Blackboard Blog

As a BB system administrator I’m used to being on the receiving end of perceived problems rather than lavish praise. After all, it’s only when something doesn’t work that it gets attention – which is then usually from a negative point of view. You don’t praise a tool when it lets you down. But in all fairness, many criticisms of BB do turn out to be explainable errors. As a VLE it’s well embedded across the institution with the majority of courses having a presence and plenty of innovative online collaborative learning experiences.

It takes time to embed change. The move from the Virtual Campus involved a different way of working with different systems integration – it wasn’t going to happen overnight and it didn’t. But we’re getting there and the majority of staff now use BB on a regular basis.

I feel the need to defend BB from its critics. Yes – it’s a corporate behemoth of VLE but we don’t use it to its full capacity. Yes – it’s not the most visually exciting of environments but it isn’t meant to be, it’s a means to an end, not the end itself – that comes from the ways in which it is used. And yes, it may look like a repository of digital documents, but that shouldn’t be used against it. The recent JISC 3 R’s report Recruitment Retention Results supports the provision of electronic information saying

‘Resources in digital format (even simply class lecture notes) are inherently more flexible and accessible than paper-based resources, supporting differentiation and a range of learning styles.’

So uploading documents to BB is good practice, it’s supporting diversity and enabling users to take advantage of the inherent flexibility of digital data to be customised and personalised to suit individual preferences.

We should be proud of BB. There are a great team of people supporting it and we should take advantage of its affordances rather than being overly critical. At the end of the day it does what it’s meant to do and talking to staff and students across the university shows that – it does it quite well.

Student Rep Conference meets Student as Producer

The Student Rep’s Conference (2nd March) provided space for students and staff to talk to each other. I hope there’ll be lots of dissemination in online/offline student/staff publications because it was worth it. It’s not that students and staff don’t talk to each other – they do – in lots of different ways – but this event raised the quality of those conversations.

In the afternoon students talked about Student as Producer; the Lincoln led, cross-institutional, project which looks to redesign the curriculum along the lines of research engaged teaching. It’s like UROS has become infectious and spread across the university. Under Student as Producer, the opportunity to apply for a bursary to undertake a UROS project has been reintroduced (closing date 11 March see for details) but the real value lies in plans for restructuring teaching and learning. This is less radical than the language used to describe it. Teaching informed by and engaged with research is not new. The only difference is Student as Producer raises its profile and emphasises research as the primary organising principle of practice.

I’m reminded of a parallel movement across the sector a decade ago;  the push for embedding virtual learning environments. It reminds me because Student as Producer can appear on first encounter as something new and radical, almost verging on unsafe because of the revolutionary language it inspires.  But looking back over the history of technology in education, you see a similar mixture of adoption of new ways of working. Before Dearing, people were already engaging with digital environments, in the way that teaching already engages with research. What’s needed is time. Adoption of innovation is often less about changing practice and more a shift in emphasis on what people are already doing.  

Using Roger’s model of diffusions of innovation, Student As Producer is currently with the innovators and early adopters. As it spreads out across the university via events like the Student Reps Conference, and the Festival of Learning planned for the end of March (details here it will pick up more interest from whose practice already aligns with its organising principles. It’s  ‘stickiness’ will increase until the tipping point  is reached. You can see this with technology enhanced learning. At Lincoln, the push towards adopting the institutional VLE has finally got there. Recent surveys conducted by the Student Union and CERD suggest a high level of embedding of Blackboard into daily practice. This has taken time but the shift has happened. Student as Producer is in its early days but given time it will become as ubiquitous as Blackboard has done alongside all its potential opportunities for enhancing the experience of teaching and learning across the whole institution.

Scratching Blackboard

I agree  with its detractors that Blackboard is in the money making business.  Like the publishers of educational journals, access is restricted through prohibitively expensive licences. But I also don’t agree that Blackboard is dead so to paraphase Julian’s comment  here’s a scratch. While the Web 2.0 revolutionaries are plotting on one corner of the square then those getting on with daily life have to make the best of it. Educational opportunities shouldn’t be denied on the grounds of cost but the reality for many educators is they are caught in the middle. If Blackboard is the tool of choice of your institution then knocking it vociferously doesn’t help. If the future of higher education is digital then we should be encouraging engagement and there are worse places than Blackboard for the cutting of technical teeth. It’s easy to be critical about Blackboard; it may well be closed rather than open, be clunky and not visually appealing but it’s a tool and if it’s the only one you have then it’s what you do with it that counts. Better to have active engagement with Blackboard than no engagement with digital learning at all.