Blackboard. The main framework that manages all the course material and information for most departments, and yet it still remains flawed. It is currently the principal exchange platform between professors and their respective students when it comes to sharing notes, tutorials, and all other diversified pieces of information, but does it achieve a clear and structured organisation, and truly correspond to the most efficient way to do so?

From the inconsistency of its usage between lecturers, to the unnecessary restrictions it poses to the students, Blackboard has led to a lot of unsatisfied opinions. Often, the necessary material for a course is not solely available on Blackboard, and yet it is still not possible to access other knowledgeable sources, or personal studying elements, without having an excessive amount of tabs open, forcing us to jump back and forth through our open pages to recall the most basic of details. How is it that a website created for students in order to improve their access and understanding of course information, doesn’t actually give us authority on the outline of material, and provides only limited sources of exchange with the rest of the community? Normalising the structure and leaving the monopoly of the layout to the lecturers can be understood for the sake of simplicity, but when that initial goal isn’t met, then restrictions towards the students on their own university platform probably should not stand. In retrospect, the mere concept of “shared information” through this interface should be re-evaluated. Instead of having an open and constructive medium between professors and students, current Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) such as Blackboard allow no space for social studying. This creates difficulty in immediate access to specific information or particular answers, leading to yet another open tab on our already busy screen to accommodate for a social website such as Facebook, Whatsapp or Google Drive, with which no clear systematic scheme has been set up, making this whole process all the more confusing. There is a noticeable lack of engagement from the students and a clearly limited interaction with the teachers, which therefore means there is no true sense of co-dependency or community. We are essentially constrained to use a single VLE which has not been improved for over 10 years.

“Often, the necessary material for a course is not solely available on Blackboard”

The work we are given is hard enough as it is; the way to access the necessary material shouldn’t be an additional source of stress and concern. Instead of having an unclear institution-provided website, why not provide the students with an intuitive system that allows them to organise material in the way they deem best for their work ethics? We should be able to share organised pages of information with one another and collaborate as a group. Improving the user interface and simplifying the layout, giving it a more innate feel, and therefore giving both lecturers and students more confidence to interact with others through this shared platform and take part in open discussions about certain challenging topics. This new collaborative method could allow social data processing and quicker responses from the department to feedback.

In the Mechanical Engineering Department, there is a website called Piazza in certain subjects that acts as an open platform where questions from students can be answered rapidly by the lecturer. The public aspect of it allows the information to reach all students so the questions are not asked twice, and allows follow-up questions if ever further explaining is required. The way this method was implemented throughout the department was by making it the only option, forcing lecturers to answer solely on this platform rather than to individual emails from the students. To a certain extent, this shared collaborative site allows everyone to engage with the material, and be provided with quick and simple answers to their questions. Indirectly, this also informs the lecturer about the main topics of struggle, allowing them to adapt and shape their course in order to put more emphasis on certain parts, resembling an interactive feedback system. However, just like Blackboard, the main issue here revolves around the organisation and layout of the information, as the questions are organised in chronological order rather than grouped together by relevance to a certain topic.

“The way to access the necessary information shouldn’t be another source of stress”

There is an emerging site called “Infotree”, created by a third year Mechanical Engineering student, which aims to encompass all these new possibilities, and take into account various other considerations. It will target the main issues when it comes to communication within the department and will dedicate a good part of its functionality to the simplification of the layout. Despite being still in the experimental phase, this platform has the potential to perhaps become a more intuitive, user-friendly alternative the Blackboard. Infotree is currently focusing on implementing a plug-in which would allow students to import data into their own personal space in order to facilitate their access to it. The transition of information between Blackboard and Infotree will be effortless and quick, and will give students complete control over how they would want to organise it. It builds upon the current educational website, whilst introducing the possibility for various different sources, not only for the eyes of the individual, but also for the rest of the course if ever one wishes to share some of their material.

As the website is progressively improved, it will allow students in tandem with teachers to create efficient and comprehensive educational pages that will be passed down through the years and constantly reviewed and improved upon, based on the feedback of the users. Over time, our studies here at Imperial will become easier for all incoming students and allow topics to be explored more thoroughly and in depth to give a fuller understanding of the module and its application. With this new form of interface, the strain on lectures and tutorials is expected to reduce, allowing the possibility for a greater presence of online learning as its importance increases, due to the rapid and inevitable digitalisation of information. This surfacing sense of community will lead to a sense of mutual aid where students themselves who have a deep understanding of a particular subject could share informational and demonstrative videos or lectures to the younger years.

“An emerging site, ‘Infotree’, aims to take into account the main issues with the layout”

The principal issues with Blackboard are sometimes too present and crucial to be ignored, and giving the students the possibility to control their workspace in a more organised manner could benefit everyone in the department, ridding us of a fair amount of unnecessary effort. Ideally, a website that acts as “a plugin where students can quickly extract and add content from anywhere to just one place” could be a long awaited innovative change, that will keep on developing throughout the years.

Thushaan Rajaratjam is a third-year mechanical engineering student. He is the creator and operator of Infotree.