Another dot in the blogosphere?

Posts Tagged ‘blackboard

I am disappointed that I have not received replies to my tweets to administrators of a university’s learning management system (LMS).

The system went down unexpectedly last Tuesday afternoon and then again on Wednesday. The second outage was much longer. I still could not access the LMS shortly after midnight (Thursday).

An LMS should be a core and always-on service if a university is to consider itself world-class and first-class. After all, it is a repository of information, and in the course I facilitate, for assignment submission and feedback.

The outage meant that students could have missed submission deadlines. Facilitators like me had to compress the assignment-related tasks: Reading, providing feedback, grading, re-processing, etc. We had less time to do the same amount of work. This elevated stress for all of us.

I question the wisdom of providing social media channels (Twitter and Facebook) if they are not manned and therefore do not respond.

It was about a year ago that I used to get prompt responses from LMS support via Twitter. That continuity has not been sustained and I suspect that loss of positions and/or changes in leadership are to blame.

To be fair, other more open platforms also go dark or are subject to periods of maintenance. However, these platforms are subject to larger use and the downtime is minimised by relatively quick backend responses.

Take my use of Padlet, for example. It was down for maintenance about two hours before a morning class. I was ready for a contingency, but when I tested it again right before class it was back up.

Platform reliability creates trust. LMS downtime and a lack of communication breaks that trust and broods aversion. If I have to outsource some of the trust I build with learners to some other party, I will continue keeping resources platforms other than LMS.

B-L-A-C-K-B-O-A-R-D. Ironic. I will use it in a sentence: Bb’s tagline “Education is changing. Change faster.” is ironic.

Education is certainly changing very fast. Reeling in the wake of technological change everywhere else, it cannot help but try to keep up whether it wants to or not.

But is Bb claiming that it can help or that it is ahead of the curve? Ask any thinking user and the likely answer is no.

IMHO, it has no right to tell others to change faster or make the claim that it changes faster because it is still not meeting the needs of instructors and learners. You only have to Google for opinions or search my blog for rants against LMS in general.

Alternative platforms have gone for strategies like being more open, thin and light, easy to use, built for mobile and social learning, etc. Bb is blistering with options, but it is also a lumbering behemoth.

I also find it ironic that “change faster” can also be interpreted to be a call to abandon LMS like Bb. To read in between the lines: Education is changing. Bb cannot really help. Change faster. Go elsewhere.

In an interview with ACM eLearn Magazine, I share some preliminary data we have on instructor behaviour. The short version of what I said was this: When instructors move away from LMS to mobile, open, and/or social tools and strategies, they adopt more innovative and relevant strategies.

Change faster. Go elsewhere.

Blackboard (Bb) is the dominant LMS player because it swallows up smaller players. It does this to remove the competition while incorporating new features into its repertoire. But the larger it gets, the less adept it becomes.

Bb has tools it has added to its core functions. But because they are add-ons, they do not always work well.

For example, Bb now has blogs and wikis within its walled garden (emphasis on walled, not on garden) but these have created technical and pedagogical problems.

For example, we now face technical failures in wikis in NG9, the latest version of Bb. Teaching faculty in NIE have become so frustrated with the tool that they opt not to use it.

This creates two serious pedagogical problems.

First, instructors who could move on to more progressive strategies do not because a tool does not work properly.

Second, the use of open tools in a closed environment sends the wrong message. Instructors inevitably model the wrong strategies to our student teachers. While there might be some legitimacy of having more private platforms, I think that this generally sends the wrong message in education.

However, this problem is an opportunity for those who do not like the weeds that grow in the garden. They can see how life operates beyond the walls. The can progress to actual wikis and blogs, and when they do, they can push pedagogy and live in the present instead of dwelling in the past.

TechCrunch reported Blackboard: With Both Co-founders Now Gone, It’s The End Of An Era For The Education Software Giant.

It is certainly an end to an era of leadership, but that does not mean it is an end to what Blackboard does.

It might continue to acquire. It might continue to bloat its offerings while not meeting what educators really need, e.g., providing administrative analytics instead of real learning analytics.

It is still called Blackboard. That is like calling a sports car a wagon or a computer a stone tablet.

Oh wait, we do call some of them that. And with the legacy names come legacy practices.

Yesterday a racist statement trended in the Singapore Twitterverse.

mrbrown screencaptured the offending remark by an Amy Cheong and posted it on Twitpic.

Since it contains foul language, I am not embedding the screenshot here. Suffice to say that this was about a Chinese woman complaining about a Malay wedding.

Instead I will post one Twitter reaction to that Facebook rant:

A few might take that tweet to mean “keep your racist remarks to yourself”.

I would go further and say stamp racism or racist language out. I had to take such action against one student teacher recently.

I embed the tweet below. I have masked the name of the individual and other identifying elements but left my Twitter handle intact as evidence that it was copied to me.

The context was a request from that individual to change the NIE Blackboard interface so that it was more user-friendly. That was reasonable feedback until that person decided to change “black” to the highly-charged and derogatory n-word that refers to African Americans.

I tracked the person down and asked for permission from one of his tutors to meet with him during class. I let him know that such a term, while not used in the Singapore context, was very offensive. It has historical, social, and political significance that affects policies in the USA even today. Only African Americans use that term now in music or when referring to each other playfully.

The individual I confronted said that he was just playing with the word “black” and recombining it with “board”. That does not make it right if you know the history of the n-word. Look for it. It is just a Google search or a Wikipedia article away!

Amy Cheong and this individual share common traits. They comment or vent on social media without realizing that there are serious repercussions to what they say.

They also do not realize that what they say is wrong. There is something wrong with their value systems when nothing seems to be wrong.

Individuals like these must realize that:

  1. Remarks like their do not give them immunity simply because they are on social media
  2. They will be found out and confronted online and offline
  3. There is much to learn (often the hard way) when confronted

In Ms Cheong case, her employers took swift action. According to Yahoo SG she has been sacked. While she has been summarily dealt with, this helps her former employer (they got rid of a bad apple).

The saga for Ms Cheong may carry on (a grassroots leader has filed a police report). While events online come and go at twitch speed, digital memories stay burnt online thanks to tweets, FB posts, and blog entries like this.

I had two meetings with Blackboard (BB) representatives earlier this week and I need to vent.

I learnt about a new pricing model and their move towards learning analytics. I could rant about the first but I’ll limit myself to the second.

First, I’ll say that learning analytics as described by the NMC in the K-12 Horizon Report 2011 is an important forecasted trend. I borrow from their report to explain the purpose of learning analytics:

Learning analytics loosely joins a variety of data- gathering tools and analytic techniques to study student engagement, performance, and progress in practice, with the goal of using what is learned to revise curricula, teaching, and assessment in real time.

Imagine being able to determine in real time what difficulties a learner is having and addressing those needs based on the artefacts that a learner creates. In other words, the focus of learning analytics is learning and the learner.

BB showcased a prototype learning analytics tool. To their credit, the prototype system seems robust and all data is not sent to a remote server for processing. This will avoid data privacy issues and prevent groups like marketers from accessing this information.

But what the BB representative demonstrated left me with a “big brother is watching you” feeling.

Big Brother 2009 Italy by _mixer_, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  _mixer_ 

I did not get a sense that BB understood that this was a tool for educators, not just administrators and policy makers.

Why do I say this? With BB’s analytics tool, you can find out how many staff have not created discussion forums, which courses embed YouTube videos or compare how one cohort of students performs against another. From a systemic point of view, this tool is great for reporting corporate-type KPIs.

But I think that the point of learning analytics is to figure out what types of learning are taking place, if it is happening at all and assist the educator in analyzing the needs of the learner.

I think that BB’s prototype system has the capacity to do this. But what was demonstrated did not focus on the learner. It focused on what a university provost or systems administrator might be interested in, e.g., which faculty use the LMS and how often do users log in?

For me, this was a good example of the type of thinking and practice that makes an LMS go wrong. Where was the learning in the LMS? This was about administrating and policymaking. This was also about impressing someone in higher management who is ill-equipped to make a fully informed decision.

Don’t get me wrong. It is important to have policies in place that promote things like meaningful mobile learning. But you get there by first examining what happens at the level of the learner and the class. You should not be looking at tables or charts from an ivory tower equipped with a monitoring system designed to keep you at a distance.

I read this thanks to a retweet from @EDTECHHULK. As I have met with Bb folks, I can say this is not entirely true. Mostly true, but not entirely.

On a side note, one might be just as concerned that Bb might suffer from some serious security flaws.

Returning to the tweet, there is truth that Providence Equity has bought Bb and this is a business decision. But at least one analyst thinks this was a desperate move.

There will be changes in Bb’s offerings, especially as one pays expensively to move from version 8 to version 9. But these changes look more like reactions (and late ones at that) to offerings like Google Docs, YouTube videos, etc.

At the risk of sounding technologically deterministic, I believe that the Bb tools are not just tools; they have certain usage, practices and even philosophies in mind. Just like the way a construction worker’s sledgehammer, sculptor’s mallet and carpenter’s hammer are used by different people for different things. (My other rambling thoughts on LMS or Bb [1] [2] [3])

So the adoption and integration of some of these “new” tools will bring some added affordances and perhaps some of the “teacherly soul” that the tweet mentioned. But I cannot help but feel that Bb is just playing catchup and that it is not offering what more progressive educators have already discovered outside the confines of LMS.

Oh, Blackboard, how you amuse me!

Granted, the cancellation may not have been entirely BB’s fault, but in the larger scheme of things, anytime-anywhere learning has been absent because of limited affordances of the LMS.

There are some things to like about our implementation of Blackboard (BB) as an LMS.

Database integration. It is relatively easy to create courses in BB because the entire student teacher database can be divided into tutorial groups and assigned to courses. This feature is convenient.

But you can also do this yourself with other tools like PBworks wikis, or if you do what the rest of the world has started doing, rely on self-subscriptions. A model of how this operates is Edmodo. You provide your learners with a join code and they sign up on their own (just like they might do with any other online service). If your learners do not sign up, they do not benefit from the resources and have no where else to submit their assignments!

The integration of anti-plagiarism tools. Any institute of higher learning that is worth its salt will be concerned about plagiarism. LMS like BB allow system administrators to add tools like TurnItIn and SafeAssign so that it seems seamless.

That said, there are many other anti-plagiarism tools that are freely available. Here are a few resources that I collected in Delicious.

I think that the use of anti-plagiarism technology should be the last line of defence, not the first. The battle against plagiarism starts with instructor modelling and education. An anti-plagiarism tool should be a weapon of last resort. Rely on that tool too much and it becomes a crutch.

Mobile Learn. BB has mobile apps for the iOS, Android and Blackberry platforms and Mobile Learn is something both staff and student teachers here in NIE will get to use this coming semester. The tool set is not very strong yet, but it can only improve with time.

What excites me the most is the potential for the mobile platform to help change pedagogy. How?

Our student teachers can now access BB on the go. Now, you could design lessons for them the same way as before, but why would you if their learning context has changed?

Let’s say an instructor is still comfortable with lectures. I say flip the classroom. The lectures can be listened to anywhere else other than a lecture theatre or tutorial room. When the student teachers are on campus, discuss issues, deal with common stumbling blocks or engage them in some activity that is not a lecture but leverages on the lecture they already listened to.

Now let’s imagine an instructor who has moved past lectures (or doesn’t require them as much). Student teachers could be asked to perform tasks in place, e.g., collect interview, photo, audio or video data. The artefacts are collated online and they return to campus to analyze and evaluate them.

In other words, use class time for more effective face time. Use “homework” time to create space for the learner to consume and reflect at a self-selected pace.

Does this sound familiar? That is because you can do this already with many other Web 2.0 and/or mobile services. BB is a latecomer to the game but a player nonetheless.

What might BB do next?

It could rename itself. It is going to be acquired by another company but it still calls itself Blackboard. When I hear that I wonder what century they are living in and I hear fingernails going across the board.

Those old enough to remember what fingernails raking a blackboard sounds like might cringe at the recollection.

To be honest, I cringed a little when I met with the folks from Blackboard (BB) twice last month.

To be fair, I feel that way about LMS in general and not just BB in particular. But as BB is probably the equivalent of Google or Microsoft in the LMS world, I associate LMS with BB.

There are many things not to like about LMS in general. Here are my pet peeves from the point of view of someone who has to make decisions on e-learning for teachers-to-be.

LMS do not provide opportunities for our student teachers to practice being educators or facilitators in the online realm. Being a moderator of a discussion thread or a leader of a discussion group is not enough. Our teacher trainees need to do what their tutors do: Administer, plan, design, find meaningful resources, create, upload, manage, facilitate, evaluate, troubleshoot, etc.

LMS have tools built with an increasingly outmoded model of teaching in mind. One expert puts resources online (typically Word documents, PowerPoint slides and URLs) for students to download and consume. There might be an enforced discussion (post X times by Y date) whether or not the topic is meaningful to the learner.

What’s wrong with this? The structure imposed by LMS influences its use by tutors who then model these behaviours for student teachers. The latter then tend to teach the way they were taught.

Admittedly this is not entirely the fault of any LMS. People can make the conscious decision to change the way they teach. But they won’t do this when the tool does not encourage or allow them to change.

LMS create limit access and closed environments. Once a semester is over, learner access to a course is removed. How soon this happens depends on the policy of an institute. This is a necessary evil because the LMS cannot support an indefinite number of learners and indefinite access. Companies like BB charge by the user and it is prudent for an institute to limit access.

But what happens when the learner needs to access the resource again once they have become teachers? They might be able to download every file and copy every discussion point, but they lose the context and the connections a course affords.

LMS are also closed in another sense. The resources and interactions are limited to a class. A person in class A cannot contribute good ideas to class B. Their tutors restrict the sharing of resources out of fear or because of copyright issues.

These are not what education is about. Education should be open and encourage open-mindedness, not the opposite. Yes, I am an idealist, but I’d rather be driven by ideals than by fear or stuck by inertia.

Others have voiced their concerns about LMS more articulately than I have. The most recent was a Campus Technology article by Gary Brown. The is the even more critical Insidious Pedagogy by Lisa Lane. In 2007, Martin Weller outlined why the LMS is dead.

More thoughts on LMS tomorrow.


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