Blackboard’s e–learning system dominates the online learning software market. In this essay I critically examine the structure of Blackboard’s two online learning delivery systems, Blackboard 8.0 and Blackboard CE6. I identify ways in which the platforms both constrain and facilitate instructor–student and student–student interaction. I addition, I delineate features that sustain and challenge traditional power relationships in the classroom. I conclude with implications for online pedagogy and practical applications for instructors and students.
Communication and the online classroom
Students, teachers, and critical pedagogy
Blackboard infrastructure features
Communicating in Blackboard
Discussion in Blackboard
Chat and mail in Blackboard
Additional communication features
As more students enter college with the Internet an integral part of their high school experience (Hitlin and Rainie, 2005), online learning has moved from the extraordinary to the more ordinary. Nearly four million U.S. college students enrolled in online classes in Fall 2007, over 20 percent of all higher education students. Moreover, online student enrollment grew at a rate of almost 13 percent, whereas college enrollment in general increased just over one percent (Allen and Seaman, 2008). This trend in online learning is reflected world–wide with governments and education institutions promoting e–learning in places such as Hong Kong (Leung and Li, 2006), Iran (Bahreininejad, 2006), Canada (Luppicini, 2008), Singapore (Kong, et al., 2006), and China (Raaij and Schepers, 2008).
Most online instruction takes places within a learning management system (LMS) such as Blackboard, Moodle, Desire2Learn, and ANGEL. Blackboard Inc., which now includes rivals WebCT and ANGEL, dominates the online learning software market (Falvo and Johnson, 2007). With Blackboard courseware used in over 31,000 institutions world–wide, students and instructors from kindergarten through doctoral programs — and those in the workforce as well — interact in Blackboard–structured classrooms (Burn, 2006).
Yet little research has examined how learning management systems structure participants’ experiences and replicate or diverge from traditional pedagogy. The ways in which course materials are presented and accessed — and who gets to present what and when — form a key component in the online classroom. For example, Bunce, et al. (2006) found that two different Web–based delivery systems presenting the same information influenced student engagement with the material. A comparison between interactive television and WebCT communication tools revealed the WebCT platform more conducive to promoting a classroom learning community (Mash, et al., 2005).
This essay explores how Blackboard’s two online learning delivery systems, Blackboard 8.0 and Blackboard CE6, constrain and facilitate instructor–student and student–student interaction. First, I provide a selected review of previous research in online classroom communication. Second, I examine research in critical pedagogy and power in the classroom, delineating between teaching/learning as performance and teaching/learning as text. Third, I provide a critical analysis of Blackboard’s online learning delivery systems, identifying features that sustain and challenge traditional communicative relationships in the classroom. I conclude with implications for online pedagogy and practical applications for instructors and students.
Much research has centered on distance learning (online or television based) versus the in person classroom. Generally, the findings suggest little difference between the two formats along a range of outcomes. For example, Carrell and Menzel (2001) found no significant differences in perceived instructor immediacy or actual student learning between in person and videotaped lecture formats. In comparing an accounting course taught using WebCT and the same course taught in person, Basile and D’Aquila (2002) found students’ attitudes toward the course were the same for both groups. In their research on using Second Life in an information studies class, Holmberg and Huvila (2008) reported that students viewed Second Life and face–to–face classroom experiences as complementing each other. Benoit, et al.’s (2006) 28–study meta–analysis found no significant differences between online and in person classes in student learning outcomes.
Perceived instructor immediacy and transactional distance (how close students feel to the instructor) are often raised as concerns for online classes. However, in their study of online and on campus career and technical education courses offered by three community colleges, Benson, et al. (2005) identified no differences between online and on campus students in transactional distance, motivation, satisfaction, or learning outcomes regardless of the online learning/teaching model used. Shin and Chan (2004) found that perceived institutional presence — the degree to which online learners felt connected to the university — was positively related to learning outcomes, satisfaction with the course, and intent to stay in the program.
Attitudes and norms influence how students interact in the online classroom. Sivo, et al. (2007) reported that attitudes toward the WebCT interface and perceived social pressure to use technology influenced how often students interacted in the online classroom and their final grades in the class. Some research suggests that online discussion has a more positive impact on student learning than in person discussion. Kramarski and Mizrachi’s (2006) study of seventh–grade math classes found that students who participated in online discussion and problem solving outperformed their face–to–face counterparts in math literacy and real–life tasks.
In Sauers and Walker’s (2004) study of business writing classes, students in the traditional classes interacted with each other far less than those in the hybrid (Web–enhanced) classes. The most notable impact of incorporating online discussions into the writing class was the significant skill improvement for nonnative speakers. Overall, students in the hybrid classes displayed higher levels of improvement in their writing than those in the traditional classroom. The researchers attributed this improvement to increased active learning (discussions and online activities) promoted in the online environment. Similarly Rodriguez, et al. (2006) found that students in a biology course for nonmajors who engaged more actively in online discussions also scored higher on the final test.
In contrast, Davies and Graff (2005) found that frequency of participation in online discussion did not lead to higher grades in a college business course, but those who participated infrequently did earn lower grades. However, students who logged on to the course website more often did perform better in the class than those who did not access the course Web site as often. The authors qualified their findings, arguing that quality of interaction in online discussions, rather than quantity, may be the better predictor of student achievement.
Studies focusing specifically on communication have revealed that online classes can alter the flow of communication from student–teacher–student to student-student. Lobel, et al. (2005) discovered that in the in person classroom, students tended to address their comments toward the instructor or other identified expert. In the online class, students interacted more directly with each other. Rodriquez, et al. (2006) found that online discussions required students “to consider previous peer interventions before including their own.”  Because students depended on what others wrote to construct their own responses, communication occurred between students, rather than first through the instructor and then to the other students.
Critical progressive pedagogy challenges instructors to design their courses in ways that interrogate accepted — yet unexamined — ways of knowing, critique standard forms of knowledge included in textbooks, and invite diverse voices into classroom discourse. In short, “A principal distinguishing characteristic of critical pedagogy is its immediate emphasis on dominant versus nondominant academic practices.”  Critical progressive pedagogy questions taken–for–granted practices and offers alternative readings of those practices. Interrogating the structure of learning management systems such as Blackboard brings to light the unnoticed ways in which the software frames online classroom interaction.
Just as utopic visions of the Internet predicted an egalitarian online world where information flowed freely and power became irrelevant, so did many proponents of online education, who viewed online classrooms as a way to free students and instructors from traditional power relationships (Goldberg and Riemer, 2006). In discussing the Internet and cultural production, Sandvig (2006) argued:
“The Internet seems, at first glance, to deliver the whole of human creativity to us and to open avenues of expression that were formerly closed. Yet the same structures of the Internet that grant these new ways to speak also ensure that no one will ever hear you.” 
Moving a course from in–person to online profoundly changes how the course is taught and how instructors and students think about teaching and learning. Yet does the online classroom truly alter the power relationship between instructors and students?
Brent (2005) differentiated between the performance and textual metaphors for online teaching/learning. Based on the performance metaphor, knowledge becomes a process involving all learners (including instructors), rather than an object or thing produced by instructors for students. As Brent noted, viewing teaching as performance has endured any number of new technologies, including the printing press, radio, and television. Teaching and learning benefit from these technologies, but a book, radio program, or television show do not substitute for a classroom and the learning that takes place as participants interact with each other.
The technology used to deliver an online class influences how students and instructors interact with one another. More than previous technologies, online learning systems have the potential to enhance the collaborative performative nature of teaching, and at the same time, the potential to turn teaching into a static exercise, or what Brent calls textualization. As performative teaching, online classes allow for continual updating, integration of multimedia, ongoing discussions, and real–time chats. As textualized teaching, online classes become “plug and play,” where the person who designed the course may not even teach it and little about the class changes from term to term.
As the physicality of a classroom structures student–instructor and student–student interaction, online course delivery platforms such as Blackboard provide the framework for class communication. And like the room, seating arrangement, and other aspects of the in person classroom context, Blackboard’s structure largely goes unnoticed. Yet how a classroom is organized, whether in person or online, will influence how communicators interact within that classroom.
Rose (2004) argued in her critique of learning management systems that the mediated tools instructors use to teach their classes are not value–free. The author lamented that “there is no acknowledgment of the fundamental transformations that must be wreaked upon content imported into platforms such as WebCT and Blackboard, nor of the fact that the very structure of these systems constrains instructional possibilities and decision–making.”  Like a highly bureaucratic organization, once a structure is built into a learning management system, changing the structure becomes unimaginable (Sandvig, 2006).
In the next section, I examine the structure of Blackboard 8.0, the company’s traditional and more popular learning management system. I also discuss Blackboard CE 6, a hybrid of Blackboard and WebCT.
Blackboard’s hierarchical organization is reflected in the Control Panel instructors use to develop and manage a class. includes six units in the top-level tier — Content Areas, Course Tools, Course Options, User Management, Assessment, and Help (Figure 1). These units or areas vary somewhat based on the version of Blackboard a university uses as well as global customization determined by a university’s systems administrator. In addition, instructors have some control over what is included in the Content Areas and Course Tools. However, instructors cannot move features from one area to another. For example, Announcements must remain within Course Tools and External Links must remain within Content Areas. This structure may be made transparent for students by linking directly to specific functions, such as Messages, in the Course Menu (left navigation bar).
Figure 1: Screen Shot of sample Blackboard 8.0 course control panel.
Much like Blackboard 8.0, Blackboard CE 6 presents a fairly rigid hierarchy that instructors must follow. Unlike Blackboard 8.0, Blackboard CE 6 includes no control panel function that allows designers a visual representation of all available options on a single page. Instead, the instructor relies on drop down menus for the Add File and Add Content Link functions (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Screen shot of Blackboard CE 6 manage course page.
Although Blackboard CE 6 reduces some of the linearity and “drill down” requirements of Blackboard 8.0, both versions constrain how instructors can structure a course.
Both Blackboard platforms provide several ways for instructors and students to communicate: asynchronous discussion boards and blogs, synchronous chat, and e–mail. Blackboard 8.0 also has a wiki function and Blackboard CE 6 has a journal function, or a personal blog. In addition, Blackboard 8.0 includes two versions of chat, a synchronous virtual classroom collaboration tool that allows an instructor to “lecture” in text and use a whiteboard, and a chat room for office hours. In the lecture hall, students may pose questions for the instructor to answer. Blackboard CE 6 does not have a virtual classroom, but does include a whiteboard with the chat function — a stripped down version of the virtual lecture hall. In addition, Blackboard CE 6 identifies who is online in the class at any given time so those who are online can chat. This version of Blackboard lists announcements (only instructors and system administrators can create announcements) and roster (includes participants’ profiles) as communication tools (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Blackboard CE 6 communication tools.
Both platforms provide some ability to embed image and video files, yet for the most part, communication is text–based. For example, students may attach files or include links to images in the discussion boards. Chat in Blackboard CE 6 includes a whiteboard to which images may be uploaded. However, this feature is cumbersome to use while chatting.
New to Blackboard 8.0, he blog and wiki tools allow for embedded images and video. In their comparison of Palace, an image and text–rich online discussion platform, and ChatNet, a text–only discussion platform, Smith, et al. (2003) found that the former produced more interpersonal interactions and overall more communication than ChatNet. Palace, with the use of avatars, sound, and text balloons, produced a more interactive — although sometimes distracting — environment for learners. The researchers concluded, “It seems that since learners found the Palace to be more enjoyable while at the same time perceiving their own and their partner’s messages to be more intelligible, this may have encouraged quantitatively more discourse during the Palace activity.” 
In Blackboard 8.0, messages in a discussion board or forum may be sorted by thread, author, date, and the like. Instructors may also allow messages to be rated, posted anonymously, removed and modified by the author, and include attached files. To post, participants may start a new thread or reply to a thread. Unfortunately, replies to a thread are not visible on the main discussion board page unless the user is in “tree view” and selects “expand all.” In the default view, replies are not listed.
Both Blackboard 8.0 and CE 6 allow instructors to grade a forum, discussion, blog, or journal. When the instructor clicks on the “grade” icon, messages are grouped by individual student. This system seems convenient for grading, but it completely decontextualizes those messages. That is, in viewing only what a specific student has posted, the context in which the message was posted is lost. Using the Grade View for assessment assumes that student messages are self–contained and misses the interactivity of online discussion.
Blackboard CE 6 discussion is very similar in appearance to Blackboard 8.0, but blends the pop–up window feature of the old WebCT, so requires less drilling down than Blackboard 8.0. Instructors may set up a variety of restrictions/options such as peer rating. In addition, instructors determine “Topic Behavior Options,” such as Student Posting Rules (post and reply, post but no reply, reply and not post, edit after posting). Blackboard CE 6 discussion also includes rudimentary a blog and journal features. The blog resembles the traditional discussion area, although the text of each entry is displayed on the page, with viewers clicking to read comments in a pop–up box. The journal option is simply a blog that may be private (student and instructor only) or public. All discussion features may be grouped by category.
Mullen (2002) observed that “while many IT professionals regard software products as value–neutral, it is entirely possible to demonstrate … that programs enact a variety of assumptions common to the specific and general cultures out of which they emerge.”  A linear view of conversations is the primary assumption underlying the discussion boards — conversations like those in novels, rather than those in the classroom or everyday life.
The use of threads implies a continuity that belies how conversations unfold, often straying from their original topic, with detours, side bars, and talkovers. The Palace software Smith, et al. (2003) described — with avatars, text, and audio — better mirrors everyday conversation both in structure and in use. For example, students were much more likely to go off task when using Palace than when using the text–only discussion software. Van der Pol, et al. (2008) found that the structure of Blackboard’s discussion area produced evaluative peer feedback. In contrast, a discussion tool that provided a more collaborative work space led to more concrete suggestions and constructive feedback.
Online class discussions typically involve more student–student interaction and less instructor–student interaction. Lobel, et al. (2005) found that instructors were the center of the interaction network during in person discussions whereas the group was the center during online discussions. Blackboard’s discussion feature allows students to interact directly with each other, bypassing the instructor. However, the degree of structural flexibility in a Blackboard discussion board resides to a large extent in the decisions the instructor makes. May students attach files? May students start new discussion threads? May students post anonymously? Do they rate each other’s messages? What is the rating system?
Instructors typically set the requirements for discussion, such as how often students must post, the questions they must answer, how they must incorporate what others say into their messages, and the length of the messages. Moreover, some instructors simply transfer the instructor–>student and student–>instructor–>student interaction pattern to the online class through their own participation in and requirements for participation. For example, if instructors establish themselves as the primary expert on a topic, then students will tend to focus their concerns on instructor feedback rather than on their classmates’ messages (Dennen, 2007).
The structure of online discussion boards, however rudimentary, can have the capacity to facilitate increased student–student communication and decrease the predominance of student–instructor or student–instructor–student communication. Dennen (2007) found that too much or too little instructor participation in online discussions reduced the number of messages students posted. Effectively facilitating online student discussion required a balancing act in which the instructor encouraged learner–centered discussion and still exerted authority as the expert on the topic and pedagogy.
Blogs might hold the greatest potential for breaking out of the traditional discussion board mode. Farmer (2006) observed that although discussion boards initially provided a useful tool for distance education, they have resulted in focusing on the space for communication rather than the individuals who are communicating. Blogs, Farmer argued, have the potential to completely reconceptualize online learning by shifting attention back to students, their identities, and their voices. In addition, Burgess (2006) argued that student blogging provides a key venue for assessing student learning. A Pew Internet and American Life study found that more than half of teens surveyed produce Internet content, with nearly 20 percent creating their own blogs (Lenhart and Madden, 2005).
The text–only blog function in Blackboard CE 6 does not function in the ways Farmer (2006) suggested are essential for a richer learning experience. Blogs on the greater Internet integrate photos, video, and audio as well as text, providing authors with a range of media to express themselves. With its emphasis on text and ease of grading, Blackboard’s blog varies little from the traditional discussion board. Moreover, blogging in the larger blogosphere allows for the possibility of students engaging with a wider audience (Burgess, 2006). Remaining within the password protected Blackboard classroom Web site restricts the free exchange of ideas Farmer (2006) insisted is crucial to rescuing online education from its present segmented state.
Although Blackboard 8.0 and CE 6 include chat, because online classes typically are asynchronous, chat is rarely used for regular instruction and assignments. The Blackboard 8.0 chat feature for office hours works well when a few students are online, but like any text chat program, relies on how fast participants are able to type. Blackboard CE 6 allows instructors to create chat rooms and restrict the number of participants, but not who may participate. The instructor selects the chatroom properties, such as whether or not a log is kept and if private conversations are allowed. The Who’s Online feature mimics common instant messaging programs and gives students an easy route to engage in chat.
Blackboard 8.0’s mail function links directly to the instructor’s and students’ university e–mail account. All participants may e–mail specific individuals, groups, or everyone in the class. Blackboard CE 6 allows mail forwarding, but only at the account, not the class level. For example, I have a separate e–mail account for each class I teach. With Blackboard CE 6, all mail from all classes must be forwarded to the same e–mail account.
Blackboard lists the announcements page and roster as two additional communication tools. Announcements provide one–way communication from the instructor to the student. Roster allows all participants to generate a list of all class members that includes links to their homepages and e–mail addresses. Blackboard’s student Web page function is rudimentary, providing users with only limited formatting and content options. Announcements and student homepages provide little in the way of interaction. E–mail does allow for interaction. However, both platforms lack a “reply to all” function. So while a sender may e–mail a message to multiple class members, the receiver may only reply to the sender, unless the receiver adds others to the distribution list.
Decision–makers in four key roles lend a black–box effect to the infrastructure of Blackboard Inc.’s learning management systems: Blackboard Inc. employees, such as designers, engineers, and marketing personnel; university administrators; instructors; and students. The decisions these groups make impact how the courseware and specific class are structured. The decision–making occurs in a hierarchical fashion, with those at the top — Blackboard Inc. organization members — having the most control over the software’s structure and those at the bottom having the least. For example, Blackboard CE 6 allows users to have it open only in one window per browser. I asked my university’s support staff why this was the case, but they did not know. After checking with Blackboard Inc., the support staff reported it was to prevent students from cheating on quizzes. Yet I wanted students to access various parts of the class Web site when taking a quiz so they might refer to online lectures, discussion, and other materials. Of course, the savvy students simply opened Blackboard in a different browser.
When I first started teaching online in 1999, I designed my own class Web site in HTML, uploaded it to my own server space, and e–mailed students the URL. I used a free open source discussion board and a free quiz service. I hosted the class listserv on ONElist (now Yahoo! Groups). That first class I cobbled together in many respects is not much different from the current structure using Blackboard 8.0 or CE 6. Still, as Mullen (2002) observed, merging all the functions of online teaching and learning into a single space does offer a more seamless experience for students and instructors.
The Blackboard learning management systems provide mechanisms for students to interact directly with each other and the instructor. But these platforms have yet to move beyond fairly basic communication features. What has changed is the instructor’s increased ability to track students’ use of the class Web site: number of messages posted, number of messages read, and how many times various pages or sections are accessed. Mullen (2002) argued that this type of information seems to provide an objective measure of student engagement, but in fact creates a dangerously decontextualized, essentialized image of a class in which levels of “participation” stand in for evidence of learning having taken place. Students are treated not as learners, as partners in an educational enterprise, but as users .
Moreover, unless an instructor explicitly tells students that data are collected on their class Web site use, they likely do not know such data collection occurs. Blackboard and education institutions post no disclaimers or explanations of the user data collected on class Web sites.
Each new version of Blackboard includes upgraded assessment tools, such as the grade function for discussion boards, yet less control for instructors and students over how they wish to structure their online experiences. Facilitation of rich and sophisticated communication in online classrooms requires thinking outside the box — thinking outside of Blackboard Inc. and other for–profit learning management software systems.
At the university administrative level, use of open source rather than propriety software can save the institution money and allows tech–savvy faculty to actively participate in refining the course delivery platform (Stewart, et al., 2007). Moodle, probably the best known course management system, is used by hundreds of U.S. universities, from Alaska Pacific University to Woodbury College, as well as thousands of educational institutions in over 200 other countries (Moodle, 2009). Interestingly, Blackboard announced in late 2008 that the company was creating a way for Iowa State University students to access Moodle pages within the Blackboard learning management system (Young, 2008).
Smith, et al. (2003) argued that online classrooms vary along four dimensions: temporality (synchronous versus asynchronous), anonymity (completely anonymous to knowing others’ identities), modality (text, audio, images, video), and spatiality (ability to manipulate spatial distances, as with using graphical chat). In comparing more text–based, asynchronous, and anonymous classroom interactions with more graphical, synchronous, and multimedia online classrooms, Smith, et al. found a heightened sense of social presence in the latter as well as more communication.
Similarly, Liaw (2007) identified multimedia instruction as a key component of students’ perceptions of online learning effectiveness and satisfaction. These studies suggest that incorporating multimedia Internet resources, such as the virtual world Second Life, Sloodle (an early integration of Second Life and Moodle), and blogging venues such as Blogger, may provide an enhanced learning experience for students and take a more performative approach to teaching.
Working within Blackboard, faculty should closely attend to their own role in creating the course and facilitating interaction. Dennen’s (2007) analysis of instructor participation in online discussions or forums found that how and how often instructors posted influenced the quality of student discussion and sense of instructor presence. Instructors who blended information–giving with information–seeking strategies were the most adept at facilitating robust student discussion.
As with the physical space of in person classes, students have little say in the technology used to deliver online courses. However, students can vote with their feet by not taking classes that rely on Blackboard or other proprietary LMS. Students can also request to communicate outside the LMS. In addition, students may band together and petition university administrators to use open source and alternative platforms for online classes.
Although Blackboard kept some of WebCT’s features in the development of Blackboard CE 6, the intensely hierarchical nature of Blackboard persists producing a textualized approach to teaching and learning. This hierarchy reflects the power structure embedded in e–learning management systems: Blackboard Inc. designers and marketers who determine the learning environment’s structure; university administrators who determine which features should and should not be included as well as instructor access to managing features; instructors who determine which features should be available to students and how the class website should be structure within the platform’s parameters; and, students, who determine how they will use the interface within the structure designed by Blackboard Inc., university administrators, and instructors.
In her critique of online education, Boler (2002) argued:
“The brave new world of digital education promises greater access, increased democratic participation, and the transcendence of discrimination through pure minds. We must interrogate the actuality of these hypes: who has access, is participation online transformative, and is transcendence of difference a goal of progressive pedagogies?” 
This essay examined the taken–for–granted structure embedded in two Blackboard platforms. With Blackboard Inc.’s dominance in the e–learning software market, interrogating the courseware’s infrastructure highlights the ways in which the company’s designers structure online learning and teaching experiences.
Research on power distribution in online classes traditionally focuses on instructors and students, yet in the case of for–profit patented technology such as Blackboard, those who design the e–learning system software must be included in the mix. As Egéa–Kuehne (2002) argued, “those who own the knowledge and tools are the privileged few who are reconstructing the world, redefining it and the means to know it on a so–called global scale.”  Blackboard, particularly with its acquisition of WebCT and ANGEL, has become emblematic of the privileged few who are constructing the e–learning world.
Rose (2004) argued that the basic motivation for the development of e–learning platforms is efficiency of scale — teaching more students for less money. Taking an historical perspective on distance learning, the author noted that online course delivery systems trace their origins back to the 1950s and 1960s when individualized teaching became in vogue. In 1959, B.F. Skinner proposed the idea of a teaching machine that provided individualized instruction to each student. Students progressed through the course material on their own, learning at their own pace. Combined with the enthusiasm for Taylor’s scientific management approach to organizing, individualization was used as a more efficient and effective way to teach. The teaching machine started to fall out of favor in the late 1960s because, as Rose (2004) observed, “individualization was, in short, mass production made to look like customization.”  However, the assumption of individualization has made its way into the promotion of online learning in the form of personalization and learner–centeredness. As Rose (2004) wrote, “In education, the cult of efficiency, couched within the terms of a purportedly empowering individualization of instruction, is leading s inexorably to a time when, according to some forecasters, not only the class, but the campus as a whole, will be obsolete.” 
Rose may have engaged in a bit of hyperbole, but the aims of Blackboard administrators and management likely conflict with many instructors’ goals. Although Blackboard designers structure the course platform for efficiency and profit, instructors and students need a course environment optimized for learning and performative teaching.
About the author
Stephanie J. Coopman is Professor of Communication Studies at San José State University, San José, California.
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Paper received 20 February 2009; accepted 14 May 2009.
Copyright © 2009, First Monday.
Copyright © 2009, Stephanie J. Coopman.
A critical examination of Blackboard’s e–learning environment
by Stephanie J. Coopman.
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 6 - 1 June 2009
A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.
© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.