The Writing on the Wall: Blackboard’s (Chalk)Dust

The sale of Blackboard to Providence Equity Partners this year is almost certain to alter our interaction with the College’s most widely used academic technology software, and this therefore seems like a perfect opportunity to reflect on our not-always-happy relationship with Blackboard, what it has done for us in the past, what we’d like it to do in the future, and how we can use it more intelligently.

The best thing I can say about Blackboard is that it’s sort of like a 15-in-1 Swiss-Army knife. It has the corkscrew, it has the toothpick, it has the little tiny scissors and the nail file and the awl, and boy am I happy when I don’t have anything else with me and I need to open a bottle or pick my teeth or do whatever you do with an awl. But that’s just it. It’s a great multipurpose tool if you don’t have the right tool with you, but sometimes it’s not the best tool. Can you imagine a wine steward opening bottles at a restaurant with a Swiss-Army knife?

If you keep the Swiss-Army knife analogy with you as you use Blackboard, I think it will serve you well. Blackboard can do a lot of things. It can host your blog or your wiki, it lets you share files with your students, give tests, link to youtube videos, and lots more, but it won’t always do all these tasks equally well. Sometimes that’s okay and sometimes that’s not. And the frustrating thing is that what may have worked yesterday doesn’t work the same way today and what didn’t work yesterday all of a sudden works just fine now. That corkscrew worked great on my bottle of chardonnay with the real cork, but it doesn’t work so great on those new plastic corks, it works even worse on my bottle of champagne, and it just made a big mess on that screw-top bottle of Shiraz from Australia (I’m not saying that Blackboard makes me want to start drinking).

So what do we do about it? First, as the need for increasingly complex academic technology tools grows, and as those tools move from just being “cool” to becoming essential in the way we teach and learn, educators need to decide for themselves how important each of those tools are. Second, as an educator, you will have to decide if the convenience of having a Swiss-Army knife in your pocket is worth the trade-off of the expense and inconvenience of bringing all the best tools along with you. I’m not suggesting that Blackboard is never the best tool–sometimes it is. Sometimes the strength of the tool is precisely its ability to multitask. But that’s not always the case. In fact, as the number of tools available within Blackboard increases, the application has sometimes gotten more difficult to use. Knowing which tool to pick is just the beginning of the challenge. Learning how to use it, keeping it separate in your head from the other similar tools in Blackboard, and teaching your students how to use it are only a few of the considerations when making your decision.

In future essays I will be looking at the specific technology tools educators want to use and I’ll be giving my opinions and recommendations on what you might want to have in your survival pack. For now, the first thing I need is my Swiss-Army knife, and while there are other course management systems out there, at the College of William & Mary, for right now and for good or ill, Blackboard CMS is it.


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About Mike Blum

Mike is the Academic Technologist for the Humanities at the College