Dear Commons Colleagues,
Last week on July 7, 2010, Blackboard Inc. entered into an agreement to acquire learning and collaboration technology providers Elluminate Inc. and Wimba Inc. Elluminate and Wimba, which serve 2,600 educational institutions between them, were purchased for the combined price of $116 million in cash. Technology from Elluminate and Wimba will be incorporated into a new standalone collaboration platform, Blackboard Collaborate, designed to facilitate greater collaboration and synchronization in the educational space.
I have posted on this blog about Blackboard, Inc. in the past, see:
We in the academic community need to be concerned that much of our online instructional content will be delivered and to a degree controlled by a single vendor. While I do not fully support technological determinism – technology changes/controls us – I have serious concerns with the way Blackboard’s has moved to acquire just about any major company that provides CMS/LMS services.
I think these are also excellent questions, Chris.
Using Blackboard as an entry point, it seems to me, is an interesting “solution” because if it does satisfy the admin, it leads to further questions about what the admin’s priorities are. Why should that minimal (and slightly intrusive) intermediary step be so important? What is the advantage (in terms of student learning) if students log in to Blackboard only to immediately go somewhere else?
The questions about grades and discussions are also important ones. I think that administration (or really all of us!) have good reasons to be strict about keeping student grade information private. Not just for legal reasons, but for real ethical reasons. But as I’m sure you know, no online system is completely invulnerable, and grade information on Blackboard has been breached in the past–as have most other systems (usually through human error, but still).
And of course we also know that the grade system on Blackboard is so inconvenient and poorly-designed that many (I would even say most) faculty don’t use it at all. So what do they do? They often rely on a much worse, less secure, solution–sending student grades by email–which is (and probably should be) even more stringently prohibited.
I don’t think it’s safe to assume that non-Blackboard (or otherwise non-official) solutions for even these critical functions will be less secure or less private. Going outside of Blackboard does not mean going to completely public and non-secure.
This is even more true in the area of discussion boards. Blackboard actually makes much less sense as an arena for private discussion, because the Blackboard discussion boards can only be one thing–private–which means that the subject of privacy vs. publicity is not an issue, not something that can be taught or considered or engaged by students and faculty. The alternatives to Blackboard for discussion are not 100% open to the public. They have the huge advantage of being open or closed in a granular way–so that the decision about whether a discussion should be public or private can be made for pedagogical/intellectual reasons–not just as a matter of automatic policy.
Students and faculty can have the option to choose private posts or public posts, private forums or public forums, within the same class–and thus to really consider and learn about and from both types of discussion venue.
My biggest complaint about Blackboard is not the visual ugliness, not the clunky and inconvenient interface, but the way that it takes choice away from faculty and students–it closes down options and forces what could be very productive learning experiences into predetermined structures that often prevent learning. (and my other complaint is the way that it limits and silos learning into rigid structures of classes and semesters–that’s probably even worse–but that’s a separate subject!)
Glad to see this touched a nerve, thanks for opening the discussion Tony. I agree with your comments and Matt’s and Joe’s. Joe your last point about making Blackboard just an entry point is interesting because that was a suggestion that was OK with the admin. To a point. For obvious reasons there can’t be a policy of not linking out to other web sites otherwise you wouldn’t be able to bring in YouTube clips or articles etc. But there are still areas that I think there wouldn’t be as much agreement. Discussion boards and grading are two big ones I can think of.
To play devil’s advocate a bit, shouldn’t administrators be able to require you to only use officially sanctioned online tools to record and display student grades? What about the legal issues at stake? And are faculty allowed to force students to post to a discussion board that is open to the public (as opposed to the protected ones bulit into Blackboard)?
I think Tony’s right (or should be right) that faculty should be able to make this type of decision for themselves. The most a college/CUNY should be able to say is “if you choose not to use Blackboard, we can’t support you or help your students, so we will want to be sure that you have enough support/guidance in place for them.” But if students are getting an equivalent (or better!) academic experience, shouldn’t that be within the academic judgment and academic freedom of the faculty member?
Chris, the administrator to whom you spoke made an interesting analogy there. What if I, as a professor, find that my class will work better, students will learn more effectively, if we do meet in a coffee shop, or–what I think is a much better analogy–in the park, or a museum, or in a different field location each session? (to say “in a coffee shop” is to imply that there is something frivolous or non-academic or inferior about the non-Blackboard alternative, which is neither a fair argument or accurate) What if I can support this decision with clear explanations and data about outcomes, and students report that they have plenty of appropriate support and ease-of-use in this alternate venue? Should I then be forced to meet my class in my assigned classroom anyway? I mean, doesn’t a faculty member have the right to “reject” an assigned classroom?
I am definitely a proponent of making a level playing field for students, and keeping access for them open and not making them learn a new system for every single course (I wouldn’t force them to meet on a raft in the middle of the Atlantic if some of them couldn’t swim or got seasick).
But when there are alternatives to Blackboard that are demonstrably *better* for students, easier to use, easier to learn, more applicable in terms of real-world skills they will need after college, why should we as a university forbid or prohibit those alternatives?
Although, you know, as I think about it….we could have the class meet in the “assigned” classroom for five minutes, and then go to the alternate location. Or start with Blackboard, and have the only thing in the Blackboard site be a big hyperlink leading to the alternate site. Maybe that satisfies the requirement, and even if it’s a cop-out in a way, it keeps faculty from getting entangled in needless arguments.
” I recently had a conversation with an administrator who said that Blackboard must be used as the starting point in any online course (taught through the College). Not doing so was akin to rejecting an assigned classroom and teaching in a coffee shop instead.”
That’s truly scary, Chris, on a number of levels.
Matt and Chris,
It is indeed a “scary’ comment. I will only reiterate what I said in my earlier reply to Chris, I am not aware of any CUNY policy requiring faculty to use Blackboard for an online course.
Tony, I agree with your concern. In addition to issues of technological determinism you mentioned there is also the issue of lockin both from a number of perspectives, legal with signed contracts, training (the effort to retrain people and the resources and learning already achieved), integration with other systems etc. As independents companies like Wimba and Elluminate have incentives to play nice with a number of LMS solutions, as part of Blackboard Inc. that is not the case. Without these types of software available on other platforms lockin also increases as other options look less attractive.
I think this brings back the question of whether CUNY should officially look for and support alternatives. I recently had a conversation with an administrator who said that Blackboard must be used as the starting point in any online course (taught through the College). Not doing so was akin to rejecting an assigned classroom and teaching in a coffee shop instead.
Without official support I believe there are other administrators who have similar views on using Blackboard alternatives.
The point you make about CUNY is very important. I am of the opinion that CUNY faculty are not required to use Blackboard should they want to teach online. Individual academic programs may have established such a policy but I am not aware of it as being CUNY wide.
Thanks for posting to my blog.