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blackboard : Are We There Yet?

The Tyranny of the Vertical

April 16, 2010 · Posted in Teaching 2.0 · 12 Comments 

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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The Power of Embedding

March 27, 2008 · Posted in Blogging, social networking, Tools, Web 2.0 · 2 Comments 

As an educator, I find myself posting content on a variety of online sources. In addition to semi-regular blogging, I manage several wikis, maintain a faculty home page, store and publish presentations on Google Docs, and I (somewhat reluctantly) use Blackboard for my ed tech classes. Many of those sources employ the same content. For example. a “How to Use Flickr Slidr” presentation might appear on my professional development blog for faculty, on Blackboard as a resource for my students, and as a URL on Google Docs. Reposting that document in numerous locations every time the original document needed to be modified would be time consuming and prone to mistakes. Besides, it violates my basic principle of doing work only once.

That’s why I find the idea of embedding media so powerful. Most online content services provide ways to embed media into a web page of just about any variety. All you need is a bit of site-generated code and authoring access to a web page. Blogs and wikis are great places to publish embedded media. Even stodgy old Blackboard will allow embedding and display of most media types. Imagine–you no longer have to upload a PowerPoint slide show to Blackboard and have your students download it for viewing. You can upload it Google Docs and embed it on Blackboard as a content item. Any changes you make to your slide show through Google Docs are immediately available to your students (it may require refreshing the Blackboard page) and it doesn’t take up any of your limited Blackboard storage space.

Embedding media is simply a matter of copy a few lines of code from a content service and pasting it into your blog, wiki, web page, Blackboard course site, or any other web page to which you have authoring privileges. The code is automatically generated by the content service site.

Here are a few of the content services that provide automatically generated code that can be copied and pasted into your sites:

  • Flickr (photos)
  • VoiceThread (voice and video annotated stories)
  • Panraven (online storybooks)
  • Google Docs (MS Office compatible word processing, presentation, and spreadsheet files; requires a Google account)
  • Flickr Slidr (generates code for embedding Flick slide shows
  • YouTube, and virtually every other video sharing site (videos)

There are some potential tradeoffs when using embedded media. For example, PowerPoint slide shows uploaded to Google Docs cannot have sound or animation. Careful authoring with these limitations in mind, however, usually results in useful and effective documents.

Below is an example of an embedded VoiceThread project, which I’ve chosen to present in a small size for faster access. Because I have allowed public comment on this project, video or voice annotations added to my original presentation on VoiceThread will automatically be reflected here, and vice versa.

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