There’s no doubt there is no dearth of cesspools on the web, and I wouldn’t want to get into a debate about which is the worst. But Blackboard is it’s own special circle of internet hell.
As I’ve mentioned a few times here, after ending my stint as WPA, I’m back to teaching a regular load this year. So I decided to use UB’s course management system for at least part of what I was doing. There were really two basic reasons I did this. First, the students use UBlearns (as well call our version of Blackboard) for many of their classes and just expect to see things there. Second, it had been a long time since I’d even considered using a CMS. As WPA, I was teaching grad classes which were small, so there’s wasn’t really a need for it. Before that, I had sought out all manner of alternatives to using a university CMS, because the things were so awful 15 years ago.
Apparently they are still awful. In some respects they are even worse as the capacities of the web around them have left them in the dust. Think about WordPress, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google Docs, or Reddit. Consider how easy they are to use, how flexible, how fast, how mobile. Think about how easy it is to create, edit, and share content. UBneverlearns, as I’ve now decided to call it, like any CMS, is basically a graveyard of content and conversation. Or maybe it’s more accurate to call it a morgue, where the instructors do their version of CSI before pronouncing a grade.
Of course these other sites present their own pedagogical problems. There are privacy concerns, not only in terms of the data these sites collect but also in terms of how, as faculty, one will communicate grades and such to students. There’s the problem of having to ask students to create multiple accounts (e.g., we’ll have discussion on WordPress but upload your videos on YouTube, then let’s use Google Docs to work collaboratively on a document, etc.). And the reality is that a fair segment of students will struggle with the digital literacy demands of using multiple sites, even though there maybe is a legitimate argument for saying that they should learn how to do that.
From the faculty perspective, one can either take the default route of using Blackboard and following its path of least resistance, or one can devote a non-trivial amount of time to rolling one’s own learning environment. At least for me, as a digital rhetorician, there’s some overlap between figuring this stuff out for pedagogical purposes and the research that I do. For 99% of faculty this isn’t the case.
This is why I get a sardonic chuckle out of views like that offered by the Horizon Report, a document produced by experts in educational technology, who steadfastly claim that teaching digital literacy is a “solvable challenge” by which they mean one that they understand and know how to solve. Show me evidence that a significant portion of faculty are digitally literate? Products like Blackboard do little to convince me that even educational technologists are digitally literate. I mean higher education can’t even manage to produce a platform where one could even start to teach digital literacy.
The more I think about this, the more sick it makes me. 18 year olds entering college in the fall would have typically started kindergarten in 2005. Still we’ve spent the last decade teaching them to sit quietly in rows, take notes, read textbooks, complete worksheets, and pass standardized exams. Pretty much like I did in the 70s and 80s. While they may get the majority of their entertainment from the web, they’re barely better prepared to learn, communicate, collaborate, or work in a digital environment than I was at their age. And, obviously, faculty, overall, are barely better prepared to teach them such things and universities are barely better prepared to support such teaching and learning. Instead they give us products like Blackboard as if their sincerest wish is to persuade faculty to keep learning in meatspace. That’s the oddest thing about this since we all know that universities desire those online students.
So one of my goals for this summer will be figuring out some constellation of applications that I can integrate to teach my classes. I’m sure I will use UBneverlearns in a minimal way since the students will look there first: probably as a syllabus and a gradebook but nothing beyond that.