Coming in September.


The blurb:

“While much has been written about the doors that technology can open for students, less has been said about its impact on teachers and professors. Although technology undoubtedly brings with it huge opportunities within higher education, there is also the fear that it will have a negative effect both on faculty and on teaching standards.

Education Is Not an App offers a bold and provocative analysis of the economic context within which educational technology is being implemented, not least the financial problems currently facing higher education institutions around the world. The book emphasizes the issue of control as being a key factor in whether educational technology is used for good or bad purposes, arguing that technology has great potential if placed in caring hands. While it is a guide to the newest developments in education technology, it is also a book for those faculty, technology professionals, and higher education policy-makers who want to understand the economic and pedagogical impact of technology on professors and students. It advocates a path into the future based on faculty autonomy, shared governance, and concentration on the university’s traditional role of promoting the common good.

Offering the first critical, in-depth assessment of the political economy of education technology, this book will serve as an invaluable guide to concerned faculty, as well as to anyone with an interest in the future of higher education.”

The initial endorsements:

‘This is a timely, and essential, book. The authors avoid the common trap of being firmly in a pro- or anti- technology camps and instead view the application of educational technology through a political economy lens. Your classrooms are no longer solely your own, they argue. Educational technology, often driven by Silicon Valley ideology, has particular aims in education. Examining the claims made and the implications for all educators allows us to make informed decisions. The control of education is at stake, and this book sets out the key areas with clarity and passion.’ — Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology, The Open University, UK

‘Digital technologies can expand or contract freedom for faculty and students, depending on who’s making the decisions. In Education is Not an App, Poritz and Rees describe both the threat and the opportunity, and issue a clear call for faculty control of our new digital tools.’ — Clay Shirky, Professor of Social Media, New York University, USA

Available now for pre-order.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Books, Education Is Not an App, 3 comments

Repeat after me: “You are an expert in your own teaching!”


So I have an announcement: Next year I will be the faculty fellow at CSU-Pueblo’s Center for Teaching and Learning. First you go for the free food. Next thing you know they give you a job. Well, not a job exactly. The reward is one course off to work on bettering my online survey course and to help convince other faculty to employ useful online teaching tools. Here’s my first piece of free advice for everyone on campus: Don’t be like either of these guys:

On the second day of the workshop, Mr. Bradbury had an aha! moment. Stace Carter, a freelance instructional designer, told the group the story of a philosophy professor who insisted on bringing his dog along to a video shoot for his course. Mr. Carter showed a clip in which the professor, Mitchell Green, reads a passage from a book while sitting by a stream. The dog distractingly digs around on the ground and then licks the professor’s face, all while Mr. Green continues reading aloud, unfazed. The roomful of professors at the teaching workshop erupted into laughter.

Mr. Carter admitted his first instinct was to reshoot the video. Instead, he and the professor just went with it. “People loved it. They begged for more, saying they can’t wait for next week,” Mr. Carter told the group. What comes through in the video, imperfect as it surely is, is a sense of authenticity.

I love dogs. However, your dog isn’t gonna make or break your online course. No, scratch that. If your students care more about your dog than the material, your decision to teach with Fido might actually break it for you. Imagine for a moment that you brought your dog to your in-person lecture. Everyone there would be laughing and happy? Would they learn any more? I don’t think so. They’d just remember that there was a dog in class one day and he licked the professor’s face. Why would doing the same thing online be any different.

Why do people take such bad advice? Here’s the problem in a nutshell:


Professor goes into an online class training session, assumes he has everything to learn and becomes susceptible to any old suggestion.

It’s not hatred of dogs here that motivates me here. It’s my well-known hatred of “flipped classrooms.” While the dog lecturer isn’t flipping the classroom in the conventional sense since he’ll be teaching entirely online, it’s still a class that’s dependent on videotaped lectures to get content across. Apparently, some teaching and learning specialists still think taping your lectures is educational magic:

“The traditional style of classroom is one where it’s a full-on lecture for the entire time, and there’s some level of information transmission that happens there, depending on whether students are awake,” said Kevin Barry, president of the group and director of the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Notre Dame. “But the processing of that information happens outside of class. What the research shows now is that if we can move that processing into the classroom, for at least part of the class time, we’ll get better results in terms of learning. ‘Flipping the classroom’ is the term.”

You think people will pay more attention to you lecturing when they know the professor’s not watching AND checking e-mail or Facebook at the same time is just a click away? I think not. Shoot, if there’s anything I’ve learned from like 50 of my edtech tweeps it’s that if you want to teach online well, you need to design your classes around what the Internet does well. Don’t just move your existing old course online and hope for the best. In that case, you’re much more likely to make it worse than the better. Having just watched this webinar is currently stuck in my mind. Most historians who use that program, it seems, use that tool to have students mark up texts together and work out the problems in real time. Try doing that with pen and paper! {If I had decent wifi in my classroom building, I’d be doing it myself, but that’s a complaint for another time.]

The moral of this story (if the title isn’t a big giveaway) is that you are an expert in your own teaching! Don’t let some teaching and learning “expert” convince you to do something just because it’s easy or because “studies” suggest that it might work. Have confidence in yourself and your experience. Most importantly, feel free to experiment. We all know that failure is just another word for learning when it comes to our students and the same is true for faculty too. If you don’t believe me, then look at this GIF very closely:


Now read the title of this post over and over again until you actually believe it.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Personal, Teaching, Technology, 0 comments

How do you build a respectable all-online US History survey class?, Part II.

Part I is here.

So I’m well into writing my all-online US History survey course for this fall now.  Oddly enough, after having spent so much time planning how I want to do it, the actually writing seems very easy.  It’s also totally in line with everything I’ve been doing with my pedagogy lately.  Most notably, recognizing the “You Really Can Google Anything” problem, I’ve turned the whole thing into a kind of composition course, which is basically what I’ve already been doing in all of my other courses anyway.

For fear of this post being several thousand words long, I think I’m going to break this update into two parts.  The first is going to cover theory and (once again) discuss tools.  Then I’ll eventually going to get around to write another post about assignments.

It actually helps that my college has made a terrible mistake with respect to all the first fully-online classes they’ll offer.  They listed mine in the catalog with an “O” next to it, and a time that says “to be arranged.”  Nobody knows what the “O” means and “to be arranged” sounds ominous.  Therefore, my class currently has zero students enrolled in it.  Donna Souder, the Director of our glorious Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) has plans to rectify that with a big push for the few online classes all around the university closer to the Fall, but I’m actually grateful that I’ll likely be able to start small.

Donna deserves mention here again for her goal of getting an online version of every general education course in the university going – a goal to which I’m contributing.  At first blush, that may seem stupid as students already have an option of taking classes through our extended studies program or they could take such classes through a separate system campus that’s entirely online or any other remotely respectable online provider they may chose and transfer the credit in.  Unfortunately, we as a department don’t get any FTE (Full Time Enrollment) credit if they do that.  If enough students do this, both our history program and the university in general run the risk of being eaten alive.

Donna’s objective is to distinguish our courses as being the ones  with living, breathing professors available on campus if you need them, so I’ll actually be keeping office hours over at the CTL in the Fall where the rooms are big enough to talk to more than one student at once and the wifi actually works…but that’s another story.

With respect to the course itself, I’m writing most of it on the free version of Canvas.  My now-very-well-known hatred of BlackBoard is not the only reason I like Canvas.  However, the fact that the gradebook can compute totals from grades with pluses and minuses and our version of BlackBoard can’t certainly is another extra asset in my book.  I also like the fact that in Canvas I can turn off the bells and whistles that I don’t want to use.  Most importantly, though, I’ve written at least a little of every part of the course where I want to use Canvas and I haven’t had to go back and take a tutorial once.  The whole thing is so instinctual, it reminds me of the way Apple Operating Systems used to be (and I’m sure that’s intentional).

For discussion and turning in papers, I’m using Slack.  I’ve already written about why I love Slack.  Two semesters later, I still do for the same reasons.  My thoughts here are to set up a channel for each assignment as well as private groups for students who don’t want to post there questions out loud.  And while I’m sure Canvas has an absolutely lovely way to share files (and I will likely put my handouts there), the drop and drag capabilities of Slack make it by far the easiest way to get papers.  Indeed, judging from the increased propensity of students to avoid e-mail at all costs I’d say it’s the best way too.

This post is getting a tad long now, so I’ll just list the other programs on the sheet and describe how I’ll use them when I cover assignments.  One is Milestone Documents.  I’m definitely going to use with Milestone Documents, but the exact assignment is still a little up-in-the-air at this point.  Weirdly enough, I’m going back to a textbook for this course – not because I have any new love for textbooks, but as a content resource that students can consult.  The book is comparatively cheap and all online, but since I won’t be holding them accountable for specific facts buried inside of it (since the heart of the course is essays) I don’t feel too bad about backtracking in this direction.

Exactly how are those essay assignments going to be structured?  How exactly will I use online annotation?  How the heck can I possibly grade online discussion?  Well, I haven’t answered those questions myself yet, but whenever I do I’ll write up the next post in this series.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Online Courses, Teaching, Technology, 2 comments

History professors and technology: Why can’t we be friends?

A few days ago, blogger and podcaster extraordinaire John Fea  artfully summarized an AHA Perspectives piece about why the number of history majors has dropped nationwide:

1. The 2008 recession led high school students to think about majoring in a field that would give them more economic security and a more direct career path.
2. Colleges and universities throwing money into STEM fields at the expense of the humanities.
3. History departments are still doing a poor job of articulating what students can do with a history major.
4. More men major in history than women and fewer men are attending college.
5. History departments are too rigorous or at least present themselves that way. This may scare students off.
6. History departments rely too heavily on introductory courses to recruit students in an age when an ever-increasing number of students are taking their history requirement in community colleges or fulfilling the requirement through AP exams and dual enrollment.
7. Changes in general education requirements at many colleges now allow students to fulfill such requirements without taking a history course.
8. Jobs in traditional history-related fields such as K-12 teaching and the law are declining.

I wanted to offer another reason that is impossible to test, but I think it’s worth throwing out there anyways. Students find most of our classes – especially large lecture classes – extremely boring and (at least to some extent) obsolete. That’s not the same as saying that we are all boring necessarily. I used to love listening to good history lectures when I was an undergraduate, but this is a new era.

Yes, I am talking about cell phones.  People can’t sit through a Hollywood movie these days without reaching for their phones.  How are you gonna succeed where Captain America and Iron Man regularly fail?  This is why I went all squishy on tech bans a while back.  How can I throw someone out of my class for doing the same thing i do in mandatory college assessment strategy meetings?

But of course when it comes to technology more than just cell phones affect our student’s attention spans. Literally any single fact that I can include in a lecture can be Googled, and in most cases even the Wikipedia entry that appears first in the results will be good enough as a test or quiz answer for an undergraduate survey course. Go try it now. I know I have. I started this practice as soon as I started getting specific factual information on tests that I know didn’t appear in my lectures or the assigned reading.

“But we have to teach students to evaluate sources on the Internet!” Yes, I know. We also have to teach them other skills like how to read critically and, God forbid, how to write coherent essays. Unfortunately, large factually oriented survey classes that are designed to cover large swaths of historical information are absolutely the worst place in college to start doing any of those things. Moreover, the size of the courses only drop when students move on to upper-level classes, but you’ll lose most students before they get there because (as noted above) history departments are losing majors. It’s a vicious circle.

My classes – particularly my survey classes – have been evolving in response to these changes for years now. First, I started adding lecture breaks, like YouTube videos. Then I started revolting against coverage, offering more days devoted to anything but me lecturing. Now, planning my first online course, I’m doing away with lecturing altogether.* I’m certainly not saying that all history courses should be online, but I am saying that we can’t keep doing what our own history professors did for us because it’s not gonna work any longer. Heck, to me the drop in majors strongly suggests that it’s not working now. We are all a lot more like our old history professors (we turned out to be history professors too, you know) than we are like this generation of students.

Luckily, well-chosen technology can actually help us blow up our classes and put them back together again in new and exciting ways rather than boring and dumb ones.  I’m not talking PowerPoint and I’m not talking MOOCs either. What I’m talking about are a variety of programs that can help us teach our students marketable, history-related skills that will help them succeed in life even if they don’t want to become history professors. [And frankly, advising anyone to go to graduate school in history in this job market is tantamount to an economic death sentence, but that’s the subject for another blog post.]

While the projects linked to from here are not from my survey classes, they’re a pretty good indicator of what students can do with Scalar – just one program that I’ve been playing with for a couple of years now. Actually, it has mostly been my students playing with Scalar rather than me and as they’ve teaching me all about it, I’ve been able to guide them better through these kinds of research projects. Now I’m tempted to invoke that stupid cliche about being a “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage,” what’s most important here is that I’ve kind of appointed myself as the executive in charge of their research and exploration process. Nobody can fire me and replace me with a grad student or an algorithm because I design the course, I guide its direction (with lots of input from students) and we all learn more about both the tools and the history involved whenever it’s over.

Very longtime readers know that I used to be anti-technology when it came to history instruction, but me and technology are friends now. And as long as I remain the one calling the shots, things are gonna stay that way.

* Yes, I know I owe this blog a second post on how to build an intellectually respectable online course. I swear I’ll get to it. I have a plan, I just need to write more of the course before I continue sharing.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in History, Teaching, Technology, 0 comments

“I always feel like somebody’s watching me.”

My old friend Historiann has a post up today that really deserves every professor’s attention. The subject is a new-fangled productivity measuring tool now being implemented at Baa Ram U.:

This fabulous new system is called Digital Measures, and as it’s being implemented at Baa Ram U., it relies on faculty to dis-aggregate the information we have on our CVs and in our annual evaluations and enter it into 300 or more little boxes organized into 15 or 20 different categories. (And believe me, the web page looks just as inviting as that chore sounds.) Each little box must be clicked on separately and have information typed or cut-and-pasted into it. Seriously!

Historiann covers all the obvious problems with this for us historians: the fact that books take MUCH longer than articles to write but count the same, that when we do write articles we generally write our articles alone and that we often have to travel long distances to accumulate the information we need to write anything at all. I might have also have thrown in the Schuman-esque, impossible-to-forget-once-you-read-it information that as many as 50% of academic articles only have three readers: You, your editor and the outside reviewer.

But I don’t want to go there, and that’s not really the main point of Historiann’s post either. The title of her post is, “Who do faculty work for?,” so I think the point of her post is here:

I’m sure like me you can see the advantage of this system for administrators. “Let’s see which colleges and departments are publishing more articles? I’ll just push this button and generate this cross-tab, and voilá!” (In fact, we were told by a colleague in the know that the reason Baa Ram U. bought this garbageware is because the president of our institution didn’t know how many articles each department had published in a given year.)

The garbageware’s web site says it “transforms the way you leverage your faculty’s activities and accomplishments,” but of course it can also do the exact opposite – reveal the identities of faculty members who aren’t performing up to quota. “I’m sorry, Bob. You haven’t produced enough articles this week so we’re going to have to let you go.”

To put it another way, yearly productivity reports aren’t good enough for Baa Ram U. anymore. They want their productivity reports in real time. The machinists at the Watertown Arsenal rebelled for precisely this reason. Will faculty put up with this same kind of surveillance?

Unfortunately, another post I first saw today – this one from my friends at e-Literate – suggests that they probably will. This is Michael Feldstein:

Most faculty that we speak to these days take the LMS for granted and, while they will often grumble about some aspect that they are unhappy with, more and more of them are making significant use of the platform—more than just posting a syllabus and some announcements. More of them will use adjectives like “useful,” unprompted, when talking about their particular LMS. I even heard one faculty member describe his school’s particular LMS as “humane” recently.

As a recent convert to Indie Edtech, I can’t tell you how sad this makes me. For the sake of convenience, faculty interested in using online tools for whatever kinds of classes they happen to teach have accepted a system created by private corporations, promoted by administrations eager to measure the productivity of individual professors even though there is an open, largely free Internet out there that anyone can adapt to their own needs just as easily as they can learn the ins and outs of any particular learning management system. And best of all, you can do it away from the prying eyes of your employer.

No this is not a license for anarchy. As Historiann, puts it:

I have a rule when it comes to any technology or software: it works for me, I don’t work for it. End of story.

And if it works well for you, then you’ll be doing your job just fine – whether or not you have the article citations to prove it. That’s all the watching that the vast majority of faculty require. Turning our classrooms and offices into electronic sweatshops won’t change that fact one bit.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Labor, 4 comments

What happens if you’re the asshole?

There ‘s a Chronicle article from last week that has been stuck in my craw ever since I read it. You may have read it when it was free for 24 hours (and since paywalled). Yes, I’m talking about the biologist from the College of Charleston who got suspended from teaching for refusing to change the Woodrow Wilson quote that he used as the learning outcomes statement on his syllabus. But the part that really got to me, was this:

[Robert T.] Dillon [Associate Professor of Biology] describes himself as a “prickly guy,” but it may be more accurate to say he is the antitenure crowd’s straw man made flesh. In his 34 years at Charleston, he has received three official letters of reprimand, along with many negative evaluations from his supervisors and his students…

Mr. Dillon’s teaching methods run to the Kafkaesque. He refuses to answer students’ questions with anything but questions. He says he sometimes purposely misleads students by making factually wrong statements in class, reasoning that students who did the reading should be able to correct him. (They rarely do, he says.) The professor is not interested in meeting students halfway; he believes it is more edifying to put them in a crucible and see if they are “critical, rational, mathematical, analytical” enough to intuit their way out.

Even though the Chronicle also published an extremely reasonable response by Professor Dillon, everyone in my Twitter feed thought this guy is a Grade-A asshole. Heck, I think this guy is an asshole, but even assholes have some uses. In this case, I think it’s the fact that Dillon’s intransigence has revealed something really interesting about assessment language. Going back to the original article:

In fact, the accreditor has no formatting requirement for learning-outcome statements. Those come in all shapes and sizes, says Belle S. Wheelan, president of the commission.

To be clear, Ms. Wheelan does not think Wilson’s century-old remarks speak eloquently to what students are supposed to learn in a genetics course. But her agency focuses on learning outcomes at the level of academic programs, she says, not individual courses. “One set of course outcomes,” says Ms. Wheelan, “is not necessarily going to negatively impact the accreditation of an institution.”

In other words, like FERPA or Title IX, learning outcomes are good things that alas can be turned into weapons against professors by feckless administrators. In this case, it has taken an asshole in order to discover that fact.

Of course, one doesn’t need to be an asshole in order to discover such things, which is precisely my point here. What happens if you’re the asshole? Any professor who challenges the seemingly benevolent bureaucratic status quo can become the asshole, whether they are actually an asshole or not. That’s why the due process protections that come with tenure are so important for faculty everywhere. They make it much easier to speak truth to power.

Of course, tenure isn’t what it used to be. While never a guaranteed job for life even at its best, academic misconduct, budget cuts or just living in a state with a crazy Republican governor can now leave tenure protections just a speed bump on a very short road. Absent those situations, however, professors at all levels of employment – even the assholes – deserve due process protections whether they are on or off the tenure track.

Applying this standard to this case as described in that article, it appears that Professor Dillon is a lousy teacher. If his treatment of students is enough to get him multiple reprimands, then his treatment of students should be enough to get him fired if that’s a solution that the faculty handbook at the University of Charleston allows. Of course, Professor Dillon should also have the opportunity to change his approach to teaching so that his firing would no longer be necessary. However, suspending (and possibly) firing someone over the learning outcomes language in their syllabus is pretty stupid because 1) That doesn’t fix the real problem and 2) The College of Charleston’s accrediting body has made it pretty clear that the exact learning outcomes language in a single course doesn’t even matter to them anyway.

You might not like Professor Dillon’s attitude or his methods, but his freedom to teach his classes his way are what guarantees my freedom to teach my classes my way and your freedom to teach your class your way too.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academia, Academic Freedom, Teaching, 1 comment

Both sides now.

Way back during the “Year of the MOOC” my friend Jonathan Poritz in our math department wanted me to turn the predecessor of this blog into a book. “No way,” I said. “MOOCs are a flash in the pan.” While I still think that’s a correct assessment, it turns out that that particular flash in the pan has played an important role in a larger trend involving the movement of higher education online, but all online classes are not the same. The worst thing you can do to a committed online instructor is to confuse what they do with MOOCs. Why? Because there’s good online instruction and bad online instruction and MOOCs clearly fall into that second category.

My provost doesn’t read that much about edtech, but he did see enough of my writing and press mentions back in the day to keep calling me the “Anti-MOOC Guy” for quite a while. Now he’s wondering why I’ve volunteered to teach an online class, publicly accusing me of “doing a 180” on the subject. “It’s more like a 90,” I told him in response. I’ve seen edtech from both sides now. Many such classes still stink. Others don’t. Indeed, some of the things that professors can do with technology in an online or hybrid setting are downright awesome.

Knowing this, I’ve felt some responsibility to help guide my university, my discipline and academia in general towards doing something worthwhile with online education because (as Clay Shirky points out here) the cat has already gotten out of the bag.

While my online US History survey class still has a ways to go, the manuscript that I’ve written with that same Jonathan Poritz is in production at Routledge now. It’s not a MOOC book, although I had the privilege of drafting the MOOC chapter. It’s not an edtech book, although some aspect of that subject is at the center of every chapter. It’s really a guidebook for faculty who haven’t been paying attention to these technological developments so that they can both consider their own place in the fast-changing higher education landscape and distinguish the good changes from the bad ones.

After talking to JP the other week, we’ve decided to let the very last page of the book out of the bag first: Our one appendix. It’s our rules to live by, derived after we surveyed everything we wrote both together and apart. Reading this, you can get an idea of all the subjects that we cover (including a few that have never come up on this blog before).

Here they are with a little pre-commentary from just me (although JP, feel free to jump in down in the comments if you think I’ve gotten anything wrong):

(1) Every real student deserves individual attention from, and interaction with, a real teacher.

This one is basically straight off my old blog. Notice how it doesn’t play favorites between online and face-to-face classes? A gigantic lecture class where you can barely see the professor at the front of the room and he or she is never their during office hours is just as bad as an online class with 400 or 500 students in it. JP and I aren’t anti-online or pro-face-to-face as much as we just want to encourage more good pedagogy and less mindless memorization.

(2) Professors’ working conditions are their students’ learning conditions: professors without autonomy and agency cannot teach those characteristics.

Of course, that phrase usually connotes adjunct faculty exploitation, but we intend it more broadly here. People off the tenure track certainly have no autonomy or academic freedom, but so do instructors on the tenure track who can’t control their own technology. Learning Management Systems are the most obvious manifestation of this. Why administrators and IT people get so much power to decide something that is fundamentally an educational decision just mystifies me.

(3) Your university is not broke: The root causes of IT decisions are ideological and political, not economic.

The first part of this is a common AAUP saying. The second part is a sign of our emphasis on political economy in this book. You can’t understand edtech unless you try to understand the new austerity regime at universities around the world, as well as the common tendency of administrators to keep spending freely on edtech (despite their alleged austerity) in the hopes that it will eventually save them a fortune labor costs.

(4) Edtech wants to be free. FLOSS is the best way to build that freedom.

This one is all JP’s, but I can tell you that that’s free as in “unencumbered” rather than free as in beer.

(5) It is the responsibility of the academic faculty to keep current on technological developments, no matter how far outside their comfort zone such learning may

I know you’re busy, but how would you feel if your job gets automated right out from under your nose and you didn’t even see it coming? Yes, MOOCs can’t do what professors do, but what appens if what you do gets redefined so that they can? You know that education is not the same as content transmission, but unless you stay engaged with all the two-bit hucksters who think it is they will win the battle of public opinion and your tenured sinecure will dry up when your students all enroll at some barely acceptable online clown college.

That’s why you can’t laugh off MOOCs, even though they’re still a lousy product. That’s why you can’t keep your head in the sand no matter how well paid you are or how good your students happen to be. That’s why you need to read the education press. Another way to keep up on such things is to buy our book, Education Is Not an App: The Future of University Teaching in the Internet Age coming this summer from Routledge.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Books, Economics, Learning Management Systems, MOOCs, Technology, 1 comment

This is how it feels to use BlackBoard for the first time…

“The main thing in our design is that we have to make things intuitively obvious,” reads a quote from Steve Jobs in Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography. “People know how to deal with a desktop intuitively. If you walk into an office, there are papers on the desk The one on the top is most important. People know how to switch priority. Part of the reason we model our computers on metaphors like the desktop is that we can leverage this experience people already have.”

The only experience I’ve had that serves as leverage for setting up a gradebook on BlackBoard is using Windows 95, and even then (as an Apple user since the late-1970s) I never subjected myself to that experience voluntarily. I didn’t exactly decide to use BlackBoard voluntarily this time either. I’m still working on an all-online US History survey class for the fall. For years, I’ve been on the receiving end of the question, “What grade am I getting in this class?” and I’ve always had to explain that I don’t do any math until the end of the semester, but you’re welcome to use the percentages in the syllabus to make a close estimate. That explanation is invariably met with dirty looks.  I don’t feel comfortable employing that option anymore in a class where I won’t physically see students on a regular basis. Hence, my jump to this particular dark side.

And oh man, is it dark! I mean, I’ve been hating on Learning Management Systems for years now simply based on three disastrous training sessions in the early 2000s and a lot of secondhand stories. Oh yeah…there’s also this:


That’s a fuzzy (due to shrinking) screenshot of when I search my e-mail for just a few of the notifications when my university’s BlackBoard has been down for service.  So why subject myself to that kind of heartache?  The things I’ll do to prove a point about faculty autonomy…

Anyhow, in order to properly convey the Pete Puma experience to those of you who have never used BlackBoard, let me focus on three problems I had on the way to getting my gradebook up and running.  The very first one was simply making my course available to students.  If BlackBoard was gonna follow anything like the Steve Jobs Rule above, this would be the easy place to do it, right?  No such luck.  Here’s the minute and fifteen second video BlackBoard produced to explain what Jobs would have done with a single button:

To sum up: You have to access “properties” from the “customization” section of the control panel. The availability function is the third thing down that page. That’s right, the first thing you have to do with any course is buried half way down a page in a menu at the bottom of the control panel listed under titles that sound like they have nothing whatsoever to do with making your course available.

To be fair, I think the second problem I faced is because of the way my university runs BlackBoard rather than BlackBoard’s design per se, but it’s still bad enough to taint the entire experience. When I created the gradebook, there were twice as many names in it than I had students. Apparently, anyone who ever signs up for my course gets listed in the gradebook even if they switch sections or drop before the semester starts. The crazy thing though is that instead of simply deleting them from my book by checking their names and pressing “delete”, I had to delete all of them as “users” from this course so that they wouldn’t show up in the gradebook student list. Totally counter-intuitive and again I had to watch another video to find where that function was buried in the column on the left column of the dashboard.

My last problem was with the columns in the gradebook. I’m used to using Microsoft Excel for grades where you just enter numbers and write a function, but every column in a Blackboard gradebook has properties. Date created. Date the assignment is due. Total number of points available. Whether the assignment has a number or a letter grade. Then you have to mark what view it gets displayed in. To move columns in the layout you have to drag them from a symbol on the left that looks like this: “{}” rather than actually drag them. It took some more video watching and a couple of very polite e-mails just to get this down because again it’s completely counter-intuitive.

Now imagine how many lumps I’d be taking if I built a whole class out of BlackBoard. Now imagine how students feel using a system built like this. Now imagine how all of you feel when BlackBoard comes out with a new version that changes the things that you took hours to learn. No wonder BlackBoard’s market share is tanking.

But no matter how many lumps BlackBoard has already taken, I think they deserve at least three or four more.  Indy EdTech 4ever!!!

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Online Courses, 1 comment