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Blackboard Nightmares

I spent most of today trying to get an online course ready to launch this weekend. I've never been a fan of Blackboard and the last 48 hours or so have been a reminder as to why. There are also some tool-related issues that are not purely "technical" (more on that later), but are leading to frustration.

Uploading files into Blackboard, as with most online systems, is straightforward enough. But when you have dozens or even hundreds of files to import it can be a miserable experience. It is not all Blackboard issues, either, but these have been issues that didn't creep up in my life until this struggle.

Issues of the last two days include:

1) Safari doesn't support the latest Adobe Acrobat plug-in. Neither did FireFox, Camino, or Chrome until I updated Chrome to the latest "beta" version. Safari does display PDFs with a built-in viewer, but PDFs within frames still require a plug-in to function. So, while I've been working with PDFs on dozens of websites, the use of frames within Blackboard caused a major hassle.

There is no excuse for frames in the era of AJAX and HTML 5. Why must Blackboard use frames within frames? I had three vertical scrollbars while using one feature of Blackboard. I had to remember which one to scroll to access the inner and outer-most content. And in the inner-most frame? An error message about Acrobat. What pain.

2) The Java applets for uploading files and drag-n-drop features do not always function properly. I "lost" the Java window so many times I was getting angry. I would select several files and then the "browse" window would close unexpectedly. I had to resort to uploading one or two files at a time. Not a good experience when you have 200+ files to upload.

When I was uploading multimedia content, a file named "_MacOSX" kept appearing in Blackboard. If I forgot to delete this 0K file, the next upload would crash with a complaint that I couldn't upload files with the same name within clicking the appropriate checkbox. I went to click that box and received several other error messages.

Because I was facing a deadline, I opted to upload one file at a time. This was tedious. Seriously tedious. This leads to the next complaint.

3) Uploading "packages" of files caused repeated, meaningless errors. One way to get around problems with multiple file transfers is to upload a compressed (".zip") file and let Blackboard recreate the file folders remotely. This used to work flawlessly. Tonight? I waited and waited while transferring packages to the system. These were 5 to 20 MB compressed folders, some with dozens of small files. Every second or third attempt to load files was greeted with the errors, "Cannot uncompress duplicate file names."

There were no duplicates. The same compressed files would work several minutes later. It was like I was playing the "upload lottery." When an upload and unzip worked as it did in the past, I felt lucky and relieved. When the upload would "freeze" for minutes with not so much as a "beep" I knew I was going to be sending the file again… and again.

4) The editor was "helping" my HTML again. Don't need to write more than that.

5) The basic menu options, which appear on the lefthand side of the screen within our Blackboard system, would vanish. Yep, the menus for such tasks as "File Management" and "Course Tools" would disappear for no reason. I had to close the window or tab and return to Blackboard to see the actions towards the bottom of the menu. Not being able to access basic features, like the grade book, without closing the window and restarted is frustrating. I lost significant time waiting for Blackboard to load… again and again.

Teaching online should not be this painful. I can setup a complex web server with a great content management system. I've installed blogs, collaborative tools, and more. Nothing is as painful as Blackboard. No other platform I use is as unreliable.

I can't be the only user to find Blackboard Learn 9.x to be a step backwards in some ways. I miss Web/CT and WebVista. I'd rather be using Moodle than Blackboard, but the choice to use a specific CMS is up to administrators. If I didn't care to organize files and respond to students, I could be like a few of my colleagues and claim that online teaching is easier. Done right, I believe an online course is more work, not less.

Things are working at the moment. Yes, I only have the first week ready, but that's enough for now.

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