The Problem with ‘Blackboard’

You only have to ask a tutor or student about Blackboard to find that there is rarely a positive word to be said about this system. However negative comment is usually followed by tips to improve such a system; in fact everyone seems to know how to ‘fix’ Blackboard. Others are indifferent, so long as they can upload course materials. However Blackboard and such systems often promise to enhance education and yet there is very little evidence that this is the case.

Despite the widespread application of digital technologies in higher education there is scant evidence to suggest that these have had a significant impact on student learning (Bainbridge, 2014)

It is worth noting that within Higher Education their introduction appears to have been driven from agendas that had little to do with enhancing education.

This imposition often reflects what amounts to a thoughtless approach to teaching and learning, in which pedagogy is side-lined by neo-liberal practices of efficiency and surveillance (Hannon and Bretag, 2010; Holley et al., 2011). (BainBridge, 2014)

We will use Blackboard as our example. Blackboard is the currently the largest installed Learning Management System (LMS) across the globe and caters for a host of courses within both Further Education and Higher Education. However all the mainstream LMS’s suffer from the same issue.

However, this research will not defend the need for a digital learning tool; we will take this as a given. But I agree that “In education it is often taken for granted that technologies can ‘enhance learning” (Kirkwood, Adrian and Price, Lind, a 2014).

We shape our tools and then our tools shape us. (Culkin, J. 1967)

Blackboard emulates the real world, as a simulation. In this instance the simulation is an office environment where there are administrative processes to connect staff or students to specific files and folders.

The system can be imagined as a locked filing cabinet where each person knows the specific code to access a specific folder within a give cabinet. This process inherently upholds the top down hierarchy, for example a folder that a student has access to is not a location she can put new items, unlike the tutor, the folder to the student is read only, they cannot even attach anything to this folder. This is the default. This setting comes from the administrative database centre which has to categorise individuals against roles as tutor or student.

These systems thus by their design become a holding location for materials that staff are obligated to provide. They provide one improvement over paper, namely that the student cannot lose the document.

This research will argue that current models of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) are based on models that in fact continue to perpetuate the mundane.

The tension between new tools and old practices should give you a hint. It’s simple to introduce iPads into the classroom, for example. It’s much more difficult to use them to do entirely new things, particularly things that run counter to how classrooms have operated in the past. (Watters, 2015)

We have also seen this tension play out within sectors that have been slow to adopt a new practice whether that be the music industry (streaming) or the publishing industry (eBooks). They attempt in the first instance to mirror current paradigms within the new space. Even smart technology and design led organisations can fall full of this, the  (Apple) WATCH, much like the term Blackboard hangs onto notions of previous practice.

It’s like calling a smartphone a pocket watch, or a computer an electronic abacus. (Debenham, 2015)

Of course in a number of instances tutors use Blackboard well and provide simple and accessible materials. So why make changes? Encouraging tutors to use best practice in a robust, well supported and well understood system may provide the same level of benefits.

Let’s take a simple example that looks at one action within Blackboard versus another system, in this instance Slack. Slack is a digital platform for messaging, sharing and working as a team and has emerged as a leading tool within design studios. We will look at sharing a URL with a group of students.

The URL is already copied to the clipboard and so we can proceed to share the link to a group of students


  1. Launch Browser
  2. Visit VLE URL
  3. Log in
  4. Select Course
  5. Select Course Content Folder
  6. Select Build Content > Web link
  7. Paste in URL and Save


  1. Launch App
  2. Select Course
  3. Paste and Press Enter

This simple action is over 50% more efficient. Slack provides a level of intuitive delight that within terms of user experience would be often connected to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs;

This research will look at reconsidering the type of experience specifically within a system designed for art & design studio based practice. Later within this document we will discuss what is delightful design in more detail.

Blackboard of course understands the need to enhance UI and has made strides to address the user interface within its system. In 2015 The Blackboard New School was set up to address this by creating principles to enhance the user experience within its product.

However this is not a fundamental change to the architecture but a new lick of paint, emperors new clothes. There is of course the application of basic digital native approaches such as gestures and intuitive interface elements however the underlying structure is still files and folders wrapped up in top down access and permissions.

Business practice

As we move forward, building the digital institution, I think we must retrace and unwind some of these connections. (Watters, 2014)

It should also be noted that Blackboard is not inherently going to change. They have a very successful business model that has been in place since their inception in 1997. However we only have to look at major record labels or publishers to understand reluctance to change, specifically when connected to a highly successful and profitable business model. This could however be the downfall of Blackboard.

We are thus at a point where we can decide if the future model for education is surveillance and data akin to the proximate Silicon Valley model or if Edutech has a future based around open practice, specific pedagogy and the needs of the tutors and students.

This research will look at models outside of the status quo in regards to both ethical practice and cutting edge digital design practice.

Indie ed-tech underscores the importance of students and scholars alike controlling their intellectual labor and their data; it questions the need for VC-funded, proprietary tools that silo and exploit users; it challenges the centrality of the LMS in all ed-tech discussions and the notion that there can be one massive (expensive) school-wide system to rule them all; it encourages new forms of open, networked learning that go beyond the syllabus, beyond the campus. It’s not only a different sort of infrastructure, it’s a different sort of philosophy than one sees promoted by Silicon Valley — by the ed-tech industry or the (ed-)tech press.  (Watters, 2015)

The next four sections will outline the approaches this research will utilise to guide and focus the design of both the digital tool and the manifesto.


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