“It may not be correct to say that Blackboard’s push beyond learning management system market took its focus completely away from its core LMS platform, but whatever degree of focus remained on Blackboard’s LMS, it wasn’t the right kind. […] Personally, I’ve never met someone who gushed about the Blackboard user experience, which was handicapped by feature creep, while, over the course of your four years at college, the speed, agility and core user experience stayed the same. And not in a good way. As a result, Blackboard’s competitors grew in size right alongside it, most notably Moodle, even though no one has yet even come close to supplanting it. But you ask any software-related (education) startup which company it wants to “take down” or disrupt, and 9 out of 10 will say Blackboard. Sure, that comes with being a leader, but it also comes when your products suck” (Empson, 2012).
My proposed object of study for this semester is, to speak plainly, the functional structure of Blackboard Learn (BBL) as a rhetorically-charged, poorly-designed teaching and learning platform for composition and other English Studies coursework. I had originally argued for looking at LMSs in general, but his would most likely be too vague and broad for the time period of the course.
BBL is an interesting OoS in terms of Network Theory because of its multi-faceted, multi-user, aggregating (aggravating?) structure for information creation, sharing, presentation, and access. The other reason BBL makes for an interesting OoS is because it is widespread, highly-utilized… and yet near-universally viewed to be a terrible, corporatized solution in search of a problem. Even a cursory internet search yields many less than promising reviews, forum discussions, and articles—from both instructors and students—with titles such as “Blackboard: Learn, Hate, Hack,” “Why is Blackboard So Bad?”, and “Ugly Software (like Blackboard) Gives Education a Bad Name” (and my personal favorite, “Blackboard is the Metallica of e-Learning.”)
Students universally loathe it. Teachers mostly hate it. Administrators are typically resigned to it. Even the people who originally created and deployed it have publicly admitted that it is deeply flawed platform. More positive teacher reviews of the platform rarely land higher on the scale of praise than “not as bad as everybody says, if you use it correctly and in a severely limited fashion.” So why is it so widespread? I believe Network Theory may contribute to an understanding of the corporate, economic, legal, and political exigencies which drive BBL’s adoption at institutions and startup competitors’ inability to compete with Blackboard Inc. and the Blackboard line of products and services.
Especially for the composition student and instructor, BBL provides a lot of pedagogical and learning challenges; having been a space not really created specifically to facilitate iterative, process-based writing practices, it has nonetheless been adopted system-wide through something of an administrative shotgun-blast approach to classroom support. However, especially when thinking about the platform as functioning within an educational network, this administrative deployment becomes especially interesting as a projection of the neo-liberal academic approaches of the 21st century.
That is to say, for members of the field of English Studies the existence and deployment of this platform is not simply a pedagogical concern. It is not simply a usability concern, an intellectual property concern, a technical communications concern, or even a professionalization concern. At its core, the very existence of BBL within the modern academy is a cultural, rhetorical manifestation of specific ideologies—ideologies which are typically communicated to students without the input or consideration of instructors.
These ideologies can be identified, considered, understood, and then connected to practices, platforms, and communities through the use of Network Theory. The ways in which rhetorical claims propagate through the software itself and the software’s role in the institutions of higher learning (and the ways in which the platform accentuates to students the disempowerment and decentralization of both student and instructor) are especially fascinating specifically because Blackboard has become such a quotidian (and yet unspoken) facet of today’s higher education landscape.
Empson, R. (2012, October 18). Blackboard: With Both Co-founders Now Gone, It’s The End Of An Era For The Education Software Giant. Retrieved from http://techcrunch.com/2012/10/18/with-both-co-founders-now-gone-its-the-end-of-an-era-for-education-software-giant-blackboard/