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.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

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