Blackboard 2012 theme problems

This wasn’t originally going to be a blog post, but an attempt to share this via email with a Bb UI designer somehow failed, so I thought perhaps posting it here might generate some broader useful input anyway.

We installed Blackboard 9.1 service pack 8 on our production system on June 1st and the early-early feedback from faculty was, hey, the new look and feel is cool! But as our earliest summer classes got going, it was clear that there were some usability issues with the 2012 theme. Once we started peeling the onion, we found enough problematic issues that we decided to roll back to the 2008 theme.

The immediate issue has to do with how apparent (or not) hyperlinks are:

  1. The problem most bothersome to people: Links in content area titles (links, folders, pages, assignments, tests, etc) are not apparent as links. Doing away with underlining for hyperlinks is a fine and modern choice, but to do so, there should be consistency in the way links are represented. Users should not be asked to set a color for these titles anymore if underlining is gone. They should default to hyperlink color style.
  2. Many of the color schemes available within the 2012 theme for users to select provide little or no contrast between link colors and the text color. This simply should not be an option for course designers to select.
  3. Links everywhere should highlight upon rollover in the way that the course menu links do. At present they do not.

Our super Blackboard faculty support person, Karen Korstad, tells me that there is a good deal of traffic about these issues on the ASU listserv right now, but Blackboard thus far has not been responsive to the issue.

If you want to see what I mean in #1, go into CourseSites (if you have access). Look at the Student Orientation: Your Path to Success course. Notice that the titles of content areas are just black, regardless of whether they are clickable or not, and there is no rollover action. The designers compensate for this by explicitly telling people to click on the words, which to me just compounds the confusion, because it seems like you should click the words in the statement rather than realizing the statement refers to the words in the title.

Contrast that with the Instructional Ideas and Technology Tools for Online Success #bonkopen course. In that course, all of the clickable titles are apparent, showing up with underlines and in green. But inspecting those elements it is apparent (I believe) that they have been MANUALLY, individually styled by inserting <u></u> tags around the title and selecting the color for the title that corresponds with link colors in the color scheme chosen for the course. Blackboard cannot expect faculty to follow this procedure to make their clickable area titles visible.

There are some other areas that we have experienced problems with in the 2012 theme that seem to be solved by rolling back to 2008, but I am less certain of the specifics … these are just things we’ve also noticed:

  1. Adding web links to the course menu takes a LONG time, and once added, response time when clicking those links is very long
  2. Browsing a course in Safari on the iPad doesn’t work
  3. Learning Units don’t seem to work correclty

All these final things are less certainly tied to 2012 theme for us, and pale in comparison to the issues with hyperlink styles I outlined above. Anyone else seeing these things or having other related issues?

UPDATE 6/21: After initial responses from Blackboard were quite discouraging (advising us to edit the CSS ourselves, telling us this would be addressed in sp10 at year’s end) we received this note yesterday on our ticket: “Just to confirm that we are waiting on patch for the issue where content items do not have hyperlinks. I do not have a delivery date, but it is a top priority, and we will let you know as soon as it is available.”

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Blackboard and the future of Moodlerooms

"Big Fish Eat Little Fish," engravin...

"Big Fish Eat Little Fish," engraving, dated 1557. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here at MiraCosta, we are customers of both Blackboard and Moodlerooms, so the announcement of Bb’s acquisition of Moodlerooms is more than just a curiosity. Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle have overview articles. IHE’s is better than the Chronicle’s, which is most notable for its bizarre statement that “Now Blackboard essentially owns the open-source alternatives” to the Bb Learn course management system (CMS). Yeah, no. Open source remains open source, there are alternative Moodle hosting services, and there are other open source systems (Canvas, e.g.).

If the topic interests you but you’d rather not dig through articles, blog reactions (which predictably run the gamut from quite positive to intensely negative to “I don’t get it”), and listserv postings, I’ve attempted to distill the various analyses here (please add others in the comments!):

Neutral-to-positive

  • Bb is positioning itself to compete with emerging alternative providers of CMS functionality: ERP systems, portal systems and publishers. Bb will be less pushy of Learn and move toward being a “pick your CMS” vendor. This could position Bb better to win consortial/system contracts within which institutions will have choice…
  • Bb recognizes the future value in the CMS is not in the software but in the service. Becomes more about hosting and related services, and less about product / a specific software package.
  • Bb, and specifically Ray Henderson, have seen the light and recognize that future success cannot be accomplished without embracing open source products, principles, and community.
  • This will bring more Moodle hosting services into the market to provide an alternative to big bad Bb, and don’t forget about existing alternatives.

Less than enthusiastic

  • Bb’s plan continues to be to hook customers through the CMS as a gateway to their various other higher-margin products. This deal just broadens their customer base for upselling.
  • Bb’s “contribution” to open source will be code that enables tighter integration of other Bb products with open source CMSs. (This is something that I heard “between the lines” of the Bb/Moodlerooms webinar – anyone else?)
  • Bb is “open washing” and may end up driving away the open source community it purports to be interested in engaging.
  • Don’t forget, Bb is owned by Providence Equity … this may have much more to do with how an equity company runs its investments than any particular Bb/CMS strategy.
  • Get ready to pay more for MoodleRooms.
  • Moodlerooms was already headed down a road of “proprietizing” Moodle and this will likely continue even more. Fear: migrating out of the Bb/MR Moodle fork back into open Moodle may become increasingly difficult. Or will Bb share back as they purport to be committed to?
  • Bb is going to fold MoodleRooms into future Bb releases. Get out of MoodleRooms if you want Moodle. [This is NOT a common view but I did see it expressed somewhere.]

The future of the Moodlerooms service?

Other than the last couple points, the majority of these don’t see an immediate or even medium-term threat to the Moodlerooms service for current customers. I think the short-term bottom line is that Moodlerooms will continue to exist as it has, continuing to do what it does.

The longer-term key will be what Bb says over the next month or so. Bb’s pattern in the past with acquisitions (WebCT, Angel, Wimba, Elluminate) has been to initially reassure people that nothing will change in the immediate future (and that has been mostly true), as well as to describe some bland “synergies” both sides hope to get out of the deal (Bb has lots of tech resources, this new acquisition has a great service model Bb can learn from, etc.). Then, and I think Bb has been pretty transparent and accurate about this, they may describe their longer-term intentions to create a “best of breed” new product, and/or to support ongoing releases and then move towards a sunset of an acquired product. In this case, I don’t see any initial indications that Bb is going this route, but I’m not ready to go out on any limbs and predict that Moodlerooms will indefinitely serve our needs. But I do feel relatively confident that it will work for us for 2012-2013.