I’ve been using technology in learning environments for most of my career as a student and a teacher. I’ve emailed with my teachers since being in high school, starting when I took music lessons with a professor at the University of Wisconsin in 1996. My first college courses used online streaming to facilitate listening assignments in a music appreciation course through a home-grown (as much as you can call anything “homegrown” at a major research university, though it’s probably a bit ludicrous) course system at the University of Michigan in 1999. That system was replaced by a Sakai-based “Course Tools” LMS at UMich. I used that throughout graduate school, and again when I first taught courses at the University of Michigan–Dearborn in 2008. So, I don’t think that you could say I’m unfamiliar with using technology for teaching and learning. When UMich migrated to Google services in 2012, CTools changed and now integrates with Google web services.
Yet this year, returning as an adjunct faculty to teach one class at the George Mason University, I find myself completely fed up with the current version of Blackboard. Does it exist to provide easy, intuitive, and quick options that facilitate learning? No. It offers a blackboxed, behemoth system that is not open, not attractive, and offers nonsensical descriptions of things. (Like, if you just want to upload a pdf for students to read, you have to create “content” rather than “upload a file.” FYI – that’s not creating content, you’re offering content that someone has already written, and you’re not even creating the metadata for the file, Blackboard is.)
I want my students to be able to upload files to a folder that I can see and they can see, but not everyone else in class can see. Sounds easy, right? But BB doesn’t offer that any more (see above). Instead, if I want that, I’d have to use dropbox. In fact, that is the course I’m taking – using systems that do exactly what I want them to (and that students might actually use) rather than going through the plodding irritation of creating individual module after module. I want the tools I use to teach to be easy to use, lightweight, and to make things easier to do what I want, not more time consuming. And yes, perhaps tools that students might actually want to use. For example, I’m using a mixed suite of tools so far in teaching an archives course, including:
- Email (Google, and also Office365) – some classics never go away
- Google Docs
- WordPress (the version provided through GMU)
- Blackboard (begrudgingly, but it does offer a login-protected place for grades and non-public announcements)
I’m afraid that this may be only one of a series of rants as I make my way back into the morass of teaching technology this term. The death knell of the open-source LMS that served the needs of educators and learners probably sounded long ago, and it feels like slogging through the tar pits to even use parts of Blackboard these days.