Thursday, August 28, 2008


I tried to think of a creative title for this post, but for some reason just thinking about Blackboard sucks the creativity and life out of me.

In a class I'm taking that just started this week, we are discussing the relationship between technology and writing, in terms of various points of view - legal, cultural, etc. I mentioned that it might be worth posting our weekly reading responses on our blogs like we did in my Open Ed class last year, especially since blogs and other Web 2.0 tools are included in the topics we'll cover in the class. There was absolutely no interest. Someone mentioned that we could use Blackboard, and everyone got so excited. I think everyone but me voted for that option. I abstained. It wasn't worth taking on a room full of English majors on the first night of class. All I'm thinking about at this point of the class is the student who complained to me about how she shouldn't need to take the CIL tests, since she is an English major, so obviously knows all about computers already - and immediately proceeds to fail the MS Word test. We'll see how this class goes.

Greg Francom posted a little while back about how as an LMS, Blackboard is inferior to Moodle. The analysis is mainly based on availability of features and the number of clicks and page loads it takes to perform various tasks. Moodle required an average of just over half as many clicks and page loads as Blackboard required to do the same tasks.

So what about Blackboard's other products? Well, USU just went live with the Blackboard Transaction System (card readers), part of their Commerce Suite. The old campus card system had a lot of manual processes, was prone to being down (every Tuesday for our office it was offline), but it generally did what it needed to do in terms of checking access permissions at computer labs and athletic or artistic events and paying for purchases around campus. It needed to be replaced when the guy who was in charge of the system retired, since no one else knew how to keep it running.

The system that was chosen by someone at USU to replace it is Blackboard. I assume there was some kind of bid process, but I don't remember hearing anything about it until it went live. It would have made sense to ask those of us that use card readers what we needed, but that's an institutional issue, not necessarily a problem with Blackboard. They were most of the way through the process of setting up the new card system before anyone even remembered that computer labs use the card readers. Oh, yeah, um, we'll get you readers, too, I guess, if you really need them. Months later as Fall semester is just around the corner, I ask when the new card reader system will be available, and oh, well, everyone else already has their readers...we forgot about your computer lab. I got forgot twice. Nice.

So the new card readers don't have a timecard system, but to tell the truth, the timecard system on the old readers was somewhat suspect, so we never used it. We still just use paper timecards. Score is tied at 0.

There were two things we did with the old card readers - check that people who come into the lab are students and charge people for printouts. With the old readers, you would swipe the card and get either a short or long beep, meaning let them in or not, and the display showed the student's name.

With the new system, you have to check to make sure you are in the event entry screen, not the charging or balance screen. If you're somewhere else, you hit Clear a couple times, then event entry, and then swipe the card. Score 1-0 for the old reader.

The new readers don't show the student's name. Score 2-0 for the old reader.

To charge a student printouts in the old reader, you press the printout button, type in the number of prints, enter, and swipe the card; it would automatically choose the print account first and when it ran out, the Aggie Express account would be charged. To charge printouts in the new reader, you push clear, then charge, then tender type, then print or Aggie Express account, type in the amount of money (not number of printouts) to charge, hit enter twice, swipe the card, press enter, press OK, and press clear. Score 3-0 for the old reader.

The old reader would let you charge more printouts than the student had on their print account if you put in more printouts than they actually had left. 3-1.

The new reader isn't down every Tuesday. 3-2.

The person in charge of the new card readers on campus doesn't know how to configure the system right so we actually have the right permissions to charge people. She tells us it is user error and that she can come train us on how to use the card reader, then realizes she had something set up wrong after all. 4-2.

I'm supposed to be able to login to a website to see logs of both what money we charged to people and who used the lab, whereas I could rarely get data about activity in the old card system without calling someone that was hard to find to ask for the information I needed. 4-3.

Since we type in the amount to charge, instead of the number of printouts, we can charge what we want for printouts (rather than the standard $.06 campus rate), plus we can charge the test fees that we collect for some other tests we proctor for which we've always had to take cash or check. 4-4.

So as of right now, it's a tie. If they could streamline the process so there aren't so many button presses to perform our tasks, the Blackboard system would win hands down. We have the old system that was simple but limited, compared to the new system that is overly complex with at least a couple more features.

The LMS and Transaction divisions of Blackboard are separate, but I wonder if they may share some of the same UI designers and QA testers between them.

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