Going to Work for Blackboard

Monday June 27, 2011 In the Classroom

For the last seven years I have had the honor and pleasure of teaching web design, development, computer science, technology, information technology, and history at Springbrook High School, my dear alma mater.  So, it is with both great sadness and excitement that announce my move from the high school classroom to the corporate offices of the educational software company, Blackboard.

About Blackboard and My New Position

Most people know Blackboard as the online software professors use to post information about classes.  This is what Blackboard, the company, calls it's "Learn" Platform, and it is the worlds largest and most used Learning Management Software (LMS).  As a company, Blackboard is also behind a number of other education technology platforms - from video conferencing software and analytics systems to swipe card payments and campus surveillance systems.  

Those who have used Blackboard (the LMS) also know that it is not particularly sexy, or intuitive.  In fact, it kinda sucks.  A lot of the work I did for my masters thesis had to do with how much of a negative impact bad design in applications like Blackboard has on students' willingness to engage in online learning.

So why go to work for them?  

Well, Blackboard has recently geared up it's User Experience (UX) team.  They have done some great work in separating the Java, logic layer of the application from the HTML/CSS/JS front-end, made some strong commitments to improving the UI of the application, and even dropped support for IE6.  When I heard this, and saw some of the cool work the team was doing with new releases I knew I would have an opportunity to make a big difference on the look, feel and function of this software that every college student and professor seems to have to use, yet noone likes.

I've always toyed with the idea of going to work as a web designer full time, and the opportunity to join the UX team at Blackboard just felt right.  

Officially, I will have the title of "Experience Designer."  As I understand it, my job will mostly entail the following:

  1. Listen to ideas for new requests from users, market research, and the Bb team
  2. Brainstorm, sketch, and prototype how the features will look and function
  3. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript up some sweet sweet interaction 
  4. Do my share of bug fixes on already released versions of the software

It sounds like I will also have a chance to focus particularly on the design and interaction of the gradebook module.  It's funny to me because entering grades was definitely my LEAST favorite thing about teaching.  However, I've built my own gradebook before and think I have some ideas on how to make grading more enjoyable for teachers.

I really like that the position will give me a creative outlet as an idea's man, while still allowing me to improve my JS skills.  That combined with the fact that I'm doing much needed work on the worlds largest piece of education software makes me feel like I'm not selling out completelty in leaving the classroom.  It was very important to me in the process of leaving the high school classroom to work full time as a designer/developer that I didn't stray too far from the education field.

Still a Webucator at Heart and in Practice

Five years ago I set myself the goal of building a four year web program at Springbrook.  Although there are so many more things that I could do with the program, I feel that I have succeeded.  We have a web design class, web development, paid and unpaid internships, and the annual Student Web Conference. As far as I know, there's not a high school in the world that has a better web program.  

What I would love to do next is build a four year web program at the University level.  For a number of reasons, I do not see this happening for some time: I'm giving myself ten years.  In the meantime I plan to adjunct at as many colleges and universities as I can to get a better field for the current state of higher ed web design and development courses.  

I will also continue to run workshops on CMS development, produce the Required Listening show, and publish tutorials for web students.

Behind the scenes I am going to be putting a lot of thought into how to effectively build a higher ed web program.  There are important questions like pedagogically how do you structure learning and assessment, administratively how do you find and keep good teachers, and content wise how do you create a program that teaches the standards without becoming outdated.  

Working at Blackboard will allow me to still keep a foot in the door in the educational world while at the same time finally letting cut loose with being a full time designer.  Having some corporate experience and higher ed contacts shouldn't hurt either.  All in all, I hope to come out of the position ready to build an amazing four-year higher ed web program.

Thanks to all of the people who have made my work at Springbrook possible and so rewarding.  I won't forget you!