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 End of Schooling As We Know It?

February 26, 2009 · Posted in culture, Teaching 2.0 · 1 Comment 

Sometimes I think that post-secondary schools in the US are some of the best examples we have of Newton’s Laws of Motion. The first law is usually referred to as the Law of Inertia: “Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.” Newton’s second law explains that the more mass that object has, the greater the external force that must be applied to it move it from its current trajectory.

Does this sound familiar? Universities are massive by any reckoning; they employ millions of people, consume billions of tax dollars, have huge collective carbon footprints, and have basically been doing business the same way for hundreds of years. They are so ingrained into our social structure that most people can’t imagine a society in which they didn’t exist in their current form. They’re on a trajectory that will take a truly massive application of external force to dislodge them from their course.

And that force may come sooner than we think, at least according to two items that grabbed my attention this past week.

The first was a television commercial for Kaplan University. I should explain that I don’t watch TV very much and this particular commercial may have been around for some time, but last week when I first saw it it hit me like a ton of bricks. Here it is:

I first thought it was a commercial for Apple, Inc., and was surprised to find at the end of the commercial that it was for an online university–essentially a competitor for my brick-and-mortar institution. My initial thought was that the “professor” in the ad got it right–that we need to be paying attention to learners who may not fit the traditional concept of a post-secondary student. They expect to be able to use their favorite media to learn when and where they can, on a schedule that suits their lifestyle, job, or personal preferences.

The second item was an article from eSchool News entitled AASA hears what’s about to disrupt schools.” In the article, Clayton Christensen from Harvard’s Business School predicts that within the next ten years half of all instruction will take place online and that schools risk losing enrollment to the online learning market if they do not adopt the model for their own students. The massive external force that may move schools off of their current path is something that Christensen calls “disruptive innovation”–innovation that is so powerful and so different that it completely changes the marketplace, dislodges old market leaders from their positions of leadership, and gives rise to new ways of doing business. It’s not at all difficult to see examples of disruptive innovation that have happened within most of our memories–VisiCalc (the first spreadsheet), the personal computer, the World Wide Web, the iPod, etc. Each of these innovations changed the way business was done before and allowed new players into the market, typically at the expense of the “old guard.” And it’s personal, too. This morning I spent several hours answering e-mail, editing some documents (including a spreadsheet), evaluating my students’ projects (PowerPoint lessons that they uploaded to Google Docs and embedded into their blogs) and recording their grades and my reflections on their work, and the only application I had open the entire morning was Firefox.

My job is to prepare post-secondary students to teach in K-12 school systems. It may take an even more massive application of external force to change their current vector. What should I be telling my pre-service teachers?

I immediately flashed back to the Kaplan commercial I had seen a few days before. Bob Dylan was right:

The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

Why Blog with Post-Secondary Students?

September 5, 2008 · Posted in Blogging · 1 Comment 

I have been requiring my post-secondary education students to blog for the past four semesters. At first, I wanted to experiment with the medium–to see if it improved writing and communication between students and between faculty and students, to see if it could be an effective way to turn in and reflect on assignments, and to see if it led to improved awareness of and facility with other social networking tools. It didn’t take more than a semester to see that active blogging by students did all of the above and more, to the extent that now I can’t imagine not using student and faculty blogs as a main focus of my instructional process. Part of the proof? Most of the students from four semesters ago are still blogging and are in active contact with me and each other. They talk about their classroom experiences, their job searches, their personal lives, cultural issues in their area, and much more. My first task every morning is to check Google Reader (my RSS application of choice) to see if there are any new blog entries from my students. It’s something I look forward to.

From a personal and professional standpoint, there have been some unexpected benefits of blogging. I enjoy the cathartic aspects of organizing my thoughts on various topics and logging them for other educators or for my own future reference. I think I’ve become a better writer. I can collect research on topics that concern me or my students and archive those using tags and categories that make finding them later a simple process. This is exceptionally helpful when a student asks me a question like “Is there any evidence that using a computer improves writing skills?” More often than not, I can point that student to my blog for an answer and a link to the original research. My blog has become, in effect, the text for my class. I no longer require textbooks in my classes. I consciously collect and publish topics that are relevant to my instruction, and that collection is subject to review and comment by the academic community at large. It’s a very liberating experience.

Most of the faculty I work with do not use blogs as a part of their instructional design. There are many reasons for this, all legitimate and understandable on some levels. It takes time (particularly when you initially implement it), it requires learning something new, there are potential privacy concerns, etc. For some, the lack of awareness of the social networking context in general is a deterrent. Others simply may not see how blogging fits into their subject area or how it could have any value for their students.

In my efforts to raise awareness of these issues among faculty, I am on constant lookout for pedagogically sound rationales for venturing into blogging. That’s why I was delighted to run across Anne Davis’ “Rationale for Educational Blogging” from EduBlog Insights. Ms. Davis presents a clear, well-conceived set of reasons to consider blogging. I could reiterate them here, but I’d recommend visiting her blog and reading them there. The comments are also worth your time–and, they serve as a shining example of the power of communicating your ideas in a public arena.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. In fact, that’s the point…