Blackboard Kills


Let me put this plainly: Blackboard is an impediment to scholarship, and the sooner universities stop using it, the better. Let’s leave aside for the moment the clunky UI and bothersome content-framing that makes efficiently using Blackboard materials alongside other web content almost impossible. Let’s just pretend that it’s not a scandalous waste of university resources to pay for a substandard set of collaboration tools when better and more well-supported products exist in the free and open source community. And let’s not worry about the fact that the company behind the software has attempted to patent basic functions like posting course materials and grades online. Even if these issues didn’t exist, the system would still be deeply and fundamentally wrong-headed.

Why do I have such a hate-on for Blackboard? Because Blackboard is a walled garden. Or, put another way, it doesn’t play well with the Web. Which is a pretty serious problem for a product that is supposed to “intertwine easily with the other technologies” learners rely on. Take Blackboard’s RSS support, for example — or, rather, its lack thereof. Getting a feed to display in Blackboard takes a lot more work than it does in, say, a completely free blogging and collaboration system like WordPress. And getting feeds out of Blackboard? Forget about it.

Of course, closed-off, login-required systems like Blackboard are useful for restricting access to private information like grades, internal planning documents and direct email-like communications between professors and students (though why email itself isn’t good enough for this function, I don’t exactly understand). But Blackboard also seals off from public view useful materials like course syllabi, readings, web links and — most importantly — crucial knowledge-production activities like class discussion-board activity and blogs. Hiding this kind of content from public view is destructive and wasteful. I submit that if students and professors are engaging in scholarly discourse in online forums, sharing resources and collaborating on the development of new ideas, it is in the best interest of the students themselves, the Academy at large and — yes — human civilization for this information to be universally accessible, remixable and spreadable. Blackboard works directly against this imperative by locking down the productive activities of the classroom in the name of archaic intellectual property laws and nonsensical bugaboos about privacy, cutting students off from the massive intellectual cross-pollination potential of what James Paul Gee calls “affinity spaces.”

According to Gee, affinity spaces are discursive learning spaces defined not by membership in a particular community or group, but rather by a common endeavor or interest. Enabling these kinds of spaces is arguably the most significant and transformative affordance of the Web. Sure, it’s great that we can link documents together, send information to one another and cheaply produce one-to-many communications. Even walled gardens have their use. But the true power of a global information network is only realized when ideas are linked together and communication begins to occur on a many-to-many scale. This is precisely what happens in an affinity space, which functions as a kind of lens, focusing energy and enthusiasm from a dispersed array of sources onto a particular topic or semantic domain. Knowledge is generated, portals are opened and connections are established. Gee cites AoM Heaven, a player-community resource site for the (now somewhat long-in-the-tooth) RTS game, Age of Mythology, as an example of an affinity space, but it’s easy to think of dozens more. Yelp’s section on Pizza in Los Angeles, the Wikipedia page on micronations, the ThinkWiki Linux Thinkpad users site and the Delicious tag archive for ‘henryjenkins’ are all affinity spaces to a greater or lesser degree. Each is a portal to/generator of content co-created by a distributed group of individuals, expert and novice alike, assembled around a common endeavor.

Blackboard subtracts the efforts of students and professors alike from the pool of sources from which affinity spaces draw their power, interrupting rather than fostering the formation of productive educational bonds. By keeping online discussions, blogs and other discursive engagements under lock and key, Blackboard ensures that no one else on the Web will be able to look at, cite, aggregate, argue with, agree with, blog about or otherwise use any of the content generated or portals opened by the work of the class. This seems like a terrible waste to me — for the students, the professors, and the public at large.

Put another way, affinity spaces know few boundaries and take all comers, and that’s a big part of why they work and how they have become so ubiquitous in network learning practices (indeed, I would argue that affinity spaces are in fact synonymous with network learning practices); Blackboard, on the other hand, reifies an older order of property, unitary authority and isolated community — an order that makes little sense in the context of a broader learning environment governed by sharing, networking and openness.

By eliminating or limiting the role of affinity spaces in classwork, pedagogical approaches that lean heavily on Blackboard not only fail to educate students in crucial digital literacies, but also threaten to alienate them from “traditional” education itself. As administrators consider renewing their expensive contracts with Blackboard, Inc, they would be well-advised to consider the warning that concludes Gee’s paper:

. . . people today are confronted with and enter more and more affinity spaces. They see a different and arguably more powerful vision of learning, affiliation, and identity when they do so. Learning becomes both a personal and unique trajectory through a complex space of opportunities (Le., a person’s own unique movement through various affinity spaces over time) and a social journey as one shares aspects of that trajectory with others (who may be very different from oneself and inhabit otherwise quite different spaces) for a shorter or longer time before moving on. What . . . young people see in school may pale by comparison. It may seem to lack the imagination that infuses the non-school aspects of their lives (Gee 2003). At the very least, they may demand an argument for “Why school?” (103)

However one tries to justify the walled garden, be it proprietary protectionism, safety, careerism or institutional vanity, it’s difficult to claim that this cloistering of discussion, debate and ideation is better for scholarship than its alternative — that is, embracing digital literacy as a crucial pedagogical objective and developing a new praxis for education that brings affinity spaces into the center of the classroom. As for Blackboard itself, perhaps the best we can hope for is that students will find ways to hack it into something better…

Polyhedral Dice

When I was a kid, I played a lot of role-playing games. The Marshall brothers, Lucas, Paul and Jonas, and my neighborhood pal, Ryan Sullivan, were my primary playmates in this regard. I played intensively between the ages of about nine and fourteen. After that, rock and roll and movies took over.

As far as I can remember, Jonas Marshall was the local ringleader when it came to pen-and-paper role-playing and strategy games. It was in his basement on Third Street in southwest Calgary where I saw my first set of polyhedral dice. Jonas’s younger brother, Paul, was my age; we, along with the avuncular Ryan Sullivan and a couple of other semi-interchangable bright-eyed and dirty-fingernailed boys, constituted the Rideau/Roxboro geek cohort of our time. Most of us were already into games of various sorts — from video games we typed into our computers from BASIC programs printed in magazines, to simpler fantasy and board games like Crossbows and Catapults or Risk. If the games we played used dice, they used six-sided dice only. Jonas, on the other hand, three years older than the rest of us, had games that used the full set of Platonic solids and more: the near-spherical d20, the better-than-rolling-two-regular-dice d12, the percentile-generating d10, the sturdy-rolling outlier d8 and the dangerous-to-tread-upon d4.

The subject-matter of the games Jonas played (fantasy, science fiction, espionage, etc.) was almost certainly the main driver of my interest in playing them; that said, the fact that these games used an array of esoteric dice foreign to my eyes and completely alien to those of my parents and teachers was undeniably an attraction. Unlike the by-then over-familiar six-sided dice that generated random numbers for the bulk of the games I played in my childhood, a set of polyhedral dice was something otherworldly and almost magical. It became de rigeur for each of us to own at least one complete set — often bought one at a time with the money left over from allowances spent on comic books and game manuals — and to keep this set in an well-considered game-appropriate pouch or box. I had a velvety purple Crown Royal bag that resonated nicely with my magic-user alter ego; had I been able to afford one, I would have probably upgraded to leather.

In addition to their stochastic function within the games we played, polyhedral dice — the way they were carried, handled and regarded — played an almost ritual role in our gaming activities. Gaming sessions would begin as we arrived in the Marshall brothers’ basement (after first pausing to eat ravioli and drink milk graciously served by the tireless Mrs. Marshall), took our seats on the tight carpet and poured our dice onto the floor as if emptying our pouches of coins or magic tokens. A red and translucent d4, a solid black d20, a light blue d8 with orange numbers grease-penciled in: each die had a certain power, a look, a kind of meaning-rich resonance in my young mind. Each was supposed to be a ‘good roller,’ and it was not unheard of to discard a die that consistently rolled against one’s desires. Jealousies existed. My black d20 was reknowned for its power.

In the early days, the older — indeed, seemingly wizened and grey though let’s face it, he was just a twelve or thirteen year-old — Jonas Marshall would function as Dungeon Master (or game master, or whatever the moderator/admin/storyteller was called in the game we were playing), and while he set up the cardboard screens that contained saving throw charts and random event lists, the rest of us would get our character sheets together and test-roll our dice and maybe even line them up in ascending or descending order. But this was more than just a readying of the tools necessary to play a game. The reality was, we each had our own special dice and those dice were laden with personal meanings related to the pivotal function they would play in the ongoing co-creation of story and incident that emerged from and constituted our gaming activity. This wasn’t Monopoly; even though storytelling was certainly a key component of any Monopoly session, the narrative component, like the dice-rolling itself, was simple and repetitive and predictable: someone gets rich, everyone else goes broke. In Dungeons and Dragons or Top Secret or Traveller (my personal favorite), absolutely anything could happen, there was no end to the game (only the conclusion of chapters or ‘modules’), and the role that dice and random numbers played was richer and more nuanced by orders of magnitude.

This nuanced relationship between randomness, storytelling and play was probably my favorite thing about [insert RPG here], and while the dice we used initially seemed weird and possibly even merely arbitrary and decorative, it quickly became apparent that the depth and sophistication of the RPG experience — at least one wherein randomness has a hand in everything from how much coinage is found on a dead kobold to the duration and effects of drunkenness on a female half-elf cleric who is unwittingly carrying a cursed morning star — utterly depended on going beyond the traditional xd6 system for random number generation used in typical board games.

Role-playing games use polyhedral dice because of the many different kinds of randomness they can generate. Six-sided dice generate even odds when when you roll one die at a time and are looking for a number between one and six; but when you start needing more numbers, which happens very quickly when you’re designing a game system that tracks a large amount of variables across multiple domains, simply adding dice messes with the odds and removes pure randomness from certain parts of the system. For example, any kid knows that the seven is the most likely number to roll when you toss two six-sided dice because there are more possible combinations of the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 that add up to seven (1+6, 2+5, 3+4, 4+3, 5+2, 6+1) than there are for any other number between 2 and 12. A 12-sided die (d12) changes all that. You’re just as likely to roll a 7 on a d12 as you are a 1 (which you can’t even roll at all on 2d6). This “pure” randomness frees designers from having to take into account the imbalances in the probabilities of combined dice rolls, opening the doors to new uses for randomness that incorporate regular result distributions within larger numerical ranges (and, of course, the many irregular distributions produced by combinations of multiple dice).

By using polyhedral dice, RPG designers enabled a wide variety of new uses for dice rolls, from simply randomly selecting one item from a list of 20 using a d20, to managing a sliding scale of modifiers within a die-specific range or on bell curves created by multiple dice. This flexibility made possible the richly detailed game mechanics of classic RPGs, and set the stage conceptually for the computationally-managed RPG combat and experience engines under the hood of games like World of Warcraft.

I know I’m not alone in appreciating the deep formal, epistemological and sentimental connections between polyhedral dice, the story/game systems of my childhood, and the exciting possiblities of interactive and generative computational art. The playful interplay of randomness and rulesets that I discovered in the Marshalls’ basement led me down a path toward my present interests in the relationships between play, story and procedural authority; remembering how the dice made me feel reminds me that emotional engagement always wins the day, particularly when it comes to calling audiences to action and engagement, and that speaking to and from the heart is, at the end, what we’re all really after.

David Bordwell on Transmedia Storytelling

Film scholar David Bordwell posts a terrific summary of multiplatform/transmedia storytelling, covering everything from key precedents in cinema and theory to the hope many of us have for the form to reach higher and do more:

…creating a first-rate feature-length movie takes tremendous talent, sweat, and resourcefulness. It is immensely harder to create a story universe that sustains the same intensity and quality across platforms. True, you can sprinkle clues and cryptic references among websites and YouTube shorts. The formulas of genre (horror, mystery) help you generate shock effects and mystification in teaser trailers. Appeal to stock characterization helps you mount a “realistic” Second Life life. But building a vast, sturdy world teeming with distinctive characters, unpredictable plotting, and human resonance is an immense task. (

H/T @henryjenkins

tldr – visualizing large-scale discussions

tldr is an application for navigating through large-scale online discussions. The application visualizes structures and patterns within ongoing conversations to let the user browse to content of most interest. In addition to visual overviews, it also incorporates features such as thread summarization, non-linear navigation, multi-dimensional filtering, and various other features that improve the experience of participating in large-discussions. (tldr)

See also: Srikanth Narayan