Epic software rant

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From Dave Noon, "Christ, I hate Blackboard", Lawyers, Guns & Money 1/24/2014:

Hundreds of years from now, after disease and fire and famine have thinned the human herd to a shrunken patchwork of sagging, skeletal bands of jagged, half-mad wraiths — when the parched soil chokes forth desiccated roots and the air is a toxic brume slumping down on the arched, knotted backs of the still-barely-living — a remote spur of humanity will somehow recover the capacity to speak, an ability long since abandoned by their ancestors, who were mute-struck with the unfathomable despair of those cursed to watch everything they love die. After generations of dry-throated croaking and lung-starched wheezing, their tongues swollen with thirst and punctured with abscesses that never heal, these distant people will bring forth a new language to survey the boundaries of their pain. […]

On the outskirts of this new language, lurking on its crimsoned frontier, will lie words that will themselves have been cast into exile – foul offgassings within a lexicon that itself stands as a towering monument to the boundlessly obscene, words that will curve backward and devour themselves, each one an afflicted universe in the process of total collapse, words that exist for microseconds before streaking, unremembered and unmourned, into the void.  

These are the words, if I could shit them into being, that I would use to catalogue the depth of my loathing for Blackboard.

You should definitely read the whole thing.

Why are certain types of software systems so reliably bad? In my understanding, it's a combination of the process of specification and implementation, the (mis-)education and general outlook of the designers and implementers, and the characteristics that the people in charge are actually trying to optimize.

We've commented on some of these issues from time to time in the past, e.g. "If you can answer this, you are not paying attention", 7/10/2006, or "When bad interaction happens to good people", 8/15/2007. (That last post dealt with a system for which I wrote a tongue-in-cheek-but-serious Users Guide, "The Legend of FacilityFocus". The software has since been improved in ways that make it substantially easier to navigate, though there are still difficulties due to things like systematic differences between floor numbering in the master database and floor numbering as marked on the building signage…)

I tried using Blackboard once, many years ago when my institution first switched to it. I gave up for two reasons: it was an order of magnitude harder than just putting stuff up on the web; and all the stuff I painfully entered in it vanished from one year to the next, on purpose but without warning.  Penn has now switched to Canvas, which I haven't yet tried.

I do use Piazza, and generally find it well designed and helpful — I suspect that this is because it came out of a different sort of development process.


  1. Brett said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 3:54 pm

    I have a marginally related and marginally linguistic anecdote:

    When I was attending the new faculty orientation at my university in 2007, there were a bunch of advertisements for further sessions featuring "blackboard training," "blackboard strategies," "blackboard usage," and the like. Only several months later did I find out that Blackboard was the name of a content management system (which nobody in my department was using).

  2. PS said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 4:07 pm

    One reason why Piazza is so useful might have to do with the founder's personal motives in starting the project. She has gone on record saying that she was driven by how, being the only woman in her undergrad CS class at IIT Kanpur, she felt shy discussing assignments and course material with other classmates, and that this motivated her to come up with a platform where such shyness would not hamper learning.

    As an aside, the undergrad CS program at IIT Kanpur still had the same skewed gender ratio (less than 5 women in a class of about 60) when I attended it, though I recall the ratio was much better in the graduate classes.

  3. Simon Spero said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 4:49 pm

    There is no possible population or non-empty set of characteristics for which Blackboard is optimized. This property is transcendentally essential.

    This includes negative characteristics; something about it may be sucky, but it could always be suckier, for if it reached the suckiest level, this pessimization would be optimal for justifying the case for getting rid of it [the future language envisioned will be rich in degradable adjectives].

    It is not optimized for the vendor, as it is bad enough to cause some customers to migrate, but leave enough customers to keep complaining.

    It is not optimized for University administrators, as it annoys tenured faculty council members who must be mollified or distracted.

    It is not optimized for system administrators. (you thought it smelled bad on the outside).

    The cases for faculty and students should be obvious.

  4. Sam Blake said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 5:12 pm

    I've been reading Language Log for something like five years, and this is the first time I've felt qualified to comment on something. Vindication!

    It's certainly the case that there are many different processes of specification and implementation in the development of software; more precisely, there are quite a few coherent conceptual frameworks (systems of priorities, actions, key deliverables and metrics), but most software is actually produced under some more-or-less-arbitrary combination of fragments from these. Contrary to some popular conceptions, intellectual rigor is not the industry's strong suit.

    It's also certainly the case that skewed business priorities can play a crippling role. Almost all software goes through a substantial incubation period where it's being developed in isolation from people actually using it, and during this time business priorities—which are independent of customers, since there aren't any yet—are the only metric to determine "success". While there are methodologies for mitigating this risk—user experience design, my field, being one of the more successful—at the end it often comes down to luck whether your business priorities aligned with customer needs.

    This is why the first software that solves a new problem is rarely exceptionally pleasant to use; it isn't until you have real customers doing real things in real contexts that you understand how it ought to work. A good software company will ship a product and then immediately start designing the next version in response to their customers' behavior. A bad software company will typically start adding useless features because that's how they can sell upgrades.

    One other key tenet of user experience design is this: the commercial success of a piece of software is first dependent on whether the software does something useful, then on whether it does it well. So in an industry slow to adopt new technology (healthcare is the best example I know of this, but education is certainly a fair contender), software early to market that does something useful—even if badly—will become quickly entrenched, and at the point the business has relatively little to gain by investing in improving their product, at least until some scrappy startup comes out of nowhere and knocks them out of the industry.

  5. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 7:34 pm

    I tried bb once and I didn't find it intuitive at all. I had to remember where I put a document, whereas on a blog I could just search something by key word.

  6. the other Mark P said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 9:35 pm

    My experience is that schools at least, and I doubt Universities are much better, try to sell themselves at least partly by being "up to date". Therefore the "need" for course management software or the like may be more about appearances than actual use.

    Very few schools in NZ get a decent way into using a LMS (learning management system). Reluctant teachers, inadequate support, and just the lack of any actual need for it at the course level in the first place. But the School Board and Principal need to brandish their e-learning credentials regardless, so it gets bought anyway.

    (This contrasts with the Student Management Systems which manage rolls, reports, timetables etc. These are actually used to close to their full potential and are generally well-written, stable software.)

  7. Alex said,

    January 26, 2014 @ 3:55 am

    My old school used blackboard. It felt like being in the 80's again! But this was in 2012.

    Blackboard has some advantages to just using a personal website when it comes to online courses (it has a few functions for collaborative work and such). But it ain't as spiffy as so much of the other software available today.

    The problem is that the user (profs and students) is not the same as the buyer (someone in the administration), so there's no direct developer-end user interaction. Getting a big university contract involves skills that have nothing to do with producing good software.

    It's like the textbook market: textbooks are waaaaaaay overpriced because professors pick them based on how good they are but they generally don't look closely enough at the price because they're not the ones who will pay it. I even remember one prof a long time ago saying that textbooks were expensive because of the color printing and the glossy pages and the binding (so he felt well-justified in picking at $200 book), but then ebooks came out a few years ago and e-textbook prices aren't that much better than dead-tree textbooks.

    If each prof could decide what software to use for any given class, then software like blackboard would be as cool as Excel is today.

  8. David J. Littleboy said,

    January 26, 2014 @ 9:23 am

    "So in an industry slow to adopt new technology (healthcare is the best example I know of this,…"

    Here in Tokyo, my doc (GP) uses a computerized medical records system that's friggin wonderful. It's zippy fast and said doc is really good at using it. It's set up so that the patient can see what he's doing on the screen, so I know what he's putting in, and it spits out prescriptions automatically. He's been using it for an age now, and can quickly scroll through every test he's ever bothered me with to see trends. And if I go see a specialist or mention something I had as a kid and only know the English for, he can, and does, bop out to google and find it.

    But reading the US medical blogs, it seems US doctors _hate_ computerized medical records systems. Pretty funny that the Japanese are doing so much of a better job of software than the US.

  9. Anthony said,

    January 26, 2014 @ 6:51 pm

    I used Blackboard as an undergrad and found the experience to be OK, but that was because it was novel. This was in 2004/2005. As a grad student, we used Sakai which was marginally better. The organization from the student's end seemed better, but it was still a bit clunky and slow. As a teacher, I tried Moodle but it didn't fit my needs, so I opted to create my own LMS with WordPress and Google. Best decision ever.

  10. AJD said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 9:35 am

    At my current institution, Blackboard is as far as I can tell the *only* venue for instructors to access things like the current list of students enrolled in their course. It's quite irritating.

  11. Svafa said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 11:20 am

    We looked at using Blackboard a few years back and just went, "Nope. Nope, nope, nope." We ended up using Moodle for classes/virtual classroom and Jenzabar for most of the management end (registrar, financial aid, transcripts, etc.). Thankfully, a lot of the higher-ups are willing to get input from the users and supporters of the software before making decisions… some of the time. It's still not as great as any of us would like it to be, but at least it's not Blackboard. :P

  12. Craig said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 5:24 pm

    I actually don't know what Blackboard is, but it sounds almost as bad as Sharepoint.

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