Higher Education Teaching

Blackboard and the arse end of the internet

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.

One reply on “Blackboard and the arse end of the internet”

Tell us how you really feel. I’ve used different LMS’s for fully online courses, including Angel, Moodle, Blackboard, and some that were custom designs for the school. They all sucked in their own way. Some had terrible UI, some were pathetically slow. I don’t much mind the version of Blackboard I’m using at the moment, but I think a lot of the student experience depends on how you organize the course. I’ve seen some pretty messy Blackboard courses plagued by content sprawl that created a feeling of overwhelm. I organize my 16-week course into 8 modules lasting two weeks each, I tend to share resources and outside links in the announcements section, which not only reduces the sprawl in the content area, but conveys a more active presence on my end.

As far as outside apps for interaction, I’ve used IM’s, Adobe Connect, edublogs, and WordPress. I’ve really liked how things have turned out with WordPress. I have each student create a blog, where they post a textual argument and a visual argument (in separate posts). They are then required to post at least three comments on others’ blogs. This is a fun assignment that surprisingly simulates well the attention economy that characterizes the blogosphere. That is, students who foster more interaction (i.e., get more comments) are the students who show up, who create a well designed blog (visually pleasant and easy to navigate), who have clearly defined their blog’s purpose, and who have done enough research on their topic to engage with it in an interesting or meaningful way.

What’s been most surprising is that 99% percent of the students complete the assignment (and this is a community college in a somewhat rural area, where many of the students are working adults or are returning after a long break from school). I’ve only had to accept alternative assignments a few times in the last year and a half. Do I think these students are digitally literate because they were able to successfully put up a WordPress site? Certainly not, but I like to think they move on with a few important lessons. One, digital literacy requires a playful approach to using tools, where tinkering should be encouraged. I tell students not feel intimated by the unfamiliar WordPress dashboard, but to just play around with it until they become oriented–I tell them to pull up a Youtube video if you’re not sure how to adjust one of the settings (I share some of these vids myself in the announcements). I think that figuring things out as you go is a good approach to digital writing because tools are always changing. Some of the “pros” that I follow are constantly experimenting with new tools and apps. I think teaching undergrads this mindset is good for the instrumental part of their digital literacy. I do follow the blog project with a reflection assignment that briefly has them engage with questions of the social, economic, and critical dimensions of working with their blogs, but since it’s a first-year comp course, we don’t talk about any specific theories or anything, at least not directly.

Anyway, looking forward to seeing what apps or tools you end up using in your upcoming courses. Good luck.


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