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The Tyranny of the Vertical : Are We There Yet?

The Tyranny of the Vertical

April 16, 2010 · Posted in Teaching 2.0 

My university uses Blackboard. When I say we use it, I mean that we have it available. It’s actually used by a very small percentage of the faculty. In my estimation there are a number of reasons for this–resistance to change, lack of effective implementation models, no mandate, lack of training, too much work, the usual litany. I used to think that it looked bad that so few professors were using this tool and tried to encourage more widespread use. However, I have joined the ranks of those who don’t use it for instruction–and let me tell you, it feels great!

First, a little background. I’m an instructional technology teacher. I used BB extensively for all of my classes. All of my assignments and supplementary materials were posted there. I used extensive embedded media resources and tweaked the HTML to make things look and work just right. But it wasn’t long before BB’s limitations started to show. Students couldn’t submit multiple iterations of a single assignment. (Didn’t the BB authors ever hear of rough drafts?) Discussion boards were uselessly difficult to follow. The tiny editing window was frustrating to use. Assignments–the heart of Blackboard, to me–wouldn’t copy from one semester to another and had to be recreated each time. I couldn’t make ad hoc student groups for projects. Students couldn’t access their work after the semester ended. Social networking tools such as blogs and wikis, while present, were pale imitations of the real thing. The gradebook didn’t interface with our Sungard grade reporting system. And then there was the endless clicking on OK buttons…

I decided to move my content to Google Sites. There I had much more control over the format and functionality of my content. Media files were much easier to manage. My students set up real blogs and used real wikis for their work and we linked them to the class site. Instead of working in a vertically integrated management system, students were working with real tools and learning skills that would help them in their future careers. They were developing portfolios using Google Sites (some purchasing their own domains from Google) and creating online materials for use in their classes. They were in control, not Blackboard. It has been liberating for all of us.

I’ve concluded that Learning Management Systems place a much greater emphasis on management than on learning, and the learning that does occur is not always transferable to the world outside of Blackboard. Learning how to use Blackboard is a dead-end skill for students. How much better is it for them to learn to create portfolios with real world tools, to be able to access their work after the semester ends, and to gain an appreciation of personal learning networks and a potential audience for their thoughts through social networking tools?

My use of Blackboard now consists of a link to the “real” class site and a My Grades button so that students can check the progress of their assignments–as long as they just submit one iteration of it. Next semester, I’m going to drop that function as well.

It’s great to be free of the tyranny of the vertical.

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Comments

12 Responses to “The Tyranny of the Vertical”

  1. Chris Beks on April 20th, 2010 11:17 am

    Hi Skip,

    Thanks for the post. Although I understand why you’ve moved away from Blackboard, I disagree with some of the facts you listed above.

    Blackboard is focused on management of a course, I actually think that is it’s purpose. That’s also it’s flaw as well, but many other faculty will trade that for the easy management structure. Whether this is good or bad, I’ll leave up to the faculty themselves.

    Currently over 40% of faculty use Blackboard in some fashion at the University. It has increased, and still is, over the past two years. There is a lot of training offered and available, at least 1 session each week. But few faculty show up. The new training department has put a big emphasis on providing training when and where a user wants, and for those that have taken advantage of that, it has worked VERY well.

    As for some features, students groups can be easily created, discussion boards have “subscribe” options now, and blogs and wiki’s that are integrated since January have the same tools as comparable tools out there, including RSS feeds. Blackboard can interface with the Sunguard SIS, and we use it for some functions in Blackboard. The Grade Center can be integrated, but it isn’t, and that’s done on purpose.
    Students can have access to their material after the course is over, if they want to. We don’t currently disable access automatically, but leave it up to the instructor to do so.

    Using Google Sites is a great alternative, and I would agree it gives you much bigger control and flexibility to work with your content. It requires quite a bit of work to manage that too, and it is likely open to everyone. i would argue that you spend as much time on that than you would in Blackboard, but I could be wrong. I think the bigger problem with using alternative technologies is that you will need to learn how to use them. Support and/or training is limited or not available at the University, which usually results in spending more time on developing materials for the tools used than you would in Blackboard.

    I’m happy to see you’re using a different method than Blackboard in your courses. Several other instructors have done the same. But the majority is looking for a way to do this very easily, without needing to know how to put together a Google Site, or using other, more open, tools.

    There is a need for a system like Blackboard. Until faculty embrace technologies that are similar in use, and open to any type of content, I don’t think we’ll see the end of vertical learning management systems.

  2. Skip on April 20th, 2010 12:26 pm

    Chris;

    I appreciate the very thoughtful reply. I still stand by my reasons for leaving it for instructional purposes, but you make some important points. My biggest frustrations still remain–assignments have to be recreated each semester, students lose access to their work (yes, instructors can leave the courses open, but not for individual students, and it’s not the student’s decision to make–the instructor decides for everyone, all or nothing), and students can’t submit multiple iterations of an assignment–the instructor has to either create a new, related assignment or delete the original submission, both of which fly in the face of ease of use and good pedagogy. I’d actually look much more favorably on Blackboard if these elements could be corrected.

    I agree with your assertion that Blackboard emphasizes management more than learning, and that is also one of my frustrations with the system. It’s an artificial construct–the work you do there basically stays there and isn’t integrated with other social networking tools. Learning to work within the BB system doesn’t prepare you for anything other than working in the BB system, at least in terms of leveraging social media for teaching and learning. I’d argue that my instructional time (and students’ learning time) is better spent learning to use real world tools that will carry over into their professions once they graduate. I prefer that students use “open” tools. They need to learn how to protect their privacy and operate in a social environment–time well spent, in my estimation.

    I sympathize with your assertion that, while training is offered frequently, few people take real advantage of it. I believe this has a lot to do with the lack of any sort of mandate to use BB in the university community and the fact that most instructors rarely get a chance to see how others are using BB in effective ways. The 40% figure that you cited is significantly higher than the figure I was quoted last spring (16%), and that figure was not 16% of the professors but was 16% of the COURSES that had any sort of Blackboard component. I have 9 courses and most faculty have more than one, so that 16% of courses probably didn’t represent more that 10% of the faculty. In any event, I’m happy to see that the usage is increasing so dramatically, even though 40% doesn’t seem like a widespread adoption.

    There are some features of Blackboard that I like very much–particularly the simple handling of creating Elluminate rooms for my classes. The gradebook feature is nice, but to use it effectively you have to recreate all of your assignments each semester. I’ve devolved into using it only as a way for students to check their grades since I don’t like recreating the assignments.

    I’m not advocating that instructors leave Blackboard (necessarily) but I think it’s important to see its limitations as well as its benefits. As you mention, whether or not to use Blackboard falls to the individual instructor. I used it extensively for years, but it just doesn’t work for me anymore. If were more of a portal, linked to the Sungard grading system and to real world SM tools, I’d be more inclined to use it and promote its use.

    I hope we can continue this conversation. It would be nice if the Blackboard folks were listening…

  3. Chris Beks on April 20th, 2010 2:17 pm

    Thanks Skip,

    I appreciate your feedback. A new version of Bb is out, and we’ll upgrade sooner or later. It has a much different, and in my opinion much improved, interface. It also allows for integration of some, but not many, social media tools.

    As far as the assignments, I certainly understand. Other than creating a related assignment, there is no way to submit multiple version of the same assignment. You can for tests, but not for anything else. I wish this was different, and you are correct in the fact that those cannot be copied over, unless you copy the entire course (including the Grade Center).
    Whether the next version of Bb will change this I don’t know. I certainly hope so.

    I never liked the term “Learning Management System”, as I think it doesn’t manage learning. It manages courses, not the learning. I think we agree that learning has a different meaning, and that Blackboard is a closed off system, therefore not really contributing to learning skills that can be used after an academic career.

    I wish more faculty would give Blackboard another look. It has had its flaws over the years, but I really feel there have been improvement in the current version. So far, the faculty that I have had a chance to sit down with in training, seem to think that the improvements are working for them.
    And it helps to know that there is a dedicated support staff for Blackboard, that addresses problems/issues when they come up, in a timely fashion. That has been different in the past, and the higher adoption rate is likely due to that.

    I’m excited for the new version of Bb. The system will not likely change in where it is no longer the vertical silo, a closed system. But even Bb sees that without giving in at least some, their system will become obsolete. Blackboard is an easy to use system, that is fully supported by the University, and it has a relatively low threshold for faculty to get started.

    The need to “put courses online” is greater than ever before. Teaching faculty what tools can be used, how to use them, and how it can tie in to a students learning experience is the real challenge. It’s difficult to advocate change…

    Thanks again,

    Chris

  4. Skip on April 20th, 2010 4:08 pm

    Definitely agreed on the “learning management system” moniker. You’re right–putting Blackboard in its proper context helps clarify one’s thinking about it.

    Blackboard is a great first step for instructors new to online learning, and I’m still encouraging our faculty to use it–particularly for embedding media files and Google Docs, which is something that BB excels at. Getting more people involved in BB is a good way to promote online learning, but therein lies the rub. It’s really not a good tool for online learning. It perpetuates a teacher-led instructional model of “reading the book and answering the questions” that is driving so many students away from traditional classrooms when they have the choice. Without a social media foundation–or at least some way of integrating with SM tools outside of Blackboard–it’s only part of the instructional process. That’s why I went looking for tools that could engage students with each other and with me and why I settled on Google Sites, personal learning networks, and open avenues for publishing students’ work. I don’t see why BB can’t be part of that process to some degree, but as the only solution it just doesn’t meet my needs or the needs of my students.

    What we need is a university-wide focus on online learning and not simply on the bits and pieces that make that up.

  5. Diane K on April 20th, 2010 6:51 pm

    Hey Chris and Skip,

    I follow this thread with great interest…I have been very frustrated by many of the same issues as Skip with BB. I definitely push Blackboard to it’s limits. One of Skip’s points really connected with me:

    My students set up real blogs and used real wikis for their work and we linked them to the class site. Instead of working in a vertically integrated management system, students were working with real tools and learning skills that would help them in their future careers. They were developing portfolios using Google Sites (some purchasing their own domains from Google) and creating online materials for use in their classes. They were in control, not Blackboard. It has been liberating for all of us….
    [Blackboard is] an artificial construct–the work you do there basically stays there and isn’t integrated with other social networking tools. Learning to work within the BB system doesn’t prepare you for anything other than working in the BB system, at least in terms of leveraging social media for teaching and learning. I’d argue that my instructional time (and students’ learning time) is better spent learning to use real world tools that will carry over into their professions once they graduate. I prefer that students use “open” tools. They need to learn how to protect their privacy and operate in a social environment–time well spent, in my estimation.

    I DO want my students to gain more experience and capability creating workspaces online that will benefit their professional lives and their own students.

    The number ONE thing that keeps me from leaving Blackboard, however, is time. I am currently leading 4 courses this semester and completely wiped out time-wise. The thought of recreating the good parts of Blackboard while also integrating the parts of better, open tools is very intimidating – and I’m pretty advanced tech-wise compared to many of my peers…

    Maybe this summer when I can catch my breath, I’ll take a look at revamping the online presence of my courses…I’ll continue to follow this discussion too…

  6. Shawn Russell on April 20th, 2010 7:33 pm

    Interesting discussion. You say your university uses Blackboard. I say Blackboard is my universe. I have been wholly and thoroughly immersed in it and in Elluminate Live as a faculty member for over five years now. I suppose its functionality and applicability depend in part upon the audience you’re trying to reach, but I’m having trouble fathoming an audience that would not benefit from participating in a course designed using the Blackboard course management system. The population I am attempting to reach is typically almost completely computer illiterate, non-traditional in age, academic preparation, and lifestyle, and new to the online learning environment (new to any learning environment, actually – usually first-generation college students). While they immediately find both Blackboard and Elluminate Live to be intimidating and overwhelming, they embrace every aspect of both within literally 2 weeks of beginning the semester. Then again, as Chris noted, things like copying assignments over, allowing multiple attempts at a single assignment, wiki-linking, and beginning to connect with social media haven’t posed challenges for me. I think Blackboard is an amazing tool with amazing possibilities, although it does take the right combination of content expert and technology expert (as does any online course management system, and which is not meant to imply that you are not either of the above). Granted, I haven’t tried Google Sites, but I haven’t yet run into anything with Blackboard that was so impossible that there was no work-around. I wish more faculty would embrace it, and as a program head I have had a heck of a time finding adjuncts and full-time faculty who will. I agree with your litany of usual reasons for resistance – and would emphasize that real, pedagogically sound, online instruction is much more labor-intensive than is face-to-face classroom instruction. I think the remedy is a broad system infrastructure that supports faculty in facing the resistance to change, seeing the benefit of the change, providing adequate training and support, and effectively dividing the labor. Thank goodness I have that infrastructure support. And I think maintaining a focus on student success first and faculty convenience second is paramount (as you describe in exploring Google Sites). While you have me interested in Google Sites, I loves me my Blackboard, and my trusty design team, and hope we delve further into Blackboard’s possibilities before exploring other options.

  7. Skip on April 21st, 2010 6:49 am

    Some very good points, Shawn, particularly this one: “…pedagogically sound, online instruction is much more labor-intensive than is face-to-face classroom instruction.” Asynchronous instruction has to be more carefully constructed, and much of that construction has to be done up front so that the elements are there when you need them. Lots of instructors “coast” in their face-to-face classrooms, but that’s rarely possible in online situations. In fact, I blogged on this very topic a few weeks ago – “The Problem with Synchronicity.” I hope you can take a look at it.

    The old saw about “when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” certainly applies when you are talking about asynchronous/online instruction. If the only tool you have is Blackboard, then your solutions are limited by Blackboard’s vertically integrated system. I’m not suggesting it’s a useless development platform. As it was for you, Blackboard and Elluminate was my universe for a couple of years until I begin feeling held back by it’s frustrating limitations. I should emphasize, though, that while BB was frustrating for me, it may be liberating for others. It has a place–an increasingly small place, but a place nonetheless–in my asynchronous instructional repertoire. I’m willing to put the time and effort into developing on other platforms (Google Sites, wikis, etc.) because the rewards for my students are greater. I’d rather be able to pick from a variety of tools than to automatically default to the same one every time. That’s why I think it’s a good idea to talk about these tools in the larger context of asynchronous teaching and learning. Maybe we need a campus focus group…

  8. Shawn Russell on April 21st, 2010 8:17 am

    Amen brother. To all of it. You’re right, too, that any single solution can only be limiting.

    I did read “The Problem With Synchronicity” – very interesting.

    This entire discussion is particularly important because students tend to generalize their first online learning experience to all online learning experiences. So if a student’s first online learning experience is not rewarding, they will say “Distance ed sucks, it’s not for me.” They don’t generalize face-to-face classes in the same way.

    This is why it’s so labor-intensive to design it and design it right, and why the labor load is really very front-heavy.

    Good discussion, excellent insight, and a focus group is a good idea.
    Shawn

  9. Skip on April 21st, 2010 8:51 am

    Unfortunately, many students’ first exposure to distance learning is an audioconference. Two semesters ago, I had two of my distance students tell me that they had dropped out of a distance math class because it was being taught via audioconference and they simply couldn’t keep up, particularly when it came to visualizing concepts. Both were intelligent, capable students. A tool like Elluminate could have been an enormous help, as could a few podcasts or videos available asynchronously. But we lost them.

    Teaching math via audioconference. Is that even remotely possible?

  10. Frank Shapiro on April 21st, 2010 1:05 pm

    Very interesting discussion. I have no experience with Blackboard being involved with a similar product targeted towards K12 (well…actually 3-12). We specifically designed out product to allow teachers to save their courses year to year (and semester to semester). I’m actually quite surprised that this isn’t standard for Bb.

    Training seems to also be an issue with Bb. Can anyone tell me what the typical teacher needs in training to get started and to keep up? How about students?

    Thanks.

  11. Skip on April 21st, 2010 1:35 pm

    Hi Frank;

    You can save courses semester to semester in BB, but BB’s assignment structure can’t be copied without duplicating the entire course–members and all. If you don’t exactly duplicate your course, you have to rebuild assignments for each new iteration of the course.

    I think the entry level requirements for students and teachers are quite reasonable. BB has a point and click (and click and click and click) interface that, while tedious at times, is easy to use. An hour long introduction is all that is probably required to get something up and running on Blackboard. However, the deeper functions–using the grading center effectively, embedding media, etc.–require more training and experience. The biggest issue we face with training isn’t how to provide it–it’s getting faculty to avail themselves of it.

  12. bp on May 30th, 2010 2:31 pm

    Thank you for this discussion. I’ve been a long-time user of Bb and I’ve also found it very limiting. I don’t find the forums very conducive to a discussion– even if we can subscribe to posts. Bb just seems very artificial– from forum discussions to blogs to wikis to even the useless calendar. Most of my students are comfortable with list-servs, etc. and discussion over email is much more lively. At the moment, I create a Google Site linked to a Google Group and a Google calendar for each class I teach. This set up means that it’s much more integrated into my and my students’ workflow– they can email from smartphones, etc. BTW in terms of privacy, I usually set these as private sites to protect my students and there’s been no problems. The only thing I use Bb for are the exams and I’ve started to play with the idea of moving my exams to Google docs…

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