A Toolbox for Blackboard

Article excerpt

1 WHAT IS BLACKBOARD?

1.1 Generally

Blackboard is a so-called Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), also described as a Course Management System (CMS), or Learning Content Management System (LCMS). The company Blackboard is based in Washington DC and was founded in 1997. In 1998, Blackboard merged with another company called CourseInfo, whose main product was a small course management system. The new company was called Blackboard Inc. Its next release was called Blackboard CourseInfo, but since 2000 the product has been known simply as Blackboard. By 2005, Blackboard was probably the second most widely used commercial VLE in the world, after WebCT (Web Course Tools).

WebCT was a spinoff from the University of British Columbia in Canada, having been developed by a staff member there in 1995. WebCT was first released commercially in 1997. It was purchased by a US-based company in 1999 and grew to be probably the most widely-used commercial VLE in the world by 2005.

In February 2006, Blackboard acquired WebCT and announced that the two product lines will merge over a period of several years. The new product will be known as Blackboard.

The Blackboard software, like its previous competitor WebCT, is proprietary and closed source. This is in contrast to the open source project, Moodle (http://moodle.org/), which originated in Australia. Moodle has a large user-base worldwide, and some surveys claim that the number of Moodle users is even higher than the number of Blackboard and WebCT users combined (www.zacker.org/higher-ed-lms-market penetration-moodle-vs-blackboard-vs-sakai).

1.2 Technically

Blackboard began life as a glorified collection of Perl scripts. As successive versions have been released, the application has gradually been rewritten in Java. Even in Blackboard 6 though, some of the Perl scripts remain.

Although Blackboard is closed source, since Blackboard 5 the company has provided an open architecture, called Building Blocks. Building Blocks is essentially a publication of the Blackboard API, allowing developers to make direct calls to the Blackboard code library. In version 5, the building blocks API was available as a library of Java calls. Since Blackboard 6, the API has been available in both Java and Microsoft .NET versions. Much of the API is documented, although some parts remain undocumented. The official explanation for this is that the undocumented calls may not be available in future releases of Blackboard, while the documented ones will.

1.3 Justification for the Toolbox

Like many web-based products, Blackboard is somewhat clunky to use. This is especially true from the tutor's point of view, where numerous tasks are highly repetitive and require multiple mouseclicks. This can serve as a disincentive to faculty. A comprehensive study by Morgan (2003), found:

* The need for an online quizzing or assessment tool has driven some faculty to adopt a CMS. As with the gradebook, the assessment tools' lack of functionality , difficulty of use, and inflexibility caused the faculty enormous frustration (pp. 32).

* Occasionally faculty will reduce their CMS use. Sometimes this occurs in response to the frustrations of using the software (pp. 45).

* A number of faculty and staff use other tools in conjunction with a CMS. In part this use seems to stem from their frustration with the CMS tools (pp. 59).

* Frustration intensifies when faculty feels that CMS vendors are addressing bells and whistles in the upgrades rather than improving core features, especially ease of use for the gradebook and the assessment tools (pp. 78).

A document published by Unitec (Young & McSporran, 2004) includes this statement: "The process of creating the deep links is time-consuming and yet another example of the repetitive nature of the Blackboard administrative interface."

Lass et al (2003) make this point: "Our experience using a CMS is mixed: We have also found some aspects, such as its browser-centric user interface to be excessively time consuming to operate. …