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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Monday, March 12, 2007
At least some channels still show music

Source: Flickr
I've noticed lately that live concerts are being broadcast with a lot of fast cuts now and I really don't like this. INHD's excellent London Live is a perfect example of this. The music sounds crisp, but the camera pans are dizzying and unpleasant. I've often watched entire songs performed without even a single clear visual on any of the band members.

The first concert I can remember that was this dizzying was Britney Spears' Onyx Hotel tour, which I remember being a big, splashy, nauseating HD mess. And yes, I watched it. Go ahead and judge me, I don't care.

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How I Consume Media

Source: Flickr.

I always get annoyed when I tell someone about something that I read, usually something along the lines of "Did you know that the AP is attempting to not cover Paris Hilton for one week?" and I'm asked how I have time to read "that stuff." It's always one of those "you know lots of weird stuff, you must have tons of free time" comments. This is a comment that's both annoying and ignorant, and almost only comes from people who don't understand how tech savvy, media-literate people my age interact with each other. Sounds pretentious, but

For the more curious and less foolish among you, I get most of my news from the feeds on my blogroll, which you can read in the sidebar on the right hand column of this page. This enables me to scan headlines on around 40 sites a day in just a few minutes. I also check the NY Times online most days and read Salon every day because, as my friends know, I am the world's only paying subscriber to

For those who understand these sorts of things, I love RSS and think that the company that finds a way to make an RSS product for the masses will make a killing. The word "RSS," of course, won't be in any of the marketing materials in order for this to be a success. For now, I use Bloglines.

I do not read five newspapers a day.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007
The MTA is inefficient

Every morning, I take the 6 train from Union Square to 51st St and get off on the north end of the platform at the Citicorp exit at 53rd and Lex. It's always packed, and takes way longer to physically get out of the station than it rightfully should. Until December, the most efficient way to get out of the station itself was to ignore walking back through the turnstiles, and exit from the large and accessible emergency exit/handicap access door to the left of them. Then in December, the MTA put up an alarm on the door and told passengers that we could not exit using the door unless it really is an emergency. I even saw a cop placed at the exit door during morning rush hour that first week. Now it takes twice as long to exit the subway every morning. I know that this was probably done to deter fare-beating, but I question how much of a problem that really was and to what extent we'd be willing to put up with it a bit in order to make the lives slightly easier for the thousands of law-abiding commuters every day who have to stand around in the morning while trying to exit at 53rd and Lex.

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about me

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.

I started this blog for me to have a place to write about the things that I've learned. I hope that you enjoy reading.

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I am a partner in The Rock Club, the NYC area's premier rock climbing gym. NYC kiddies - we're double the size of Chelsea Piers and way more fun. Programs and instruction for all skills and levels. Tell them Blake sent you and get a free carabineer. If you buy a membership, I will buy you a cupcake.

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