Friday, February 2, 2007

Courseware, Training Wheels

Thanks to everyone who threw in a congrats. May I never grow tired of waves of encouraging comments. (Makes me consider, for half a minute, the possibilities in announcing that I passed exams every week until the diss is finished. Entry #1419: For the Hundredth Time: Pass! Pass!)

For a few minutes now, I've bee thinking about Blackboard. IHE has this little news piece on Blackboard and law suits over patents. Blackboard, as I understand it, fancies itself the first to develop the web-in-a-box-ware used by so many colleges and universities for delivering online courses (or augmenting F2F with innovations like discussion forums). The legal loops are only marginally interesting to me. I mean, even though I think it is far-fetched, I can understand why Blackboard must, in the interest of solvency, claim as its property the idea of rolling together things like message boards, bulk email, and announcements into an unforgettable discombobulware.

I'm using Blackboard in an online course I'm currently teaching at SU. Its role in the course is minimal--merely a hub for discussion, assignments, and announcements. I've also taught with VCampus and eCollege in the past, and I can, without hesitation, say that I find both of the latter vastly superior to Blackboard. I'm no Blackboardian. Neither am I committed uncritically to VCampus or eCollege. I understand the need for such easy-to-use engorgementware (Just upload your Word docs). But I'm turning away from such things as much as I can. More and more, rails-heavy constraintware reminds me of training wheels. Only, rather than needing them to steady the vehicle, I see them more like the last set of training wheels that hanged dusty and rusted in the garage. They were strange, draped on a nail or resting on a shelf years later, a stark reminder of development as I aired the tires between popping wheelies and leaving skid marks in the driveway (a practice later banned by parental rule). Courseware as old training wheels, not the most flattering metaphor, eh?

So, as I said, I'm using anything else. For example: I'm making extensive use of Google Docs and Spreadsheets (formerly Writely) this semester for the online 205 at SU. In fact, it's the primary place where I ask students to turn in their work. They can upload Word docs or files from other word processing apps and then add me as a collaborator to let me know it's there, ready to be read and commented. When a student adds me as a collaborator, I get an email with a link back to the document in Google Docs. After I have read and commented on the piece, I simply select 'email' and the system asks me if I want to let the other collaborator know the document is ready for them to see. Google Docs runs server-side, so there's no uploading and downloading of files. All versions of a document are kept online, too, so I can easily select an early draft of a document for comparison or a quick reminder of what changed. I can add my comments as notes (which I often do), color code the notes, and use the highlighting options to assign shades to key concepts, moments of confusion, and so on. I hadn't tried the highlighting method before this semester, but it's the way that Becky made notes on my major qualifying exams, and I really liked the way it presents patterns among words and ideas.

After I return-email the document, routing it back to the student-collaborator, I'm left with a couple of nice options for the managing the list of documents associated with my account. I can add tags to individual docs or groups of them that will help me associate them with particular assignments, a stage of drafting, or a level of performance (I mean I can tag exemplary work as "exemplary" for future returns). Next I simply archive it, so I'm only faced with a list of active documents in the queue.

I'm sure this isn't a revolutionary practice, but it beats the heck out of anything I've seen in any of the courseware systems I've used to teach writing online. In fact, eCollege has yet to incorporate text formatting in their threaded discussion area (hyperlinks are automatically recognized, but still). And even in Google Docs there are a few small drawbacks (for each highlighting event, a color must be selected; it doesn't default to the last color used, and there is a similar wonkiness with changing the colors associated with inserted comments). Basically it amounts to a couple of extra clicks.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at February 2, 2007 6:00 PM to Academe

This is my last semester on Blackboard, now that the SU version includes Turnitin in the interface. Although I don't use the Turnitin product, it is nevertheless there, reminding my students that my institution considers them to be potential cheaters who must be policed, and that I, the Absolute Ruler of the Universe, may do so at the press of a button.

I'm using Googledocs for course planning, and Anne, Abby, Tasha, and I collaborated there to plan the info literacy miniseminar. I set up a shared spreadsheet for my 205 course plans, but my students had all sorts of problems accessing it (probably because they were using the accursed Blackboard interface). But I think I'm going to follow your lead and use Google as my client for fall course materials. Definitely not Blackboard.

Posted by: Becky Howard at February 2, 2007 11:16 PM

I hate Blackboard's interface. It's so... institutional? I also don't agree with their claims that they were the first to create an interface that incorporates bulk email, message boards, and assignment announcements.

My friend Dennis Bennett here at Oregon State has been part of such interfaces long before Blackboard existed. He writes on his blog:

I have firsthand knowledge of there being prior art. I was involved with several projects that used teacher and student roles in course management systems before Blackboard existed. Setting aside, therefore, the huge issue of whether or not software should be patentable (it shouldn't be), these patents should have never been granted.

Posted by: Michael Faris at February 3, 2007 7:23 PM