Shall we call it Blackangel? Or Angelboard?

The two biggest players in the learning management system world, Blackboard and Angel, will soon be one company, since Blackboard has purchased Angel Learning, Inc. for $95 million.  From a superficial reading of the press release, it appears that Blackboard thinks of itself as having a more technologically innovative product, whereas Angel has a better track record with customers — and Blackboard has the money to pull off the purchase.

I can’t verify any of those claims, but I can say that we switched from Blackboard to Angel at my college a few years ago due to a general dissatisfaction with the quality of the product compared to the price we were paying. I don’t recall Blackboard as being particularly innovative, although admittedly that was 4-5 years ago. Angel has not been much of an improvement, and I’ve blogged before about the maddening UI design decisions that Angel has made. In going from Blackboard to Angel, we basically traded one set of deeply flawed LMS technology for another.

And now we have the situation where the current sub-par LMS technology maker is being bought out by the previous equally-but-differently-subpar LMS technology maker. So who knows what exactly we, the users at my college, are going to end up with. The best-case scenario is that we would get the best of both technologies. There are some things that Angel does  pretty well, well enough at least that I am no longer finding myself forced to roll my own LMS at Wikispaces just to retain my sanity. We shall see.

In the meanwhile, Jon Mott has some excellent thoughts about life post-LMS. I think he’s right that the basic problem isn’t the implementation of the technology (although, as I’ve noted, there are some big problems there with Angel and probably with Blackboard as well) but rather the paradigm on which the technology is based. It makes me wonder if the real LMS that best suits the modern college or university is already out there, in the form of previously-released tools that just need to be cobbled together rather than an expensive proprietary software package that tries to emulate those tools.

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Filed under Course management systems, Higher ed, Technology

7 responses to “Shall we call it Blackangel? Or Angelboard?

  1. My undergrad years were a bit pre-LMS, but we were required to use Blackboard in my grad program. Even as one of the more technologically inclined members of my cohort, I was still never thrilled with Blackboard’s usability – I didn’t find it particularly intuitive or user-friendly.

    I wonder if Ning is a viable option for universities – it seems to provide many of the basic communication functions like message boards, file hosting, email lists, etc. I’m not familiar enough with Ning to know if there’s a “private label” option or some similar pay-to-upgrade program, but it could be a place to start that would be a little more robust than Wikispaces (and I know what you mean about rolling your own – I’ve done it myself with my classes, too).

    • Interesting idea with Ning. I belonged to a Ning group a while back and I found it hard to work with; but I hear they’ve done some upgrades since then. And certainly Ning spaces have all the nice media features I’d like to use. One advantage Wikispaces has over Nings, though: Wikispaces allows you to compile \LaTeX code directly in a page, which is really nice for math classes. Still, I might try a Ning with my summer calc class just to see how it goes.

  2. Here at Georgia Tech, we moved from WebCT to Sakai (locally branded as T-Square) in Fall 2007. When I was an undergrad at North Dakota State (00-04), we used Blackboard, but it was just really catching on for heavy use in the lower division courses as I was nearing graduation. I can’t say that I was pleased with either Blackboard or WebCT. They did a few things OK (making grades available to students was about the only thing I thought they did well… note that doesn’t mean I thought their gradebooks were any good overall). However, I’ve been really happy with Sakai. I’m not sure how much that is because GT has 5.75 FTE assigned to work on the project and how much of it is because it’s a superior product. We were having so many issues with WebCT that many units were running their own systems, which was frustrating students, but with the move to Sakai, most everyone is using the same LMS since the T-Square team can help resolve technological problems rather than waiting on a vendor. We’re doing usability testing right now for a new gradebook designed by the UC-Davis Sakai team. For a smaller institution with a small IT department, buying something off-the-shelf might be easier than installing an open source product. Of course, that depends on how much the money-grubbers at Blackboard are charging for one of their products. If the price is high enough, you might be able to dump it and use the money savings to pay for someone to maintain/enhance your Sakai installation.

    Regarding Jon Mott’s piece, I think that Sakai is most likely to provide the innovations that could make those things possible. Blackboard’s products are there to make money for Blackboard, not to foster learning, no matter how much their PR department tells us otherwise. Fundamentally shifting the way they design things will not make them more money on the sort of timeline they’re looking for. The Sakai Project, on the other hand, can have tools added and modifications made by the community at large. Someone could fork it and design something based on its underlying framework but that destroys traditional barriers if it seems that the existing system is too restrictive. With a project like Sakai, if enough people want something, it at least gets implemented as a contributed tool and might make it into the main project. In that way, a campus can have a Sakai install that simultaneously functions like a traditional LMS for faculty who don’t want to change and a much more modern, innovative, barrier-destroying system for those who want it.

    • When we made the switch to Angel, we “auditioned” several other LMS platforms including Sakai. With me being the lone exception, Sakai was universally disliked by the faculty and staff who tested it out. And I was merely ambivalent about it. I think you’re right about Sakai’s quality being directly proportional to the amount of attention it gets development-wise; being a small (~1000 students) college we have a great IT staff but there’s not many of them, and it’s hard to get Sakai where you really want it under those conditions. The off-the-shelf solution, Angel, was an exercise in constrained optimization, I think.

  3. Julia

    I thought you’d be interested in knowing that at the Community College I work at we Usability-tested 4 students to compare Angel, Blackboard, Moodle and eCollege. Students prefer Moodle to other LMS’s. So for colleges that are looking to decide what alternative LMS they could use after the Blackboard-Angel acquisition. Data show students are likely to recommend and feel more comfortable with Moodle.

  4. Pingback: Blackboard (and other closed LMS systems) make university a rip-off |

  5. toychristopher

    I am a student at a college that uses angel and I hate it. I especially hate the message board and how slow the whole system is despite my blazing fast internet connection.

    I have spent my whole life using forums on the internet and I have never found one as user unfriendly as the Angel discussion boards. I can’t believe that colleges pay for these stupid systems when a free Google Group or even a Facebook page would probably have more functionality.

    I don’t know how it is on the faculty side of things but from a student perspective every lms I have every used (webct, blackboard, and now angel) seems to work against me, and has a different design then anything else on the web. The only system I ever liked was designed and used by one of my professors on his personal website.