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.


1 comment:

marty friedman said...

Lance, many of my colleagues and I are 100% with you and your colleagues regarding Blackboard. We can't stand it, use the minimal aspects that will satisfy what we need to use for a course. Disorganized is being way too nice; it's a nightmare in many respects. There's no logic or reason between most of the links, it's extremely hard to follow (I grade discussions off-line on a spreadsheet since any new entry overrides the previous grade in the gradebook.) SUNY has adopted it as their platform after buying out Angel (which was very user-friendly) and another online platform who's name now escapes me, thereby creating a near-monopoly of these tools. New students take up to 2-3 weeks to get the feel for it (a bit less for faculty) when so much more productivity would be gained without it.

I'm glad you had the guts to call it out as it is!

Marty Friedman, SCCC, MS Psychology Adjunct