Lipstick on a Pig

The blog has been quiet for a while now. It’s neglect is qualified by the amount of work – professional and personal – I’ve been doing the last couple of months.

I’ve been part of an 8 week incubator program and an entrepreneurial course to help progress a personal project, Kelpie – the digital working dog. It’s been great to go through the creative process of coming up with an idea and to take it through it’s paces to develop it further. We’re now doing the final push to get our last assignments done and prepare for a 15 minute presentation.

In my 9 to 5 job I’ve been chipping away at developing a new theme and UI for Blackboard. Yes the LMS, my long time enemy has been sucking out my will to live for the past couple of months now.

While Kelpie has been a great experience, developing and creating your own thing, working on Blackboard has been the opposite. Trying to work within the technical constraints of someone else’s system is difficult at the best of times. Blackboard takes it to a whole new level. The code is so verbose and complex it’s a challenge to make even the most simple change. Armed only with CSS and within the theming conventions of the Blackboard it’s nigh on impossible to make any meaningful change. The best I can achieve with this limited toolset is what I’d equate to putting Lipstick on a Pig.

Blackboard seriously needs to get some actual web developers on staff – the state of the HTML, methods, processes and conventions are so antiquated that it doesn’t even make use of the Cascade in CSS.

Where I’ve tried to focus my attention is in the content area within the system. Most courses use the default theme’s default styles which results in pretty awful and dated looking material. Even if the content is good and well written, the presentation lets it down. Those that have tried to improve things seem to have focussed on “display” rather than use. Showing the content in a particular way has been of greater importance it seems than making the content readable – form rather than function.

The WYSIWYG in Blackboard is a problem too. It’s method of working – inline styles. Yes, gone is the convention of separating content and presentation (the thing that the main conventions of the web – HTML & CSS – are built upon). What results is a tangled mix of butchered HTML littered with an assortment of CSS, spam tags and unsemantic markup. Having just given a presentation on the usefulness of simple markup (via Markdown) and its flexibility to be repurposed and reused in a variety of ways – Blackboard’s attempt is both atrocious and deeply concerning. Why? Because it’s locks up the content into their system, not via proprietary formats but through sheer awfulness. The task of cleaning this stuff up is daunting which means the motivation to move, to redo and improve is greatly diminished. Why change what “works”? Why redo something people won’t “see”?

There are plenty of reasons to hate the LMS, I think I’ve discovered a new one.

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