Working in Blackboard

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 17.26.29Source of image

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!

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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.

The MOOC Bandwagon

As others have noted – most recently Bon Stewart in her Inside Higher Ed article  – everyone seems to be jumping on the MOOC bandwagon at an alarming rate.

This week the JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee, UK ) has jumped on it with a webinar entitled

What is a MOOC – JISC Webinar 11-07-12

Four speakers were invited. Here is the programme and here is the recording
12.00 Definitions of MOOCs (Martin Weller)
12.10 Tutor perspective (Jonathan Worth)
12.20 Learner perspective (Lou McGill)
12.30 MOOCs and online learning (David White)
12.40 Q&A

Martin Weller presented a useful overview of the history of MOOCs and some thoughtful ideas about the benefits of MOOCs and the associated concerns in relation to Higher Education.

Jonathan Worth told us about his ‘open’ photography course in which he uses Twitter with his students to reach a wider network of experts. I was not sure that this is a MOOC in my terms, although it was clearly an ‘open’ course. It got me thinking about whether using different technologies necessarily means that the course is distributed across different platforms, which according to Stephen Downes is a necessary condition for a MOOC (at least a connectivist MOOC).

Lou McGill is a staunch advocate of the DS106 MOOC, in which she has been a learner and she shared her experience of authentic learning in this MOOC. She is also working with Strathclyde University to research learner experiences in the Change11 MOOC.  I was a participant in Change 11 and was also interviewed by Lou McGill for the research – an interesting experience in which I realized that my understanding of ‘What is a MOOC?’ stems from CCK08, but many, many people who are discussing MOOCs today were not in that MOOC and appear to be coming from a different place.

Dave White pondered on why the Stanford MOOC attracted such large numbers and thought it must be to do with their credibility and brand name. He raised the question of the role of the teacher/facilitator in MOOCs and suggested that this is important if MOOCs are to be inclusive. This is a topic we have been discussing in our review the FSLT MOOC.

These are my reflections as a result of attending this webinar.

There are still plenty of people who have technical difficulties accessing a site like Blackboard Collaborate. We cannot make assumptions that people have the technical equipment or skills to engage in MOOCs.

Whilst MOOCs might be the new buzzword in Higher Education, there are still plenty of people who have never heard of them, only just heard of them, have no idea what they are, or who completely misunderstand what they are.

The original connectivist principles of MOOCs are getting lost in the plethora of offerings which now bear the name MOOC, e.g.

  • CCK08 (the original MOOC) was an experiment in getting people to think about learning differently;
  • the idea was that learners could be in control of their learning and meet in learning spaces of their own choice  according to the principle of distributed environments (see slide 33 in this presentation by Stephen Downes) and see his LMS vs PLE video
  • learners would experience learning in the massiveness of the network – so they would not be able to rely on the tutor/convener/facilitator – instead they would need to make connections and seek peer support. In the light of this our understanding of the relationship between teacher and learner would need to change
  • the purpose of learning in a MOOC would be to create knowledge and artefacts through exposure to a diverse network, rather than have it centrally provided. This would, through the aggregation, remixing, repurposing and feeding forward of resources shared and created, enrich the learning experience
  • MOOCs were never intended – despite the name – to be ‘courses’ ( see this blog post  and this response from Stephen Downes ); they were intended to be a challenge to the traditional notion of a course – in the form of learning events. If they don’t do this then they are ‘open courses’ (with some of the attributes of MOOCs), but not MOOCs in the terms of how they were originally conceived.

This is my understanding of what is meant by MOOC – now renamed (in the light of different interpretations) a connectivist MOOC. Many of the most recent courses which have been called MOOCs are not MOOCs in these terms, but fall somewhere along the continuum from connectivist MOOCs with these principles, to the Stanford AI type of centrally located MOOC (see Stephen Downes’ LMS vs PLE video for an explanation)

It is evident that there is room for all these different types of MOOCs or ‘open courses’.   But I hope we will not lose the principles of the CCK08 type of connectivist MOOC, as it is the connectivist MOOCs that are really pushing against the boundaries and challenging traditional ways of thinking about teaching and learning, which is of course why many people feel uncomfortable with them and why we are now seeing efforts to somehow tie them down and bring them into line.