Fifteen years ago I was working in an institution which invested in Blackboard as its first VLE. Looking back, I remember how relieved I was when the institution got Blackboard. We had been running a distance learning programme by email and paper correspondence. The mixed messages going to the students by email from all the different tutors on the programme was a bit of a nightmare. Blackboard saved us from that. We were able to have all the information about the programme in one place, visible to everyone, we didn’t have to send out endless emails to large cohorts of students and we were able to cut down on paper correspondence. However, what we did need to do was learn how to use Blackboard, how to organise the programme on Blackboard so that students could easily find their way round and access the materials, and most of all (and most difficult) learn how to interact with students and teach on Blackboard, which involved a new pedagogical approach. Some tutors found this problem insurmountable, others, myself included, found the potential exciting.
Fifteen years later, I don’t see huge changes in Blackboard and there are still tutors for whom online learning is an anathema. But 15 years later I am no longer relieved to be working in Blackboard. I now find it an obstacle. Things that should be easy, such as blogging, editing and uploading videos, live synchronous sessions, using wikis etc. are unnecessarily difficult in Blackboard, or they are in the version of Blackboard that I am using.
A bit of context is needed here because others using Blackboard might not have the same issues in their courses and in their institutions. The context is the development of an online MA in Education. This is a recently revalidated programme which is ambitious in design. Hats off to the programme team and programme leader for this. The programme includes thirty-four modules varying between 10, 20, 30 and 60 credits which are distributed across 6 different learning pathways. The idea is that this will allow people in full-time demanding work, who are time poor, to build up the required 180 credits slowly or more quickly, as they wish, and thus have a chance of fitting the MA around their demanding work loads. I am currently working with 10 tutors on this programme, and thoroughly enjoying working with them face-to-face and learning from them.
From the perspective of the management of a complex programme, a centralised location such as Blackboard can help students to orientate themselves. A well managed programme can ensure a consistency of approach which will reduce confusion and help students to navigate the site and find the appropriate modules for their personalised programme. Tutors and students can maintain an overview of the entire programme, whilst at the same time easily locating their modules. The Blackboard programme site also provides a centralised and secure location for any work related to assessment. These are arguments that can be put forward in favour of a VLE/LMS like Blackboard.
But what are the downsides of working within a VLE like Blackboard? In 2009 Stephanie Coopman, in a critical examination of Blackboard’s e-learning environment, wrote:
…. 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 structured 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.
Notice that students come right at the bottom of the list here. In Blackboard it is easy as a tutor to fall into the trap of thinking of teaching as something that is done to students, and as students to think of learning as something to be received. For both tutors and students autonomy can be constrained by the functionality of Blackboard. As Audrey Watters writes (2014) it ‘shapes, limits and steers our practices’.
In September last year Audrey Watters gave a talk to Newcastle University – Beyond the LMS , where she ended up by saying …
Let’s move beyond the LMS, back to and forward to an independent Web and let’s help our students take full advantage of it, because in her view ‘Blackboard sucks’.
Whilst I hold many of the same reservations about Blackboard, how is a tutor or student to respond to this? The fact that ‘Blackboard sucks’ doesn’t help those tutors and students who have to work within these constraints. They don’t have much of a choice.
For the people I am working with i.e. the tutors and the IT and library support people, the students are not at the bottom of the hierarchy but are their first concern. These are people who are immensely skilled at what they do, with years of experience behind them, but there’s no getting away from the fact that Blackboard is a constraint. For some this is a conscious constraint, for others it is unconscious. But isn’t that life? We all work within constraints of one sort or another.
How could Blackboard’s constraints be minimised? How can students and tutors reap the benefits of Blackboard, i.e. ease of finding resources, maintaining an overview of the programme, and the security of the assessment submission process, whilst at the same time reaping the benefits of autonomy, openness, diversity and connectivity offered by the open Web? On reflecting on this I think it has a lot to do with having an appropriate mindset. We have to recognise what the positives of working within an LMS might be, acknowledge the constraints, keep an open mind, be willing to experiment (and fail sometimes) and look for ways to overcome the constraints.
I have not been contracted to work with students, but if I were, I would look to see how I could support student autonomy and I would also want to increase my own autonomy. I think these are some of the things I might try. I would try to encourage students to set up WordPress blogs and would aggregate them within Blackboard, I would try using Skype and Google Hangout, providing links within Blackboard, I might try using a Facebook site or Google + for discussion, again providing the link within Blackboard (although personally I am not a fan of Facebook) and if I wanted to use a wiki I would try using pbWorks or Wikispaces, and provide the link in Blackboard.
The question would then remain, how open should these spaces be, and how accessible would they be for all the students? I know that the institution I am working for is concerned, quite rightly, about mobile access. And I also know that students can feel very vulnerable in open spaces. We ourselves, as tutors, can feel vulnerable in open spaces. These are not easy decisions to make and each tutor has to individually decide how best to work with their students, and what is best for them.
Ultimately it all comes down to personal philosophies of education; what do we want for our students, what kinds of spaces and environments do students need to learn in this digital age and how will we meet them in these spaces?
As I wrote in a recent post after hearing Ron Barnett speak at Liverpool John Moores University
The curriculum is not as important as pedagogy, i.e. the student/teacher relationship. We need to open up pedagogical space for our students and search for spaces of possibility. We should support our students in developing the dispositions needed for a world of challenge.
I think this can be done, even within Blackboard!
This is what I have thought most about over the past month – so this is my post for June 2015, although I have also made other posts during June.