Taking a look at the second of the three open-ended questions posed in our Blackboard Faculty Satisfaction Survey, I expected some grim reading and certainly got it. The question: “What do you like least about Blackboard?”
246 faculty responded to this question (out of 301 total survey respondents), although a half-dozen responses were some variant on “N/A”. In an attempt to process what themes might be present in a mass of text, I like to create a Wordle and view the word frequency use graphically. (To see any of the smaller text entries, you will want to click the thumbnail image below and see the larger version.)
Although the focus on students is still obvious, it’s clear even from the Wordle that some other recurring themes arise. Since we made the (very visually and functionally significant) upgrade from Blackboard version 8 to 9.1 just prior to this term, I’m not surprised to see that “version” cropped up a great deal. I’m expecting that major change is also responsible for the importance of “new” and “use”, but only the details of the comments themselves will tell for sure.
There were 34 comments (almost 14%) saying that faculty disliked the grading functions. Given that grade functionality was also among the most liked functions, I’m going to draw this conclusion: Faculty like being able to distribute grades via Blackboard, while disliking the actual procedures to do so. Not exactly an earth-shaking conclusion, but it is nice to base that on actual data rather than pulling an Obi-Wan and just trusting my feelings. (And, should any readers NOT get the whole Star Wars “trust your feelings,Luke” reference,perhaps they need to stop reading my blog posts. Alternately, go see some movies.)
Survey results also yielded 13 comments to the effect that our Blackboard system is slow. Now some of those are in reference to specific subsystems (such as “entering grades”), and others put qualifiers (such as “when using my dial-up connection” or “but that’s through my satellite Internet”), but that’s quite at odds with my own use experiences. Of course, I personally use the system only from on-campus… My take-away: Start doing some off-campus system performance testing. Very significant changes were made to the platform our Blackboard system is running on (such as using virtual front-end servers, but a whole host of other changes as well) when we made the switch to Bb9.1 in January, so perhaps there are some technical speed issues that I am simply unaware of that is impacting faculty.
I have to send out kudos to one of our support techs, because in these comments of all places a faculty member felt that Chris Norcross has given him exemplary support. Good job, Chris! Actually, in the “what faculty like most” comments there was also a suggestion that our support techs be cloned so that we can have a 24/7 supply of them available. As soon as the clone pods become available, Chris gets to go first.
A good many comments involved frustration at how Blackboard is not fully functional with some versions of some browsers. I really feel for the faculty on this one; in today’s software environment there are changes being made to web browser software on a very frequent basis, so it is nearly impossible to not end up upgrading away from a browser version that works… should you be so fortunate as to find one that works fully in the first place. Not to make this out to be more than it really is, because most functions of Blackboard work well in most versions of most browsers, but some of the subsystems that faculty have to regularly make use of are more complex than what the average Blackboard user (read: student) has to do. Test construction, the Grade Center, all the controls for adding content, this stuff is complex and puts a large burden on the browser program to process it properly; the one lesson I’ve learned over the years supporting online work is that standards aren’t, and nothing works consistently across all browsers.
All that being said, this makes it all the more important that we keep updating the version of Blackboard used at Palomar. Several comments complained that Internet Explorer 9 or Firefox 4 were not officially supported browsers, but the way browsers get added to the support matrix is through testing on new versions. So, faculty, there’s the dilemma: do we try to lag behind to stay with known to work versions (nothings perfect, but the sometimes the known bugs are easier to live with than at other times), or do we endeavor to keep as updated as possible to try to have maximum compatibility? One thing we in Academic Technology have tried to do is never do a non-critical upgrade during a semester, so even during the Spring 2011 term there would have been no way to get versions of Blackboard that would have supported browsers released over the Spring. I’m not sure what the correct answer to that question is, but hopefully our “upgrade between terms” model will strike the best happy medium possible. Suggestions on this topic are certainly welcome, of course.
There are a few comments along the lines of “I don’t like that Blackboard cannot do ____.” In many cases, it actually can, so I’ll be gathering up those comments (and I expect to get more such from the final open-ended question on “what would you change about Blackboard”) and respond to them in a future post. I remember speaking with a Microsoft employee after a presentation at the Office 2007 launch event I attended, where he described some experiences he’d had in surveying users. The most memorable story (for me, at least) was his discussion with a panel of Math professors who were bitterly complaining that there was no function in Word for putting in equations. He admitted that he did finally tell them about how the equation editor had been a component of Word for years; to him it was an obvious function, but whole swathes of users were unaware of it. Apparently something of the same nature is going on with Blackboard users here.
That wraps up my current thoughts on what faculty “like least about Blackboard” at the moment. As I mentioned above, I’ll be revisiting some of these issues once I’ve had a chance to process the final open-ended question on what faculty would change.