Teacher-Centric

Blackboard is admittedly educator-centric. From a business standpoint, this makes perfect sense: professors and staff are the ones signing the checks. Any students that complain will merely be shuffled out in four (or five) years. Blackboard has student frustration threshold of four years. This is a problem. I’m in my fifth year.

Simple systems should encourage use. Remember the Milk subliminally encourages me to be productive. Basecamp helps to stay organized and results-oriented. Getting work done and collaborating is nearly effortless.

Blackboard is a chore. Lists don’t have simple things like sorting options, but I can start a blog for a class. I am denied access to things that I can see exist (why not just not display it)? I can change the color of the answers of a discussion post, but if I accidentally reload the page the text itself is gone. Teachers praise the system for the ease of use, but the same is not true for the students.

A Messy System

One of my peeves in analyzing Web apps is the structure of its URLs. While it may seem trivial (people stop caring once a URL is past a certain length), a URL can tell you plenty about the internal structure of the system.

For example, the URL for the homepage of my database systems class is:

https://mylmuconnect.lmu.edu/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab_tab_group_id=_2_1&url=/webapps/blackboard/execute/launcher?type=Course&id=_151_1&url=

There are many things wrong with this URL. For the most part, we can say that this system was designed in 2002, or it at least adheres to that mentality. There is an awful lot of useless information contained within the URL and the spaces aren’t prettified.  Shouldn’t my tab_tab_group_id be associated with my user? For example, Facebook remembers (too) many things about me, but its home page URL is facebook.com/home.php. Simple, elegant, bookmarkable.

My databases class url should look like:

http://mylmuconnect.lmu.edu/2009/fall/cmsi486/section1

or

http://mylmuconnect.lmu.edu/class?year=2009&course=cmsi486&section=1

This might seem vain, but the structure of a URL can (sometimes) tell you a lot about the organization of a system. Blackboard is clearly disorganized.

Follows Old Standards

Blackboard uses frames. Yuck. The application is not “RESTful“; state information is not contained within a URL which means I can’t bookmark specific pages of specific courses. Blackboard pages also do not validate correctly by W3C standards.

What else irks you about Blackboard? Have you experienced any problems not found on this list? Let’s get a discussion going in the comments.