I remain a student at Virginia Tech — I’m taking two classes on-line, doing one independent study, and taking three classes at the local community college. (I’ll provide a rundown of those some other time.) The two on-line classes are both run through Blackboard, a commercial software package popular among universities who care to coordinate their classes on-line.
Blackboard allows teachers to post assignments for students to download, set up discussion boards for the students, filter access, set up e-mail lists, and lots of similar things useful for classes. It even provides all the tools necessary to deliver class material completely on-line, making it possible for me to take a pair of VT classes through Blackboard.
The problem with Blackboard is that it’s not very good. It never has been. And with overcrowding being such a severe problem in Virginia schools (today’s Cavalier Daily article on the topic shows how it’s affecting the University of Virginia), more and more students are being forced to take on-line classes, since there’s not enough space — physically-speaking — in the classrooms for all of the students. Consequently, Virginia Tech’s Blackboard server is completely overwhelmed.
There have been whole days — whole weekends — where Blackboard has been completely inaccessible. It’s thrown a wrench into syllabuses, teachers and students are angry, and Virginia Tech’s has frantically tried to shore up Blackboard and keep it from crumbling under the load. Tired of answering e-mails, VT put up a FAQ about it all today. The part that really gets me is this:
Why don’t you hire new programmers to fix the software?
Blackboard 6 is proprietary software that is purchased by Virginia Tech. The software itself was created by Blackboard, INC (http://www.blackboard.com). Since it is proprietary software, VT programmers cannot make changes to the underlying code base without violating the license agreement.
That’s the crux of it. Virginia Tech has made the school totally reliant on a black box. They have virtually no control over Blackboard. They can’t fix bugs, they can’t speed it up, they can’t simplify it — they’re stuck with it. They have to wait for the corporation that makes it to get off their butt and fix it. In the meantime, many school activities have ground to a halt — not just at Virginia Tech, but also at “every university [they] have contacted,” according to the FAQ.
Tech. Virginia Tech. This word should be standing out. There is no good reason why the school cannot spend the next year, ideally in collaboration with other schools, developing a robust, free and open source software (FOSS) package to compete with Blackboard. If something breaks, they can fix it. Schools throughout the nation could benefit. Or it could be free to public universities in Virginia, and it could be licensed to schools elsewhere, if that would make people happier.
Instead — and there’s little question about this — Virginia Tech won’t bother to innovate, and will instead continue to hitch their wagon to a meteor or, if you prefer, to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s a shame to see such an opportunity wasted.