Yet another reason to use FOSS.

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 ( 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.

8 thoughts on “Yet another reason to use FOSS.”

  1. Penn State (where I work) uses ANGEL, which is another closed system. However, the impression I get is that PSU is far and away their biggest client, and uses this leverage to get them to update the software. So at some level it isn’t completely black box/closed. Of course this isn’t the best arrangement, but I have been told that they have managed to get improvements made based on PSU student/faculty feedback.

    There is a FOSS course management tool — moodle. Maybe you should pass this link along to VPI’s administration?

  2. Ah, I’d never seen that — thanks for the pointer. At first glance, it certainly looks like a good project. The install base is really impressive. There are few high-profile schools, but some of the names are not unfamiliar. I’ll have to find somebody to whom I can pass this along, and then do so. :)

  3. Tech is probably more likely to take part in the open source Sakai project – – which is a big school kind of project with millions of dollars in funding, although moodle is a very popular product with everyone else. They actually have a number of open source projects at the university that are officially endorsed and developed (, and they use uPortal as their student portal (

  4. Ha! Waldo, I worked at Blackboard for nearly 4 years, growing from a tiny startup…I left just before Bb went public last year. I’m surprised Tech waited so long to upgrade to Bb 6, actually. And I can empathize with the problems they had — my role was a client-facing one, and I struggled with many difficult upgrades with clients even bigger than Tech.

    There are a number of open courseware initiatives that have had varied success, but none (thus far) has been sustainable on a large scale. There are PLENTY of other people who agree with you about Bb’s shortcomings, but Blackboard has been as successful as it has been over the past 6 years (despite plenty of problems with new versions) because most universities can’t possibly afford how much it costs to have as many programmers, network engineers, and QA specialists on staff as are needed for buiding, sustaining, and innovating with software that is this complex. Bb has nearly 100 people working on product development and testing for this product. Most colleges would be lucky to have one person who could work on it full time.

  5. Thanks for the pointer to Sakai, David — another great project that I’d never heard of. Now that’s got some heavy-hitters behind it. Very impressive. When I started at Virginia Tech, I was pleased to see that they use uPortal, and I’ve enjoyed following their FOSS releases in the past year and a half. I didn’t mean to imply that Virginia Tech is a stranger to FOSS, just that they haven’t made the sort of commitment to it that I’d like. More eating their own dog food is order, I think.

    Funny that you worked there, Maura — I had no idea. :) I’ve followed Blackboard from their earliest days, and what’s disappointed me, I think, is that it’s become so widely-used. I know that’s a strange lament, but I think that the lack of competition has led to a stagnation in the market. Blackboard is the standard, with everybody else being a distant second. The result has been a lack of innovation, with schools challenged on their tech cred. being able to just shrug and say “hey, we use Blackboard — whaddya want?” No matter who would be in the #1 position — Blackboard, Microsoft, Apple. whomever — I’m sure a similar effect would result. Good for Blackboard for doing well enough to get into that position. :)

  6. Some professors use it at the Business school here at UGA. Oh, or another one called WebCT. Oh, or flat HTML pages.

    I have to say that I like flat HTML pages the best out of all of them, which is sad, because it means that their products, well, suck. And most of the professors make the page in Word or something. It’s just annoying that depending on the whim of the professor, you get one of three shitty options you have to keep track of, with all of your classes fragmented between them.

    Yeah, Blackboard sucks. But at least you have one path to suckiness! :)

  7. Last year, I had a professor who used Blackboard, and it was the worst system ever. Not that I have anything to compare it to, but I wasn’t taking a class online. He refused to give us any details on assignments or notes or anything. The first day of class, he mentioned that our assignments would be online and to check it often. Well, I would check it often and nothing would be displayed. Finally, towards the end of the semester, the assignments were posted. All 26 of them, due within a week. However, the professor said that they were up there the whole time because he put them up. And it wasn’t just me who didn’t see the assignments. So, to summarize that, uh…blackboard sucks.

  8. I was also going to mention Sakai. I know the the Advanced Technology Group (a wing of ITC) at UVa is part of the consortium. I’ll add the following for perspective though: I had the uncanny fortune to meet the legal council for Blackboard last October. He was in the midst of preparing their IPO, but I asked him about threats from open source projects like Sakai. His response was from a legal perspective, but he said that the company was generally not concerned, as they believe that the open source projects under estimate the size of the task. Blackboard has over 100 full time programmers working on the project.

    Either they are over staffed, or they know something we don’t. It is hard to tell, but I applaud any progress that the Sakai Project makes. It probably won’t unseat Blackboard over night, but it might make a difference.

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