Posted by: Kenn Hermann | August 6, 2006

Time to Call Blackboard’s Bluff

Now that Blackboard has acquired WebCT and a virtual monopoly of online learning systems, it is flexing its muscle by claiming patent infringement of its Learning Management System. (Now, let’s see, a ‘learning management system’ is — what? Didn’t we used to call it a syllabus and effective classroom strategies for learning? Do we claim patent infringement when a colleague, following a brainstorming session on strategies that work, uses one of our ideas? Did chalk manufacturers claim that white board markers had violated their patent on Writing Systems for Large Classes?)

I have a simple solution to Blackboard’s patent challenge: boycott all commercial online learning portals. Universities have been gulled into believing that they need Blackboard, or any other commercial software, for too long. They don’t. Professors have been so intimidated by the complicated and convoluted hurdles they have to clear in order to put a simple course online, that they believe they ‘need’ the wonders of WebCT. Wrong. Those of us using these systems in the humanities can manage very nicely without them. All we need are stand-alone web pages for all assignments, freeware discussion boards for class interaction, a freeware ftp program, and a little space on a server. How many of us actually use all of the bells and whistles that clutter WebCT? I, for one, do not and will not. How many iterations of WebCT are necessary for improved learning? How many conferences do we need to attend to learn how to use chalk — I mean, WebCT? I have designed an online course for students living primarily in the third world that uses minimal technology. I created my own web pages — virtually the same ones I have to create for WebCT — and use the excellent freeware at for all discussion.

If the universities want to continue paying hefty licensing fees, exhorbitant administrative costs, and expensive brick-and-mortar upkeep, (those IT administrators and their hardware have to live somewhere), fine. That’s no reason professors have to put up with the charade that Blackboard is essential for improving online learning. Those of us who have been in online learning for awhile, know the truth: the basics of online instruction are simple. No one needs WebCT, Blackboard, or any other program to do it well. There are many less costly or free alternatives. It’s time to call Blackboard’s bluff: the emperor has no clothes under those millions of lines of code.

If you would like to know how to do this with simple skills you already have or can learn quickly, email me at


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