Thursday, March 15, 2007
How to Fix Everything: Blackboard

Source: Flickr
Now that I'm back in school, I'm again using the Blackboard Learning System, an online learning tool designed for students and their professors to be able to share documents and collaborate. Blackboard is used by hundreds of universities, and smartly fills a necessary niche in the world of academia.

Its design and interface is terrible, however, and seven years since I was first introduced to Blackboard as a freshman, I don't see a single upgrade to the core application. The app is using the same horrendously ugly navigational elements, with the same mid-90's-style page refreshes on each click. The discussion tools have not changed at all, and searching to find documents is a nightmare. The nav tools still don't really mean anything. This stuff reminds me why I always hated it when classes used Blackboard for anything (and this is despite being a huge nerd myself).

I genuinely hope that there are better tools than Blackboard out there now to college students, but in lieu of that, here's what I'd do if I redesigned Blackboard:

  1. Build in social networking features. One of the biggest problems with Blackboard as a student is that rather than being something cool, it's an educational tool that feels like one. I'd integrate Blackboard directly into Facebook (something every college student uses constantly now anyway) so that student responses to reading and homework that used to go on Blackboard's communication pages (often a requirement for liberal arts classes) would now be posted on Facebook. For privacy's sake, the material would function like a Facebook wall viewable only to those in the class, and would also appear as a new item in students' news feeds.

  2. Rebuild the entire thing using AJAX technologies. This one's a no-brainer. Blackboard is and has always been hideously slow, owing to the fact that as far as I can tell, it hasn't been recoded since about 2000. I'd rewrite the thing to make each "class site" navigation function without any page refreshes. Use ajax, use flash, whatever. I don't care, just fix it. I'd give noogies to every programmer who insists that each course page needs to spawn its own window. This is an educational tool, not a mid-90's banner ad for a porn site.

  3. Fix the awful navigation and use taggging to make files easy to search and sort. This is sort of a corollary to #2. I remember that as an undergrad, my professors who used Blackboard would invariably post all course files to one nav element, such as "Course Documents" or "Assignments," but almost never filtered appropriately. I could never find any of the course docs, and the subnav elements don't even make sense. Why is the "Announcements" list in the left column nav and then also as an element in the sub nav for "Communications?" I'm not a UI designer, but there's got to be a better way to organize this material.

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I'm Blake. I like to learn stuff.

I like to learn about history, art, culture, sports, and politics. I like learning about what happens when you mix Diet Coke and Mentos. I like learning about Britney's latest flameup, Beckham's newest haircut, and how to make little origami gift boxes out a piece of 8.5x11.

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