Thursday, December 1, 2016

On Blackboard

So, if you're in academia, you probably know more than a little about Blackboard. No, not the pirate, that's Blackbeard, although there is a connection of sorts, given piracy's association with digital media. And I'm not talking about the old fashioned educational technology of the chalkboard, either.

No, this is about a form of new media and digital technology used exclusively by educational institutions, brought to us by Blackboard, Inc., and its proprietary learning management system.

If you're a student, you most probably have used it for some of your classes at least. If you teach, maybe you use it, maybe you don't. For those of us who don't use it, some avoid Blackboard because they don't care for such technologies at all. 

Others, including new media mavens such as myself, are critical of it as a system and prefer to use tools that can be used outside of academia, such as those provided by Google. Doing so makes more sense if you're studying new media, and if you want to prepare students for working with new media outside of the ivory tower.

I do admit, though, that for other kinds of classes, I usually don't bother with the system, and opt for good old fashioned face-to-face interaction, and printed documents. It's not that I've never used Blackboard or would never use it in the future. I just don't love it.

Which brings me to a little article that was published last April 13th in Fordham's student newpaper, The Ram. The title was the piece is Blackboard as a Blight to Fordham Technology (I believe I gave them the Blackboard as a Blight, bit, prone as I am to hyperbole, and alliteration). The article was authored by Margarita Artoglou and Kristen Santer, in case you were wondering, and it begins like this:

The use of technology in the classrooms at Fordham can be extremely varied. One class may rely on technology, while another completely disregards it. Although students may bemoan the small bandwidth of Fordham Wi-Fi or the occasional faulty smartboard, most professors find that Fordham’s IT services and technology offerings are average compared to other schools.
Now as it continues we come to a relevant point:

Fordham offers several workshops to help get professors accustomed to new technology offerings and IT updates. Some of the workshops include introductions to SMARTBoards, Blackboard and creating and editing video files. Professor Lance Strate also agreed with the general consensus, “It’s a progression for sure, but I have seen schools that are much worse off than we are as far as not having [technological resources].”

Umm, I don't think the quote quite reflects what I was talking about, but let's say there's a spectrum, and maybe Fordham is somewhere in the middle, with our level of technology not as good as it could be, but better than a number of other schools. Of course, in some ways it would be better to have no technology at all than to have some technology that doesn't work quite work, and that leaves everyone feeling frustrated.

Be that as it may, let's turn to my friend, former student, and colleague, now teaching at Manhattan College, Mike Plugh, for a comment:

The continuous problem that professors seem to have with Fordham’s technology is Blackboard. Michael Plugh, a Communication and Media Studies professor, finds it frustrating. “Everything at Fordham is pretty straightforward, except Blackboard,” he said. “I’m sort of unwilling to get invested in Blackboard because I’m not convinced it has a life beyond itself.”

A scholar after my own heart, let me echo Mike's sentiments:;

Other dissatisfied professors with Blackboard were not as nice as Plugh. “I hate Blackboard,” Professor Lance Strate said. “I understand why it’s used but I think it’s a really badly designed system.” It seems that discontent may be an understatement of the professors’ feelings about Blackboard. It clearly seems to cause more problems instead of making them simpler and more convenient.

That's right, baby, I tell it like it is. But am I lone voice crying out in the wilderness? Maybe not:

Strate is not alone in terms of his problems with Blackboard. Many professors dismiss the system completely and use alternative, free software to communicate with their students. Among them is Professor Cornelius Collins, who finds Google Drive to be a much smoother user experience than Blackboard. “There are fewer steps [with Google Drive],” Collins said. “It’s integrated with students email and it suits my purposes. I find that Blackboard has built in so much functionality that it’s hard to do it in a streamlined way.”
 And then there's that important tenet in investigative journalism—follow the money trail:

At the point where professors are shunning paid-for software in favor of free substitutes, it is clear that Blackboard represents a blight on Fordham’s technological progress. Furthermore, if professors are choosing not to use Blackboard, then the university is needlessly wasting money on the program that could instead be put toward more fruitful pursuits.

All right now, let's cut to the chase, get to the nitty gritty, and hear from the students:

In addition, many Fordham students are disillusioned by Blackboard. “It’s completely disorganized. I never know what assignments are posted for what day,” Nicole Cappuccio, FCRH ‘18, said.

Students have also expressed distaste with the way that professors under-utilize the application. “None of my professors ever use the grading system on Blackboard either, and I think that’s a waste when I could be keeping tabs on my grades that way,” said Cappuccio.

And now, bringing the opinion-oriented article to a conclusion, here's what Artoglou and Santer have to say:

It is quite clear that Blackboard is an inferior platform for grading and source materials, especially when free platforms like Google Drive and WordPress are easily accessible. Fordham definitely needs to update Blackboard, either to a better platform or to a more workable interface with fewer bugs. However, the question becomes whether a university-wide platform like Blackboard is even necessary. Professors can just as easily use Google Drive and WordPress, and often prefer to.

Perhaps instead of spending money teaching professors how to use Blackboard, it could offer programs to help teach students basic technology, software and coding skills.  

 And there you have it!  And I certainly second the sentiment regarding teaching students about technology and coding, as a kind of literacy, media, digital, etc., that would go a long way in contributing to their education, when coupled with a sound liberal arts curriculum that helps them to learn how to think, how to think well (and critically), and simply, how to think.


Thursday, November 10, 2016

Thoughts on Trump

So, first of all, the good news is, I won my $100 bet with Paul Levinson. I was saying Trump was going to go all the way a year ago, actually. Not that I wanted him to, just that I could see the patterns that connected, historically, especially the parallels with our movie star turned president, Ronald Reagan.

So I was saying he was going to be our next president when we were talking at a department meeting at Fordham this past January, and Paul proposed the bet. It looked like a bad one on my part, as it required that Trump win the Republican nomination, something that didn't look at all promising at that moment, and then go on to win the presidency. My only out was that if Sanders became the Democratic nominee, the bet was off. Otherwise, Trump would go on to beat Hillary. That was the bet.

Back in March, I shared my views on a guest blog post for Visible Works Design, Trump By Design, which I recently reposted here on Blog Time Passing. And this also came up during the New York Society for General Semantics panel discussion held on September 9th, about which I posted recently: Political Talk & Political Drama Part 1: Election 2016. At that point I was already acknowledging that it didn't look good for Trump, and doubting my prediction even more by the time of our follow up NYSGS panel on October 26th, which I also posted recently: Political Talk & Political Drama Part 2.

So, it turns out I was right, and in case you missed it, Trump won. It's not the way I wanted things to turn out, but it does support the claim that media ecology provides better insight into contemporary politics than other approaches. Trump won by playing image politics, taking advantage of social media, and by sheer dominance of the news media. The only way he could have been stopped was if the news media had stopped covering him, which was never going to happen. The most mediagenic candidate won, or to use a term coined by Paul Heyer, Trump won on account of his exceptional media sense.

The irony is that Hillary Clinton read Walter Ong, and then Marshall McLuhan, when she was in college. The sad truth is that understanding media and media ecology does not guarantee a successful outcome, as Al Gore can testify to.

So, for us academics, most of whom were not supporters of Trump, as you might imagine, the one thing that we can look forward to is having much more material for critical analysis. This we share with comedians and humorists, who will have four years of Trump jokes to fall back on. It reminds me of 1972, after Nixon won re-election, and I picked up a copy of National Lampoon magazine. On an inside page, there was a photograph of the staff wearing party hats, blowing horns, looking like they were celebrating, like at a birthday party or New Years Eve. And the headline/caption read something like "Four More Years of Nixon Jokes!"

And I am gratified by the failure of the pollsters, once again, to provide an accurate prediction of the outcome. McLuhan called them galluptians (after the Gallup poll and Jonathan Swift's Lilliputians). And I think of the wonderful documentary about Edmund Carpenter, Oh What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me! One of the points stressed there, and in Carpenter's 1972 book of the same name, is that people change when then are suddenly able to see themselves. This applies to mirrors, and photographs, and the moving image. It also applies to the written words, through which we were able to see speech and thought, and to television. And polls give us another kind of reflection of ourselves, and that changes peoples' thinking and behavior. There is no question that they affect and distort the democratic process. This is bad. And if we cannot eliminate them altogether, I for one am happy to see them discredited.

I think we also have to acknowledge that this is, in fact, how democracy works. Nothing comes without a cost, and the cost of political freedom, such as it is, is that citizens may make poor choices, may elect incompetent or corrupt officials (hey, I live in New Jersey, know what I mean?), but what counts is the peaceful transition of power from one group to another. This is not to discount the potential for short term harm, but in the long run, it is a viable alternative to oligarchy and technocracy, both representing rule by entrenched elites.

 And we are long overdue for political realignment, and this may bring it on. While third, and fourth, parties were not a factor in the outcome, they did receive unprecedented attention, and that is a good thing. Maybe next time around, they will nominate better qualified candidates who voters can seriously consider and support.

On that score, I would very much like to see a political scientist who is well versed in how American government works provide a clear and detailed discussion of how our political system could function if we had three or four major parties, instead of just two. How would Congress work? Spell out how it could operate under such circumstances. And how would the presidential election work?

 So, back to reality, my heart goes out to all the Millennials who are nursing their own broken hearts about the outcome of this election. For most of us, it was a shock because it was so completely unexpected. But I think for us older folks, we know politics is where idealism goes to die, that it's often a dirty game, or at best the art of the possible. I love the Millennials, my students and my children, they are absolutely wonderful, generous, open, accepting, fair-minded. I really believe that they are going to make things better, and this election will stand as an important lesson for them, a kind of tempering if you will, that will prepare them for the future. Their generation is now book-ended by 9/11 and 11/9. The baby boomers were associated with extraordinary social progress, the change and progress that occurred in the 2nd half of the 20th century has been nothing short of revolutionary. I believe the Millennials will pick up that torch and carry it forward, much further even than we could conceive.

And so, the response should be clear: Be resolute. Be resilient. Stand up for what you believe. Defend those under siege, care for those in need. Do not stand idly by. For all people of good will, this amounts to a call for action.

 And this is not much consolation, I know, so here are a few more thoughts:

It may seem as if Trump can do whatever he wants to with a Republican Congress, but things generally do not work out that way. Now, they have no one to blame, and no one to fight with, except each other. Think about all the conflict that came up during the primaries. You can expect the honeymoon to be a short one, and the Republicans to start tearing themselves apart pretty quickly.

Nothing succeeds like failure, nothing fails like success. The Democrats will emerge much stronger, and hopefully more progressive. 

It is highly unlikely that Trump would win a second term, so the damage should be limited to four years. I had predicted that whoever wins this election would be a one-term president. We haven't had one since George H. W. Bush. And look forward to midterm elections in two years, which should usher in a Democratic Congress.

In fact, I think there is a fair chance that Trump will not finish out his term. He may resign out of frustration or for other reasons. He may be impeached. There is also a chance he will not live out his term, given his age, and those "second amendment people" he referred to who may feel betrayed when he inevitably crosses them, or just some crazy out there. My prediction that Trump would win was based on the similar pattern I recognized between him and Reagan, and Reagan was the last president to get shot. Trump's appeal to extremists and crazies means he has been playing with fire, so he should not be surprised if he gets burned.

Things are usually not as bad as they seem (also usually not as good). There is a tendency to overestimate the power of the presidency and possibilities for change. Much of our social structure cannot be easily altered, for good and for ill. 

Even a broken clock is right twice a day. There can be some positives, talk of more support for infrastructure, for example, more tolerance for LGBTQ (for a Republican), etc. Trump is not a fundamentalist, not an arch-conservative. Once you get past the personal, at the very least the actual policies may be better than if, say, Ted Cruz had won. Trump is, after all, a New Yorker.

A loose cannon leads to friendly fire. Again, the Republicans may suffer more damage than the Democrats.

Unintended consequences are inevitable, so even when things look bad, good things can come out of it. Again, we vastly overestimate the power of individuals to control events.

And finally, here is my mantra:

We survived Nixon.
We survived Reagan.
We survived two Bushs.
We will survive this too.

 The big scare during my childhood was the election of Nixon. People talked about leaving the country. And he was someone who was not only evil in various ways, but very effective as a politician. Would it better to have someone who is effective but without a moral compass or sense of decency, or someone who is inexperienced and largely incompetent?

The big scare of my young adulthood was the election of Reagan. People talked about leaving the country. People thought he would start a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. But we got through his two terms, and one more with his successor, Bush the Elder.

The more modest scare of my middle age was the election of George W. Bush. There was just this sense of him being a joke, childish, incompetent, and reliant on Dick Cheney, the evil power behind the throne. There was talk of a slide into fascism, and some people also talked about leaving the country. And there was the Iraq War, which was terrible, but without trying to minimize the harm that resulted, we got through it.

We got through the Civil War (although some say it never really ended), we got through two world wars, the great depression, Korea, Vietnam, Civil Rights, Watergate, the Arab oil embargo, the Iranian hostage crisis. We got through 9/11. We'll get through this.

It will be ok.