This post is written in reply to Boone Gorges’ post about Blackboard (although I agree with his distaste for the platform, I support it at my university and this is why) :
One of the biggest parts of my job is to support faculty in their use of Blackboard, a proprietary “course-management” software that instructors use for their classes at Chapman University. Let me lead by saying that I don’t like Blackboard. It’s unwieldy, uncustomizable, ugly, and is an unecessarily-siloed space. Very few faculty like Blackboard, although most use it. And most faculty find it daunting–I hold numerous workshops, office hours, and schedule one-on-one consulting sessions for faculty who need help figuring out the software. This is not because of Bb’s complexity, this is because most faculty simply aren’t technologically adept.
I consider my support of Bb to be work that appeals to the “lowest common denominator” (LCD) instructors–these are folks who can’t tell what operating system they’re using and don’t know how to type an URL into a web browser. But they need to use Bb because the students demand to have their course documents on the web, and the instructors need to give information to the students via email. This is how most faculty use Bb–for posting docs and for email. Many also use it for calculating grades. An even smaller percentage use it for students to turn in assignments electronically. Very few use any of the advanced features such as embedding media rich content, holding virtual office hours, or doing file sharing between class members. For those instructors who are using the advanced features, I typically try to lead them out of Bb and into open-source platforms that do this work much better. For example, I don’t encourage faculty to use the Bb blog tool–I urge them onto wordpress.com or to a hosted-install of wordpress.org.
Since I’ve been at Chapman we’ve peeled off many of the extraneous (and costly) Bb features that simply weren’t necessary and weren’t being used. We no longer have Outcomes, Content Collection, or the dozens of random Building Blocks that faculty never use (and why on earth would they use an astrology tool, anyways?). I consider it my job to offer them a simple way to upload and share content with their students. I consider it my job to assess their tech-savviness before I encourage them to make tech-leaps off of Blackboard that will leave them frustrated or unsupported.
In the long-term future I would love to see more of our campus move off the Blackboard platform. But I also know that any move in that direction would add an incredible burden to my shoulders and would probably be asking too much of the LCD faculty members who wouldn’t know how to do collaborative work with web-based tools like the googlesuite products, or use skype for their online office hours, or use dropbox.com for posting course docs. And I’m also not sure that any of those options are necessarily better than Bb, either–because even they might function better and might work better to teach students transportable digital skills, they also require more up-front setup work for the faculty. At Chapman, like many other universities, our faculty are already stretched to the breaking point. I don’t want to add more to their load–I want to find ways to make their work easier with technology.
UPDATE: for those looking to get off of Bb, here’s a post that you might find helpful about alternative free tools.