Chronic Blackboard problems frustrate students, faculty

During the 2017 fall semester, a series of problems with the university’s Blackboard Learn system have occurred. Before the semester started, the system underwent major updates.

Upset female graphic designer in office
Photo credit: Jian Bautista

Courses and grades have vanished, assignments were lost and students had difficulties taking tests on the platform.

Nathan Kipchumba, a nursing major at UAA, has experienced some of the problems with the system.

“My courses disappeared and I couldn’t see any of my courses on Blackboard,” Kipchumba said.

Not being able to access course pages and the materials on it can affect the performance of students.

“I was logging in to access my study guide for an exam that I had to take the next day, “ Kipchumba said. “I had to wait until the issue was resolved to get access to the study guide.”

Several professors at UAA have reported that their students are having enormous problems with Blackboard.

Veronica Howard, an assistant professor for psychology, is increasingly frustrated with the error-prone system. Even though she has been working with the system for about 12 years, she has never before experienced problems like this.

“Blackboard has always been a kind of a sticky wicket… even when I was a grad student. But this fall semester has been really trying,” Howard said.

For her classes, she usually creates practice tests on Blackboard. But setting up these mini quizzes has turned into a time-consuming and difficult task.

“This semester, copying documents, editing those pools [for the quizzes], stuff that used to take maybe a minute total has been timing out, has been showing that it has been successfully completed even if it didn’t,” Howard said. “At one point, it was three in the morning, my next class was at 10 am and it took me an hour and a half to make a 10 question quiz, and I had three of these to make.”

In addition to her regular classes, she also instructs classes over Blackboard Collaborate and is reliant on the system to teach her courses and to hold office hours.

“So far this semester people have been unable to connect and I have updated the driver and the program for it,” Howard said.

Students in her classes often have troubles with completing online quizzes, too.

“You’re taking a quiz, you’ve got plenty of time left, you go in to put in an answer — you get kicked off the quiz,” Howard said. “The best thing to do would be to email the instructor,” Howard said. “For some reason this semester, not many people are doing that.”

Sometimes, students do not realize that this is due to a system error; therefore, they do not contact their instructor and have to keep their low grades. Freshmen and students who are inexperienced with online classes are particularly affected by this.

“When they call to get some help, the person on the other end of the line says … ‘Well, there is something wrong with the way your instructor set it up.’”

Attempts to solve the problem have been quite challenging.

“If you need to figure it out, troubleshoot it, you have to get the students who had the problem and myself and IT all on the same page at the same time,” Howard said.

When tackling the problems, the local IT service has been helpful. The statewide IT service, however, has not been communicative about the issues.

“Our IT has really tried very hard,” Howard said. “We have never received an email from statewide about any of these known issues.”

Due to the persistent problems, Howard is questioning whether she is even going to use Blackboard for the upcoming semesters. She is thinking about going back to commercial online textbooks like Pearson or LaunchPad to teach her classes. The access codes for these systems are often expensive.

Phil Jordan, a term professor for psychology who teaches primarily online classes, has been experiencing similar problems.

“I feel really bad for students in particular. It’s frustrating enough for me,” Jordan said. “When a student sits down and tries to accomplish something, and even if they are using the correct browser, if they are doing everything they are supposed to do, the system fails on them. And sometimes it will fail multiple times.”

The problem was addressed at the Faculty Senate meeting on Nov. 3. The next steps are yet to be determined.