Undoing Blackboard 8: Four-Step Recovery Program

At MiraCosta, the tech folks set up a Blackboard class for every section, on-site or online, whether we like it or not. It’s set as unavailable, but students email asking where it is, and many use Blackboard like a portal. The result has been recommendations that we use our Bb course to guide students to our course if we use other places instead (i.e. Moodle, a blog, etc.).

My workflow for undoing a Bb class in four steps:

1. Create a standard web page with basic class information, including the URL to enter the real course.

2. Go into the course in Bb, Control Panel. Using Manage Course Menu, add External Link (with Name “This course is not in Blackboard”), linked to your information web page.

3. Still in Course Menu, Remove all other items.

4. In Manage Tools, Tool Availability, unclick all boxes for Communications Area and Tools Area. (This prevents fruitless clicking around the tools in the Tools box part of the Menu, which appears automatically otherwise.)

The result is a Bb page that shows your info page only, and from which students can go only to links you’ve got on that page. It’s even simpler than in previous versions of Bb, where you had to reset the entry page and could only modify menu items.

So go ahead. Lead them the heck out of there.

Third Thursday wrap-up: Bb groups, Flickr, wikis

Our November Third Thursday Meetup (recorded) in Elluminate last night had great ideas, and it occurred to me I should be blogging these!

1. Signups in Blackboard

Pilar Hernandez showed us how to use a feature in Blackboard that allows students to sign up for groups. In her class, many students are local, and would like to meet in person to practice their Spanish. But they were unwilling to set up those meetings themselves, being shy about contacting each other. So Pilar set up half a dozen meeting times and places, using the

To do this, use the option under course content’s “select” drop-down:

Students can see how many are coming, and add or remove their names.

2. Annotate images in Flickr

I demonstrated how to annotate an image in Flickr. I uploaded a copy of the painting Masaccio’s Trinity, then used the “add note” button to put annotations anywhere I wanted in the picture.

You save each one. Then when a student mouses over the picture in Flickr (you need to link them to the main picture page) they can see your annotations.

3. Wikis for classes

Donna Marques took us into the wonderful world of wikis, where her students create and practice Spanish. To start, she showed us Common Craft’s video explaining how wikis work:


Her preferred platform is PB Wiki, which uses Google Gadgets. Students can practice writing, make to -do lists, see a countdown to presentation day, and work collaboratively in groups. Donna will be expanding this topic in her “Wiki Wonders” workshop on January 12 during MiraCosta’s flex week.

All Third Thursday meetups are recorded and posted at the Program for Online Teaching site. Join us there on December 18.

CMS as Portal?

OK, I promise, this won’t really be a Blackboard rant. But at our college, the most supported system is Bb. We’re piloting one or two others (Moodle!), but the support folks are accustomed to Bb. Each semester everyone’s classes, both onsite and online, are automatically assigned a Bb course, whether or not they’re used.

Students taking online classes have become used to Blackboard. They don’t realize it’s just a shell, a system inside the internet. Last semester, I “erased” all the buttons on my Bb classes and left only one, with only one page attached: the page redirecting them to the Moodle class, which opened in a new browser window. Nevertheless, many students continued to use Bb as a portal, only entering my Moodle class through Bb’s interface.

I thus encouraged our Moodle users to do as I did: make all but one of Bb’s buttons unavailable, but keep the class there with a redirecting link. A pair of respected colleagues, David and Don Megill, resisted this idea of continuing with Bb as a kind of portal. But we all acknowledged that students use it that way. Gradually it began to annoy me.

So last week (today is the first day of spring semester), I simply didn’t make my Bb classes available at all. It is printed in the Schedule of Classes (and its online version) that students must email me before the first day of class. I have directions to the classes on web pages, linked from both my home page and the Cybercosta page. These pages give the URL for the Moodle classes. Then I watched enrollment.

This morning, the first day, 96 of 160 students had gotten in on their own. I sent the others an email (using the email they used to register at MiraCosta) with the URL. As I write this (the evening of the first day), all but about 6 students per class have found their way. Without Blackboard. Perhaps they will learn that not all learning experiences are based in that monopolistic system. It’s a good day.

The Results Are In: CMS and Pedagogy

Finally I managed to crack the code and get into the database with my surveys from last spring (don’t ask). I had surveyed MiraCosta’s online instructors (most of whom use Blackboard) and a number from San Diego Community College District (WebCT).

I was assessing the extent to which faculty fully use their course management system to achieve their pedagogical goals.

The 43 respondents to MiraCosta’s Blackboard & Pedagogy Survey set the following patterns:

  • About 40% were teaching fully online; the rest were using Bb for hybrids or on-site classes.
  • Over half had been using Bb for 3 or more years, so they were experienced.
  • Over 80% used the Gradebook and Assignment functions, followed by 48% for Messages, and 41% for Question Pools. Very few used Bb’s more advanced features such as Scholar, Glossary, Office Hours, or MERLOT.
  • 86% did make invisible features they weren’t using, and 93% do customize the Course Menu.
  • 77% run other programs inside Bb.
  • Most are unhappy with the discussion bard.
  • Most do not run a separate FAQ or technical forum on the board, nor a separate forum for students to socialize.
  • Almost 70% upload .doc or .pdf documents into Bb the most. 25% or less upload flash or movie files.
  • Most of the materials they load into Bb are text based (79%).
  • They are only moderately Web 2.0 savvy, with over 30% saying they are somewhat familiar with new uses of the Internet, and almost an equal number saying they aren’t very familiar.
  • They define their greatest workshop need pertaining to Bb as learning to use it more effectively (51%), and equal numbers feel it both inspires and limits or neither inspires or limits their teaching.

The WebCT respondents to my WebCT & Pedagogy Survey (17 of them) were almost all teaching fully online classes, with half teaching 3 years or more.

  • Like the MiraCostans, they used WebCT primarily for administrative tasks (email, calendar, assignments) with 82% using the discussion board.
  • Almost all made unused features invisible, but surprisingly only 70% change the Course Menu buttons.
  • 70% did run programs inside WebCT, and the same number were happy with its discussion board.
  • Half do not run a separate forum for technical issues, and 70% do not have a forum for students to socialize.
  • Like MiraCostans, most upload .doc and .pdf documents, though 70% upload HTML files, much larger than MiraCosta’s percentage (47%).
  • An overwhelming 82% of materials are text-based.
  • 41% said they were not very familiar with Web 2.0, but the percentage saying they are very familiar (24%) was double MiraCosta’s (12%).
  • 41% felt WebCT inspired their teaching, with 35% saying it both inspires and limits pedagogy.

My conclusions are disappointing in the sense that most faculty continue to use their CMS for administrative functions primarily, tend to upload desktop publishing formats instead of native HTML, and rely overwhelmingly on text materials. And these aren’t just newbies either.

However, although not as many as I’d hoped were using Web 2.0 interaction, I was delighted that most are trying to customize the CMS, in the menus themselves and/or making other programs appear inside the shell. Interactivity and rich media are certainly lacking, and in my opinion so is discussion design: few have separate areas for students to get technical help or to socialize, regardless of their satisfaction level with the discussion function.

Interestingly enough, most workshop participants surveyed this fall requested “how to”, “hands on” workshops, and “Making Blackboard Work for You” came out on top. I still sense a reversal of priorities here, but I’m hoping our workshops can help with that. Second place was “Making Online Discussion Work”, which is encouraging. Perhaps we can get people to look away from their CMS and think first about what they want to do?

Planning to Divorce the CMS

Yeah, I’ll leave someday. I’m sure my second Course Management System knows that already. It’s not that it’s been a bad relationship (not like my first CMS — that was brutal — we’re not on speaking terms), but some day I’ll have to move on. I’ve gotten a lot of advice lately, reading some self-help gurus: Brian Lamb, George Siemens, Stephen Downes.

And now I’ve found the last tool to break the chain. It’s called Engrade, and it’s a web 2.0 gradebook (thanks to Sharon Davis and the WOW2 folks for posting the link the other night). I haven’t tried Engrade. It may not work. I don’t care. The fact that it’s there means there will be more apps like it. That’s all I want.

I can now do everything offered by a CMS outside a CMS. I can patch together the whole thing using webapps. I can mix-and-match, I can blend. I can do it my way (anyone will tell you that’s the way I do everything anyway!). I can create and have my students use and create pages with widgets in Protopage, discussion boards with QuickTopic, IM with Meebo or Adium (for Mac), conference calls in Skype, RSS feeds in Feedraider, blogs at Edublogs, wikis at pbwiki or in <a href="http://www.mediawiki.org" MediaWiki, slideshows at Bubbleshare and VoiceThread, annotated photos at Flickr, presentations and zillions of other things at Zoho. And all for my very favorite price: free!

No, I won’t move out right away. But my current CMS better start taking out the trash.

Course Management Systems: Limiting the Imagination

Teaching is an imaginative art. One first envisions what one wants to do in class, then tries to make it happen.

A few years ago, I got into a polite discussion with an administrator about the necessity of the college supporting a variety of Course Management Systems, rather than restricting faculty to only one CMS. At the time, I was pretty naive. I assumed that anyone with any sense would realize that the freedom of faculty to teach in their own way was a primary consideration at an educational institution. My naivete evaporated as he explained to me that the CMS was like my physical classroom; it created basic limitations on my teaching and embodied parameters I could not change. I wouldn’t ask to move the walls of my classroom, would I? or expect the college to move the chalkboard, windows or doors?

I was less than convinced, and have long played the argument out in my head. To me, the computer itself was more analagous to the classroom, and within that I demanded academic independence to dream my dreams and achieve my goals. The technology itself already contained ample restrictions — every time I turned around, there was something I couldn’t do online. As I continued in online teaching, and found myself more and more frustrated with the additional limitations imposed on my pedagogical imagination by Blackboard, I entered another stage of naivete. Here I assumed that all online faculty, like myself, put their pedagogical goals first and tried to force the technology to do things to help students learn. Thus, they must be experiencing similar frustrations.

I have gradually been attaining a different level of awareness. In giving workshops and going to conferences, I noticed great similarities among the classes presented inside both Blackboard and WebCT. At places where faculty actually had their courses on display, they all looked very much alike. A few buttons might be changed, the theme color, but overall faculty seemed to be retaining the structural organization and intentions of the default settings.

This worried me. In these CMSs, the material is organized by type (“Course Documents”, “Quizzes”) rather than by topic or weeks. That is certainly not intuitive for those of us accustomed to a syllabus with a schedule. I wondered whether the CMS could be controlling the way a class was taught online, particularly among novice instructors. I began to develop a suspicion that at an introductory level, the CMS could actually determine the pedagogy due to several factors: insecurity about technological expertise, lack of knowledge about the CMS, and lack of dedication to pedagogical goals. The CMS was indeed being seen as the classroom, a physical set of immutable limitations.

A few months ago, I was looking at a colleague’s class as he told me about the limitations of WebCT, having changed over from Bb — he said he lost a certain feature he really liked, and indeed, I could see it was not there on his site. When I later looked at another instructor’s class in the same CMS, the feature was clearly evident on the main page. She showed me the settings she had used. The first instructor’s pedagogy had been hobbled simply because he didn’t know how to enable the feature. I also attended several workshops where I talked about Blackboard features that the instructors, most of whom had used Bb for years, didn’t know were there.

To get more information, I initiated a survey of Blackboard and WebCT users at a few local colleges. So far, results support the two top studies on the subject: University of Wisconsin (2003) and University System of Georgia (2005), which report that most faculty use the CMS for managerial tasks rather than to further their pedagogy. Class management features (gradebook, text upload, testing, email, discussion board) are used far more than interactive features (chat, discussion grading, virtual classrooms, reusable learning objects), even among experienced instructors. It was heartening that many were willing to customize the course menus and link externally from within the CMS, and most wanted to learn more about how to manage the system.

At the same time, I could see that few faculty use the many features of the web itself in their own work. Over half of the 57 faculty surveyed were unfamiliar with web elements such as RSS, blogs or wikis despite the fact that the same percentage have been using their CMS for three or more years. And again, that makes me wonder the extent to which the limitations of Course Management Systems are causing limitations in the pedagogical imagination. My work continues….

The extraordinary ease of Moodle

I have just been through the wringer with my hosting service, which provides Moodle as a script but doesn’t have actual support for the software itself. I am currently teaching five classes in Moodle, and discovered something called a cron job wasn’t working properly. Cron jobs apparently are self-checks that Moodle runs which send things out (like forum posts students have subscribed to, or my announcements). I learned a few weeks ago how to set mine to run every 10 minutes, so everyone would stay updated. But a few days ago my host contacted me saying that my cron jobs were exceeding my allotted CPU usage, and this had to stop or they’d force me over to a private server. I didn’t have the knowledge to really deal with this, but the Using Moodle user posts seems to have saved me (not for the first time), and all seems OK for now.

moodleSo after several late nights grumbling (a mild term) about my hosting problems, I return to Moodle itself today to grade tests and (again not for the first time) find myself totally delighted with the ease of using it. Today’s example is that I was adding in the correct answer to essay questions before I started grading, and I was able to make them purple so I could easily see the difference between a student’s answer and my own feedback. Then, instead of grading quizzes on a student-by-student basis, I was able to use Manual Grading to see all instances of answers to the same question, and grade all of them on the same screen page. While breezing through this, I noticed that a good student had a better answer than my own. So I just opened the quiz and changed the feedback. No problem, instantly saved, viewable immediately by students, even though I was in the middle of grading and the quiz had already been deployed. Try that, Blackboard!

[Regarding the hosting problem, I’m going to start recommending that folks use a Moodle Partner host, like ClassroomRevolution.com.]