A Gripe Session at Blackboard

At annual users conference, a "listening session" features more complaints than executives had time for. Customer service faulted by many.
July 16, 2009

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD. -- Between the announcement of its purchase of an iPhone application yesterday, its acquisition of Angel Learning in May, and its recently released new interface, Blackboard has made significant moves to strengthen its hold on the the e-learning market. But many users aren't happy with the basics.

At an open "listening session" with top executives of Blackboard here Wednesday at the company's annual conference, college officials expressed frustration with many of the system's fundamental characteristics. At times, the meeting seemed to turn into a communal gripe session, with complaints ranging from the system's discussion forum application, to the improved -- but still lacking -- user support, to the training materials for faculty members. Participants' concerns were often greeted with nods of agreement and outright applause from their peers as they spoke of their frustrations with the system.

"Every time we have a migration [to an updated version of Blackboard], we have new features to figure out. You should be providing us workable faculty materials with your product," one commenter said amidst applause by those in the audience. "You put the burden on ourselves ... and then create the documentation and then train. That's why so many of us struggle to move forward to the next [version]. We are Blackboard on our campuses, and for us to be advocates, you have to give us the tools to be successful -- training." She emphasized that she would rather see more of a focus on fundamentals like training than updated versions of the software. The commenter also mentioned technical issues with the system that she believes need fixing.

"We recognize there are still some shortcomings in our products," responded Michael Chasen, president and CEO of Blackboard. "We also know that we need to update the architecture from the system, and from that point, we would be able to do a deeper dive to fix those issues. [The question is] do you do one-off fixes for [the old] architecture, or do you put all your resources into updating the architecture and then you come and plug those services afterwards?"

The questioner said that when small fixes aren't made, faculty members get discouraged. Another commenter told the Blackboard executives that it becomes difficult to argue to top level university administration that Blackboard is a "mission-critical" system when it continues to break in key places.

A number of speakers noted that customer service for fixing bugs in individual universities' systems has improved greatly in the past few months. One commenter from the University of Southern California, however, said that the service still has a long way to go.

"I'm not sure support has gotten to the point where it needs to get," he said, noting that nearly every time he calls for help he receives the same response. He proceeded to describe that response in detail -- the agent asks what system and service he is running, asks for root level access to his database, and then sends him an e-mail later telling him that the problem cannot be fixed and the case is closed. Most everyone in the audience applauded in agreement.

Ray Henderson, president of Blackboard Learn, who was formerly chief products officer at Angel, responded that he understood the issues, saying "Not enough progress has been made. I think you have highlighted a range of progress that needs to be be made. It's embarrassing, but solvable."

This is not the first time that Blackboard has been the target of complaints about its system or services. After Blackboard acquired Angel -- which some universities had switched to because of its stellar reputation for customer service -- many college officials who had used the Angel system expressed concern that their service would decrease significantly.

A number of other technical questions and inquiries about Blackboard's future were addressed during the session, but at the end many participants were still in line to ask questions at the microphone. Chasen concluded by expressing satisfaction with the conversation, saying, "This is how we get better as an organization."


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