Blackboard and software complexity

A comment on Blackboard’s complexity problems.

If either the author of this article or the otherwise knowledgeable Feldstein have ever worked in software development, it’s not apparent from this article and the ensuing comments thread. The list of architectural scare factors – multiple deployment environments, wide use of 3rd party libraries, legacy code – is simply business as usual for any substantial software product. And the assertion that “few other companies support this sheer raw complexity of configuration combinations” is just plain wrong. Many, many companies deal with exactly this. Cross-platform release engineering is a demanding but well-understood discipline.

To pick on a couple more representative points: “All enterprise software ages poorly”. No, all software ages. Whether it ages poorly or well depends on whether it’s worth the vendor’s time to manage its aging. Go and ask the IBM shops running 1960’s-vintage System 360 applications on modern virtualized environments whether they’re happy with 50 years of ROI on those applications. And then: “Microsoft control their entire ecosystem”. Please, please, go and talk to a Microsoft release test engineer about how controlled their release targets are. Make sure you have a very comfortable seat and lots of beer money, because you’ll be buying and you’ll be there for a looong time.

I don’t challenge the author’s underlying premise that Blackboard has mismanaged its software assets – I don’t have the inside knowledge to confirm or deny that. And the notion that Blackboard, like every software developer, needs to actively manage and reduce complexity is incontestable. But I don’t accept the notion that the architectural factors listed are any kind of indicator. I would bet that inside Blackboard there are some very frustrated developers who know exactly how to support that range of configurations, led by a management group who is telling them not to spend time refactoring and reducing technical debt, but rather to crack on with adding to the feature list smorgasbord. As if that’s an either/or choice.

One way to destroy trust in professional learning

Hayes Mizell describes 3 ways to build trust in professional learning. This is all good stuff, but there’s at least one essential prerequisite for any of this to work: you do have to actually trust the professionals (in this case, teachers). And there’s nothing that says “We don’t trust you” like a professional learning requirement that is externally imposed, mandatory, and micro-managed.

To pick just one of the three ways: number 2 reads “[Leaders should] Organize professional learning that teachers experience as appropriate and helpful”. Let’s pick that apart:

  1. In a mature, self-regulated profession, there is no distinction between leaders and the rest. Rather, the profession as a whole is seen to be leading society. There are leading members of the profession, but they are rarely to be found organizing PL.
  2. It’s a subtle point, but training is “organized for” workers who are passive recipients. PL might be “offered to” professionals, but just as often they will define for themselves what constitutes PL.
  3. In a mature, empowered profession, no professional endures PL that is not appropriate and helpful – not for very long, anyway. Try to waste even five minutes of a senior surgeon’s time, and you’ll find yourself looking at a receding surgeon’s back. It’s a measure of a profession that is desperately disenfranchised that it’s even possible to waste days of teachers’ time on poor PL.

Perhaps we as a society don’t actually trust teachers? OK- then we must strictly regulate training requirements, remove self-agency, and concern ourselves with how we are using their time. But in that case we must also stop calling teaching a profession, and we must absolve teachers of responsibility for school outcomes. Personally, I hope it doesn’t come to that.

Note 1: I’m using Mizell’s post as an example of how the language around teacher PL reflects widespread contradictory attitudes towards professionalism in teaching. I’m not suggesting that Mizell himself is inconsistent or otherwise opposed to teacher empowerment.

Note 2: Mizell is writing in the North American context, but my direct observations of the teaching profession are all Australian.