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Writing in Blackboard
September 28, 2013 3:05 PM   Subscribe

Rise Above the LMS: " ... I no longer think of standard, traditional LMS platforms like Blackboard as software. Instead, I think of them as 'institutionware.' For as much as Blackboard may be about preserving itself as the top LMS option, it is also about preserving the traditional aspects of higher education. Even more recent social media ‘features’ are about containment; blogs and wikis are stuck in the Blackboard box and mark the introduction of new environments and tools for learning but only serve lectures and exams." James Schirmer talks about how the structure and design of learning management systems (Wikipedia article) in higher education often runs counter to good classroom instruction.
posted by codacorolla (123 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hey, I'm really interested in this! It looks like the video link was a dropbox file, which now says it's no longer available... Is there another way to get at the video content?
posted by kaibutsu at 3:23 PM on September 28, 2013


I actually just read the transcript beneath it and didn't check the video. I'll dig around and see if I can find an alternate video.
posted by codacorolla at 3:26 PM on September 28, 2013


I always worry that student hatred of Blackboard will rub off as negative feelings towards actual blackboards, which really are amazing information-transmission devices.
posted by escabeche at 3:46 PM on September 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


I never minded Blackboard as a student but I've never known an instructor who didn't despise it.
posted by octothorpe at 4:00 PM on September 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm not really getting the author's complaint. He says something about traditional structures of control, but no actual evidence that that's the problem with higher education right now, or what the consequences are.

Through these diagrams, we can come to see the LMS in general as less of a learning management system and more of a learning mediated system.

Isn't that what educators are supposed to do? Provided a mediated learning environment?

While there are among the persistent problems related to rising above the LMS, I want to remain optimistic. When we rise above the LMS, we assert as ourselves as activists as well as writing teachers. We show others what alternatives are possible in particular capacities.

What are the alternatives? He presents none, apart from a hashtag on Twitter...
posted by one_bean at 4:01 PM on September 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


For every teacher rising above the LMS and going to the 'open web' and social media tools, there's about twenty students trying to figure out what the hell they have to do to pass the class.

The LMS is just a platform. There's a learning curve for both students and teachers, but given the number of functions the LMS fulfills, it's about as minimal as it can be. And standardization, when it comes to classes, isn't a bad thing. Students don't want to learn a new interface with every class; they want to learn the materials.

Then there are the questions of legality; there are strict federal regulations in the US which dictate who can have access to student information and grades. Hold your class on the open web, and you have to be a very particularly aware instructor to not open your school up to a lawsuit. When there are hundreds of faculty teaching online, well, good luck.

And let's say one of the instructors who's decided to run their class on Facebook, Twitter, and a Wordpress blog gets sick. Another instructor has to step in, figure out what work has been submitted where, and what the plans for the class were... and may not even have the passwords to get access to the instructor's work.

Sure, if you're one instructor teaching a course for a few savants from your hut in the wilds of Wisconsin, free of any academic constrictions, go nuts with the social media. But every solution that a college or university has to put in place has to scale to hundreds of instructors, and has to conform to some arcane and ever-changing state and federal regulations.

Come up with a better solution than an LMS, and I'm all ears. This article isn't a solution, it's just a complaint.
posted by MrVisible at 4:07 PM on September 28, 2013 [16 favorites]


What are the alternatives? He presents none, apart from a hashtag on Twitter...

My wife's institution was on WebCT, which was bought and scuttled by Blackboard. The university moved to
Moodle, which is GPL.

... Moodle has a user-base of 55,110 registered sites with 44,966,541 users in 4,763,446 courses in 214 countries and in more than 75 languages. ...
posted by sebastienbailard at 4:07 PM on September 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is he actually talking about mandating that students use publicly accessible, megacorp-owned all-your-data-belong-to-us social media systems, in order to participate fully in a classroom? Is this at all common in current higher education? Sounds like just exactly the kind of thing that FERPA was created to prevent.
posted by CHoldredge at 4:10 PM on September 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm not really getting the author's complaint. He says something about traditional structures of control, but no actual evidence that that's the problem with higher education right now, or what the consequences are.

Thank you. I'm glad I'm not the only one who didn't get what the point was in this talk.

I used to complain about Blackboard, until I worked at a campus that used Desire2Learn. Now I actually *miss* Blackboard. At least Blackboard had buttons. I think the reason that a lot of faculty complain about LMSs is because they do feel like they are written by people who have never taught. D2L is particularly bad in that the terminology used is not at all intuitive, the organization is odd and very linear, and it generally seems to take at least 5 or 6 clicks to do something that should, at the most, take 2. (Part of my complaints also had to do with how the system was administered at the state level, but that's a political, rather than a software problem).

On preview:
The LMS is just a platform. There's a learning curve for both students and teachers, but given the number of functions the LMS fulfills, it's about as minimal as it can be. And standardization, when it comes to classes, isn't a bad thing. Students don't want to learn a new interface with every class; they want to learn the materials.

Yes, this. Also, there is evidence (from the latest ECAR survey from Educause for example) that students don't *want* to use social media for classes. They want to keep their social life (which is conducted via social media) separate from their academic life. There are ways that social media can be used to further course goals, but as with *any* technology, that should be the primary consideration - how does this technology assist the student in reaching the learning objectives for this course.

Please don't use Twitter because it's the new hotness or because you feel the need to rebel against the LMS. Use it because you think it will help your students learn something in your course.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 4:13 PM on September 28, 2013 [8 favorites]


Then there are the questions of legality; there are strict federal regulations in the US which dictate who can have access to student information and grades. Hold your class on the open web, and you have to be a very particularly aware instructor to not open your school up to a lawsuit. When there are hundreds of faculty teaching online, well, good luck.

If you dig around my department's website, you can find the former solution to the issue of posting grades--code names. While I kind of suspect the university officially frowns on such things (the university officially frowns on handing back homework by passing a stack of papers round the room--yet students' home addresses are publicly searchable on the university website), it's not like posting grades online or on a wall isn't an issue that's been overcome in the past.
posted by hoyland at 4:15 PM on September 28, 2013


The piece does read as a set of vague gripes, with links to other gripes, some of which seem to also be vague. I guess what I'd like is a case study where he says, "I used blackboard for course X, and it was terrible" or something similar. But perhaps that's a 101-level desire.
posted by Going To Maine at 4:16 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yep: between FERPA and ADA 508 compliance, you're a whole lot better off working with a contracted company that has at least thought through the legal requirements.

In my experience, every new service they need to sign up for means you're running into 2-5 "I'm lost" emails more per week, for a typical course load.

I prefer D2L to Blackboard 9.+, as D2L, though obviously not optimized for easy or intuitive use, at least doesn't drop material from other courses into the middle of mine. "No, kids: just ignore that Geology exam." Moodle would be great, but better buy yourself a full-time programmer.
posted by LucretiusJones at 4:16 PM on September 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


He also never identifies the specific problems with Blackboard, either. My institution uses Moodle, which has a nasty learning curve. It's not intuitive at all, but, once you get over absurd naming conventions and counter-intuitive ways of doing things (it's written by engineers, not Apple UI designers, so it's not quite what most of the faculty would prefer), it's incredibly powerful.

It's not clear to me, other than wanting to have his class in public on Twitter, what, specifically, are the functions or possibilities he would like to see that he currently can't do using Blackboard.

For me, I use Moodle mostly as a repository - here's an interactive way to deal with the course calendar, here are the handouts, you turn assignments here, this calendar tells you when everything is due, here you can see your grades. I can link to things out in the web as appropriate, or embed video, or create webpages with combinations of all kinds of things. My students can do private journals, or public forums, write wikis (which can be used in all kinds of ways.) The students can communicate with each other or to me, or all of the above. I can use the News Forum to mass email all the students in one action. It makes my life easier, once I build the course in the LMS, which takes some time originally for any new course. It's an interactive extension of the syllabus.

Since I started using it for real, I never lose any assignment from any student, I know when they turn things in, or if they've downloaded a handout. I used to end up with notebooks and papers, etc. at the end of the semester - now it's all archived inside Moodle. I'm not sure what the problem is. It's a tool.
posted by MythMaker at 4:16 PM on September 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


it generally seems to take at least 5 or 6 clicks to do something that should, at the most, take 2.

This is my general problem with LMSs. If I'm looking up the homework assignment, do I want to type in a URL and maybe click a link or do I want to log into Moodle and click four links to get the same information?

On the other hand, keeping the gradebook and only the gradebook in Moodle is a plus, I think. It increases transparency (which is good from an ideological standpoint, but I think it also helps students) and accountability (when I say I'm going to fix your midterm grade, you can see I haven't done it and remind me).
posted by hoyland at 4:19 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've used Moodle as a student, and it wasn't all that good, but not because it was written by engineers, I don't think. Just by people who made poor UI choices.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 4:26 PM on September 28, 2013


Monday, stony Monday: "I've used Moodle as a student, and it wasn't all that good, but not because it was written by engineers, I don't think. Just by people who made poor UI choices."

I've used Moodle as a sysadmin, and I have to agree. Engineers would have fixed the Quiz subsystem by now.
posted by pwnguin at 4:32 PM on September 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


I used to complain about Blackboard, until I worked at a campus that used Desire2Learn. Now I actually *miss* Blackboard.

I was just about to say something similar, although I'm a student. I never thought I could miss Blackboard but I hate Desire2Learn every single day. My professors, all of them, also seem to struggle with it a lot more which means frequently delayed assignments and assessments.
posted by Danila at 4:34 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


So that said, since apparently all the mainstream learning management systems have major drawbacks, I was really interested in learning more about the specific problems and the alternatives. But Twitter hashtags won't really do it, I don't think.
posted by Danila at 4:35 PM on September 28, 2013


MrVisible: "Come up with a better solution than an LMS, and I'm all ears. This article isn't a solution, it's just a complaint."

Well, the author probably thought that anybody who couldn't see the alternatives had never had any experience with higher education, but okay, I'll do this if you want:

"Here are my email address and a link to my Google Drive / Dropbox / iCloud folder. The extra course readings are all there. Please email your completed papers and other homework to me."

MrVisible: "Then there are the questions of legality; there are strict federal regulations in the US which dictate who can have access to student information and grades."

I have, in my modest but long academic life, encountered exactly one professor who used Blackboard for storing grades. She hated it and swore never to again; nobody else seems to need to or want to.

But aside from that, sure - I'll follow on this. What are the "strict federal guidelines" surrounding access to students' grades? How exactly does Blackboard meet these guidelines better than a password-protected spreadsheet that a teacher keeps online? How is "student information" being released when a teacher posts readings publicly and the class is able to access them anonymously?

Blackboard's putative ability to meet "strict federal guidelines" is a silly marketing claim; it's about as valid as their insistence that they're helping schools follow copyright laws. In fact, these claims work in tandem; Blackboard has schools convinced that copyright disallows them from posting readings publicly for students, and so it manages to fleece them for the cost of their painfully-outdated product.

And it should be blindingly obvious why Blackboard is a terrible piece of software. It's user-unfriendly to the highest degree; it is poorly designed - a Java app on the Internet? In 2013? - and the poor design and user-unfriendliness prevent students from learning and teachers from teaching.
posted by koeselitz at 4:48 PM on September 28, 2013 [10 favorites]


This post got me wondering what Michael Chasen has been up to since selling Blackboard. I predicted that he'd ditch Blackboard pretty quickly after selling it off. He lasted until December of 2012, and now he's developing a social media app that has nothing to do with education.

He's also writing Wall Street Journal articles about how to fire your friends.

If Blackboard hadn't bought up WebCT, Angel, MoodleRooms, and anyone else who looked vaguely competent, there would actually be reasonable competition in the market right now. As it is, institutions are forced to make the best of a bad set of choices.

On the plus side, Michael Chasen is now filthy rich. So, there's that.
posted by MrVisible at 4:50 PM on September 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


I contacted the author on Twitter and he supplied an alternate video link:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/jh2bqmv9r28dwr0/RATLMS.mov.
posted by codacorolla at 4:52 PM on September 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


LucretiusJones: "Yep: between FERPA and ADA 508 compliance, you're a whole lot better off working with a contracted company that has at least thought through the legal requirements."

How did higher education deal with FERPA and ADA 508 before computers? Why are those solutions no longer feasible?
posted by koeselitz at 4:52 PM on September 28, 2013


I mean: the main thing here is that secure, usable CMSes have been springing up like weeds over the past two years. There are literally hundreds to choose from, small ones that are free and web-based, enterprise-level ones that are more robust and on-site, and everything in between. There is only one reason to be stuck with an LMS, I think: because universities bought in, so even if they knew the alternatives exist they'd never change. Universities are almost as trenchant as hospitals where tech is concerned.
posted by koeselitz at 4:59 PM on September 28, 2013


koeselitz: "LucretiusJones: "Yep: between FERPA and ADA 508 compliance, you're a whole lot better off working with a contracted company that has at least thought through the legal requirements."

How did higher education deal with FERPA and ADA 508 before computers? Why are those solutions no longer feasible?
"

Hello, former University IT developer and software architect here.

FERPA: "You want this student's grades? Are you the student? Did you claim it on your taxes? No? Go pound sand.". Pretty much it.

ADA 508 is pretty much computer-centric. Your question here is akin to asking what kind of carburetor a horse uses. The quick overview of the section requires that software and devices be accessible. A lot of people will tout their website as 508 compliant, but technically (technically, technically) any tech device that a disabled person would need access to in order to successfully complete their coursework would also need to be compliant. What does this mean? Strictly speaking, you would need accessible printers, card readers for labs, etc., etc. You can sort of work out the ramifications, but I ran across very few hardware vendors who gave the tiniest fragment of a fuck about 508.
posted by boo_radley at 5:03 PM on September 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


koeselitz: "How did higher education deal with FERPA and ADA 508 before computers? Why are those solutions no longer feasible?"

By posting your grades outside the lecture hall. Right next to your social security number.
posted by pwnguin at 5:04 PM on September 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


koeselitz: "I mean: the main thing here is that secure, usable CMSes have been springing up like weeds over the past two years. There are literally hundreds to choose from, small ones that are free and web-based, enterprise-level ones that are more robust and on-site, and everything in between. There is only one reason to be stuck with an LMS, I think: because universities bought in, so even if they knew the alternatives exist they'd never change. Universities are almost as trenchant as hospitals where tech is concerned."

Yes, this is true. Even at forward thinking schools, the support staff are fucking luddites about goddamn fucking anything having to do with a fucking goddamn computer. My last university still had did their accounting work by hand, on a set of physical books that they kept in a Scroogian full height safe.
posted by boo_radley at 5:05 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Best juxtaposition of Black Flag and Blackboard I've seen.

But seriously, Blackboard is terrible and Facebook is even worse. Martin Hawksey has done and documented some excellent work on using Wordpress as the backend for managing MOOCs. Worth a look if you are into that sort of thing. But, I've gone and conflated the CMS with the LMS.

(M)OOC in a Box: Turning WordPress into an Open Course Reader #ocTEL
Horses for open courses: Making the backend of a MOOC with WordPress #altc2013

Some of my nursing students report that they are using LINE to manage their own learning as a group. One student said "you have to be using LINE to do well". But, as DiscourseMarker commented, most students want to keep social media lives and schoolwork separate. Their use of LINE comes from them and they manage it--I wouldn't try to go anywhere near it.

Back to the LMS...

Schirmer writes: "According to Lane, starting in an LMS implies a teacher-centric model" but I'd say they've missed the point. It isn't even teacher-centric; it is institution-centric. Teachers can swapped in and out. All teachers and all courses are in the same institutional starting point.

Next: "Starting on the open web or a social media site implies a learner-centric model." Learner-centric or student-centered gets tossed around all the time. Open web/social media can just as easily be very teacher-centric.
posted by Gotanda at 5:07 PM on September 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


We use something called Connect, which I think is the latest iteration of Blackboard. It is ugly, clunky, restricts you from loading more than one file at a time and my institution refuses to devote enough computing resources to it, so most of the time it is unusable. I've just started building websites outside our institutional framework for all my classes, which is time consuming but at least I can usually solve any problems and the damn thing is available for students most of the time.

Why are these things so hideous and unworkable after years and years of being used? They seem willfully hideous and counter-intuitive.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 5:08 PM on September 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


pwnguin: "By posting your grades outside the lecture hall. Right next to your social security number."

That was never a good idea. My school, way back in the 1990s, mailed out physical copies and kept them on file in the Registrar's office if students wanted to see them. This is still simpler and cheaper than putting them online anywhere.
posted by koeselitz at 5:09 PM on September 28, 2013


koeselitz: "That was never a good idea. My school, way back in the 1990s, mailed out physical copies and kept them on file in the Registrar's office if students wanted to see them. This is still simpler and cheaper than putting them online anywhere."

By grades, I mean exam scores. It was simultaneously a bad idea, and widely practiced though. So the answer to how did they operate before computers? By looking the other way, mostly.
posted by pwnguin at 5:11 PM on September 28, 2013


lesbiassparrow: "Why are these things so hideous and unworkable after years and years of being used? They seem willfully hideous and counter-intuitive."

MrVisible was right about this: they're hideous because there is no competition. Even if there were a ton of popular and known alternatives, it's hard to spark competition among entrenched educational institutions.
posted by koeselitz at 5:11 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wrote and designed big chunks of Blackboard Learn, but I'm no longer with the company. Sorry you hate my work. I regret if it has harmed your educational experience. The team I worked with just wanted to make it possible for every class to have an online syllabus, a secure way to submit term papers and check grades. I've long since come to peace with the fact that we were unable to recreate Facebook, Wordpress and Wikipedia with a fully constructivist pedagogy capable of liberating us from the sages standing on stages. Nor will I ever be as interesting as Sal Khan and his academy. Anyway new management has it now, so there's hope.
posted by humanfont at 5:14 PM on September 28, 2013 [11 favorites]


I keep grades on D2L (and kept them before on Blackboard). The majority of profs at my institution who aren't teaching distance probably don't: usually they just use the LMS as a repository for syllabi, prompts, and rubrics.

I keep grades and a day-by-day outline on, get all my major papers via upload through turnitin, and as of this semester, grade most of them with Screencast-O-Matic, explaining problems via audio as I go. Keeping everything centrally located and under multiple eyes saves a great deal of student questioning and helps mistakes get corrected very quickly. Fewer student surprises means less student drama.
posted by LucretiusJones at 5:15 PM on September 28, 2013


koeselitz: "they're hideous because there is no competition. Even if there were a ton of popular and known alternatives, it's hard to spark competition among entrenched educational institutions."

There's substantial competition, but the lock-in factor is huge. Do you have any idea how much effort is involved in switching from one LMS to another? My department undertook a tremendous amount of effort last summer just to bring some Moodle courses up from 1.x to 2.x. It's substantially worse going from LMS to LMS, and you get the added overhead of training the support staff, and the trainers who train them, and then convince the faculty that the cost savings was worth them having to change at all.
posted by pwnguin at 5:19 PM on September 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


just, jesus, I have all the opinions about this situation because it's completely toxic for students. Like you can put the instructors and the deans and whoever else in front of these systems and say "Find me assignment two" or "can you link to the third week's class notes" and they'll fuck around for half an hour before giving up because they can't.


Why do we keep the software? (1) we have contracts. (2) we have support. if we go to moodle, who will support us? Fuck, I don't know, but hosted D2L has an 87% uptime and fucks the bed each and every midterm and class start. What the fuck good is that?
posted by boo_radley at 5:20 PM on September 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm not going to parse FERPA here, to no-one's dismay. Nor am I going to defend Blackboard, which is execrable. Or any other LMS, because ew. But they're the best solution to the question of "How do we get hundreds of instructors, most of whom are only passingly familiar with technology, to teach online courses which tens of thousands of students (who are mostly even less technologically apt) can navigate, and which conform to an ever-changing and always-arcane set of state and federal regulations and requirements from accreditation bodies?"

They're not the best solution for every individual teacher. They're really the only current solution from an institutional perspective. While the grades stored on a spreadsheet in your Dropbox might work for you, a year from now when you're no longer working at the college and a student contests their grade in your class, they're out of luck.

The primary benefit to using an LMS, from an institutional standpoint, is that they're scalable and the companies that sell them have an obligation to maintain them in accordance to legal standards, which gives the institutions cover from lawsuits.

From a student's perspective, the advantage is that you don't have yet another flaky art teacher expecting that you're going to be able to figure out their bizarre instructions for uploading your projects in a way that no other class in the history of the internet has ever done, and that just doesn't work, and then they're all like, 'what, I can upload to my space on the local cable service just fine, why can't you' and you fail the online course entirely because it's being taught by someone who has trouble figuring out how to access the voicemail on their iPhone and is now trying to design an interface for their entire class from scratch.

Going outside the LMS structure means you're counting on all instructors to be technologically competent, and provide excellent tech support to their students in addition to being able to teach their classes. It's an unrealistic expectation.

And if you don't believe we have to conform to a big set of regulations in online classes, just google 'ADA lawsuit college' or 'copyright lawsuit college'.
posted by MrVisible at 5:22 PM on September 28, 2013 [10 favorites]


I've been in and out of college classrooms since graduating in 2006, and I am not convinced at all that LMSes are necessary or even especially useful in the majority of cases.

I've taken a lot of perfectly functional courses as little as a year ago. Almost all used a simple webpage to put up the course syllabus and maybe display updated lists of book exercises.

By comparison, the hands-down worst course I've taken in the last few years used an extensive set of LMS tools. The course had a site on the Piazza LMS which listed readings, assignments, the syllabus, supplemental materials, sample code and solutions, and so on. The site also had lecture notes available for download. Lectures were recorded on video and posted on the site, and then also transcribed by students. There was a discussion board and a message inbox to contact the instructor.

The students in the class (mostly adult professionals) ignored the supplemental readings and wasted lecture time by asking about assignments and deadlines. The discussion board was full of students complaining about their inability to follow clear instructions, as well as people looking for assignment partners way too close to the turn-in deadlines.

In short, in order to be effective, the LMS format required way too much discipline and initiative from students. Without that, it just created lots of extra work for the instructor by making his time and attention available via a bunch of additional methods. Whereas earlier, he only had to worry about office hours (with uniformly poor attendance) and answering student email, he now had to keep up with the discussion board, ensuring that everything on the site got uploaded, updated, and versioned in a timely manner. reply to personal messages via the site, and so on.

I can see how in some limited circumstances, an online widget could be useful: maybe something that lists your assignment scores or tells you about upcoming homework. Using an LMS to take over class management completely seems counterproductive.
posted by Nomyte at 5:23 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, but for fully-online classes, there's really no better solution than an LMS. It's just a crime that the LMS options out there so far are so terrible.
posted by MrVisible at 5:27 PM on September 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Beyond student privacy and ADA requirements...one other serious factor is the legality of course readings: are they from licensed sources, are you direct linking to campus materials, distributing pdfs, e-course packs, etc.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:35 PM on September 28, 2013


There seem to be new LMS companies cropping up all the time claiming to have re-invented or re-imagined the LMS into something better than Blackboard or WebCT were. Moodle, Sakai, D2L, Angel, Appero, Instructure; why is it they all end up disappointing.
posted by humanfont at 5:49 PM on September 28, 2013


Maybe people just got so used to that false Java error that Blackboard throws every single time it opens that they missed its glaring scream when they tried anything different.
posted by koeselitz at 5:53 PM on September 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Angel got bought by Blackboard a while ago.
posted by boo_radley at 5:53 PM on September 28, 2013


Sakai is hardly new. I've been aware of it since at least 2007.
posted by Nomyte at 5:56 PM on September 28, 2013


everything about the way companies like Blackboard do business with university administrations is directly analogous to the worst management <> tech consultant driven business software decisions. there's a reason why Oracle bought PeopleSoft.

but that masks the fact that there the idea of a universal 'LMS' is half-baked... and imposing them university wide is driven by stupid corruption and the MBA-style drive to deskill the workforce in education.

Hello, former University IT developer and software architect here.

unversity IT used to be a haven for smart programmers. it's now been downsized and outsourced, american business style.
posted by ennui.bz at 5:56 PM on September 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


I feel compelled to plug this book written by the former Chief Architect of Sakai. It probably will explain most of the reasons that my former industry is so crazy.
posted by humanfont at 6:06 PM on September 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


It might be useful to look at a specific case here. Let's look at a course that IMHO is the single most important ongoing class in the Western world: MIT 1801 Single Variable Calculus. It is taught every year, probably ever since MIT existed. Every student must take it, or test out of it. If there is any institution that has the technological capability to modernize this course, it is MIT. And they have done it, here is MIT Open Courseware Calc 1801.

And look at what is on the video: a guy in front of a chalkboard. I have been in classrooms like this, they have three chalkboards, side by side. Each chalkboard has two boards, one can slide up and the professor keeps writing. Some classrooms have three sliding boards, the 6 foot tall boards extend almost 20 feet up the wall, and must be pulled back down with a rope. He fills one blackboard (both boards) and moves on to the next, leaving the old material up. This teacher is really pushing the limits of the technology, he has 4 colors of chalk.

I remember taking Organic Chemistry in a room like this. It was impossible to take notes as fast as the teacher wrote them, including the detailed diagrams. So some of the enterprising grad students set up a Lecture Notes business. They'd sit in the class and take detailed notes. They had already passed this class, and this knowledge was elementary to them, so they didn't have to grapple with the concepts while trying to write them down.

But with the video classes, you can always pause and back up. Video alone is probably a sufficient technological advancement, for those teachers who are capable of using it optimally. Aside from the MIT videos, there is an online forum, with "helpers" to answer questions, it says 75% of questions are answered within 5 minutes.

I don't think it really matters what sort of medium you use to teach. It still all comes down to the teacher. There is a legend about MIT Calc 1801 I heard when I visited while being interviewed for admissions. They say one day Calc class convened, the professor entered the room, laid his textbook on the podium, looked up at the class, and said, "Are there any questions?" After a few moments of silence from the class, he said, "Well then, class dismissed" and he walked out of the room. The class left, not quite knowing what happened there. When the next class session convened, the same thing happened. The professor asked, "Are there any questions?" and there was a stony silence for a moment. Then someone raised their hand, and said, "Could you please explain problem 1 on page 1?" The professor turned to the chalkboard, began writing, and started lecturing.

And that is probably how it's going to go. I have been hearing about experiments, I think they call it "classroom inversion." Students are expected to go through their online materials on their own time, that is the primary instruction. Class time is for students to ask for assistance. Students have plenty of time to take the class, but only limited access to the instructors, so in order to optimize the use of scarce teaching resources, they must come to class prepared.

This is not exactly a new idea. Does anyone remember the beginning of the old movie "The Paper Chase?" Holy crap that was 1973.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:06 PM on September 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


humanfont: I wrote and designed big chunks of Blackboard Learn

COME ON GUYS LET'S GET HIM!!!!!
posted by wenestvedt at 6:13 PM on September 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


I have been hearing about experiments, I think they call it "classroom inversion." Students are expected to go through their online materials on their own time, that is the primary instruction. Class time is for students to ask for assistance.

charlie don't surf, I hear that called a "flipped classroom." The materials are available before class, so you can spend the whole class time just working on the stuff that is difficult for students.

I work at a .edu with a culinary program, and this means that they spend more time actually cooking and less time literally lecturing in a kitchen. The chef-instructors are very pleased about this, and they report that the students appreciate getting twice as much real cooking time.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:16 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's why you need an LMS, even in a traditional college class. The problem isn't end of term grades, it's grades during the term. You have 700 students who need to know their current course grades as the course progresses. You can't tell them in person, there are too many students. You can't email them, it's not secure so would violate FERPA. You can't post a piece of paper with personally identifying information, that violates FERPA. You can't have a password protected spreadsheet, that would let students see each other's grades and that violates FERPA. Currently an LMS is the only tech solution to this problem. It sucks and LMSs are horrible, but we're stuck using them due to a lack of alternatives.
posted by medusa at 6:17 PM on September 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


You have 700 students who need to know their current course grades as the course progresses.

But that's the first "sanity check" of being a student: knowing how you are doing in the class you are in. Having some running score, like in a video game, is very different from having to figure it out on your own. Unless of course your class is some expensive cattle-pen where you get a grade rather than a bolt through your skull in the end. In which case, your LMS is really just about enabling management to deskill the classroom.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:24 PM on September 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


charlie don't surf is indeed describing a "flipped" classroom--which, as it happens, is how humanities courses have traditionally been taught. (Students! Read this poem before class so we can talk about it!)

I did fool around with Twitter last semester in one course, as an experiment, and was meh about the experience--contrary to stereotype, most of my students aren't on Twitter, and it wasn't a particularly useful tool. I'm not very happy about expecting students to perform in public via blog posts or whatever, even with pseudonyms, although I think I'll experiment with ANGEL blogs at some point; we do use the ANGEL wiki for things like discussion questions, exploring research topics, and so forth, and I expect that I'll try a more adventurous collaborative wiki project next semester. On the flip side, though, LMS blogs and wikis are one-direction only when it comes to online interaction--I've had students or faculty at other colleges link to posts on my own blog, for example, and it's mighty frustrating on my end that I can't see the resulting conversation. (Of course, the students might not want me to, so there you go...)

Like a lot of faculty, I find ANGEL pretty demonic, in large part because a lot of its tools are either klutzy or sort of counterintuitive (the button to do what is...where?). And, yeah, why does it take that many clicks to do something simple?
posted by thomas j wise at 6:29 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


medusa: "You can't email them, it's not secure so would violate FERPA. "

I believe emailing them to the student's account within the .edu is considered secure. emailing to PantsComeOff1999@hotmail.com isn't, but keeping it inside an institutionally controlled and audited system is.
posted by boo_radley at 6:37 PM on September 28, 2013


But "digital natives"! I was in a social science classroom in 2009 and the instructor started talking about something happening on Twitter to a roomful of upper-level undergrads. Several hands shot up to ask what Twitter was. By that time, Twitter had been operating for three years, making NYT headlines, and so on. But it was a complete mystery to these undergrads.

Most young people actually have very few, simple tasks that they want to accomplish online. They are usually not early adopters of software. (Well, some early adopters are young, but few young people are early adopters.)
posted by Nomyte at 6:43 PM on September 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


boo_radley, we've been explicitly told not to use email for grades ever because email is not encrypted.

ennui.bz, There is another important fact I should have mentioned. We don't hand back paper exams, we're required to keep them for a year in case of grade disputes. So without the LMS we would have no way to tell the students their exam grades. (Except in person, which takes too long in a large class.)
posted by medusa at 6:51 PM on September 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


humanfront: Regarding your work on Blackboard.

I haven't used blackboard since, oh, 2006 or so, so I don't know the direction things have taken lately. But I think a big part of the success of Moodle boils down to two things:

1) There's not a lot of excess funding for education floating around, and
2) There's not an economic limit on the number of developers of an open source project.

This means that yeah, there aren't going to be enough developers in a private company - dependent on contracts - to develop that perfect blend of everything that an LMS needs to do well. So the solution ends up being open source. But open source development (especially for academic stuff) tends to suffer from a lack of UI people and a tendency to focus on the exciting instead of the functional. Thus the still-broken quiz modules..........

In fact, open source probably IS the right way to do things, but it helps to have a paid staff of engineers to do things like tie up those functional ends, or take on important projects where volunteers are lacking, like the UI design. But for an open source project to have staff, it needs to be recognized as a valuable public good. This is what's happened with the Linux kernel, for example: a bunch of different big corporations have teams that do linux development, building up that useful common good.

But where is that investment going to come from for an LMS? It basically HAS to come from the government, but the government has been systematically dis-investing in education for the last, oh, forever.

It's the lack of investment in the education system that I think is the root cause. But good luck fixing it.
posted by kaibutsu at 7:13 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


COME ON GUYS LET'S GET HIM!!!!!

I understand. In my defense I never meant to hurt anyone.
posted by humanfont at 7:13 PM on September 28, 2013 [11 favorites]


I've taken a lot of perfectly functional courses as little as a year ago. Almost all used a simple webpage to put up the course syllabus and maybe display updated lists of book exercises.


So I gotta ask a naive question here. I'm a college professor. The above is how I run my courses. Is there any reason, from the viewpoint of me or my students, that I should be using an LMS? One thing I'm not hearing a lot of here is "I'm a college student and I'm angry that my professor doesn't use Blackboard."
posted by escabeche at 7:16 PM on September 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


medusa: "boo_radley, we've been explicitly told not to use email for grades ever because email is not encrypted."

I've heard that before, but I disagree. FERPA regulates mindful, willing disclosures, not all possible ways that a grade (or protected PII) might get exposed. Many vendors grabass around this and expect administrators to fear the risk of a lawsuit or etc.

In your example, the fear is that somebody (who?) would intercept the email illicitly. The school had no communication with that third party, had no reasonable expectation that that third party would intercept the communication. There's no intent, so there's no violation.

If emailing records would be a violation, what would prevent standard mail from being a violation? Anybody could open that envelope if they wanted to.
posted by boo_radley at 7:17 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


humanfont: In my defense I never meant to hurt anyone.

humanfont, I think that's what the guy who irradiated Mothra said, too.

Actually, as a .edu IT guy, I must say that these LMSs are amazingly complex systems that need to serve a ton of user constituencies at once while staying within a crazy thicket of regulations (FERPA, HIPPA, Money stuff, Mass CFR part 17 whatever, etc., etc.) -- and it's hard to do all that, with great design and flexible features, while staying within the sort of budget that a college/university can spend.

humanfont, you may not have made a silk purse from a sow's ear, but it's nice for a novelty coin purse.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:22 PM on September 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


At my institution, we have no online classes and all of our classes are quite small. But the administration requires us to use the LMS to post the syllabus and to keep students grades stored there and continuously updated.

At first I was somewhat rebellious against this, but honestly it also seems to work better for most of my students to download readings as PDFs from there, rather than me emailing them to them or (even worse) handing out paper copies, and for them to upload papers to the Dropbox (with TurnItIn built-in!) rather than manage to print them out and hand them to me. I use the online quiz function as an easy way to give homework that they will sometimes actually complete.

We use D2L now. I have used old WebCT, Blackboard 8.* and 9.*, and (the worst) WebCT/Blackboard Vista (which made me want to blow things up). Which LMS we use is actually determined at the state level, not even at individual campuses. I don't think the idea of an LMS is terrible. But, honestly, every LMS I've ever used just has such a painful, slow, many-click interface with way too many bells and whistles that I never touch. I just wish for a good LMS for my purposes. I think most of them are built with online teaching in mind, and it would be nice to have one that was more stripped down and aimed specifically at classroom teaching.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:27 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


charlie don't surf is indeed describing a "flipped" classroom--which, as it happens, is how humanities courses have traditionally been taught. (Students! Read this poem before class so we can talk about it!)

Ha. You remind me of my old J lit class. We had a syllabus given out on day 1 with reading assignments down to the exact page, with instructions to read them before the class discussion on a specific date. When the final exam essay test was handed out, the teacher said we could write one paragraph and no more, with any argument why you deserve a better grade in this class. It was worth a maximum of one half grade point.

I wrote a single sentence, "I was the only student that read every assignment before class, attended every class, participated in every discussion, and always handed in my homework on time." For this I was raised from a B+ to an A. Damn that teacher was harsh. But still, is it too much to ask, for students to do the work and attend classes? Apparently it is.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:36 PM on September 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


So, just last year I co-chaired our college-wide committee to select our next LMS. We were on ANGEL, but since Blackboard decided to no longer update it, we decided to look around.

For us it came down to a choice between D2L and Canvas (by Instructure). We went with Canvas. It works pretty well and has some good features, but it's not perfect (it's messaging system sucks).

But you know what? The one thing I learned while working on that committee is that no matter what about 1/4 of your professors are going to hate your LMS. There are so many different things that professors need: communications professors want good recording baked in, math professors want good handling of non-western symbols, humanities want to be able to easily upload all kinds of media, our nursing program wanted to be able to insert java-script into any/every assignment, etc. etc. etc.

There is simply no one system (and likely never will be) that is good at everything. This guy doesn't like his LMS. I shrug my shoulders at him. I also guarantee that there are many professors at his institution who like it just fine and are very successful with it.

(P.s. Hey Humanfront, a friend of mine at Gonzaga really likes their LMS, they use Blackboard.)
posted by oddman at 7:43 PM on September 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


My son's school uses Moodle and something called ISIS. We had a meeting with his advisor and she was able to bring up all of his grades, his attendance and comments from his teachers. It was great to have all the data there in front of us as we discussed his progress so far this semester. My son has no complaints about the software. In fact, he was just sick, and was able to keep up with the classes he missed on Moodle.
posted by Biblio at 7:56 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


ennui.bz: "But that's the first 'sanity check' of being a student: knowing how you are doing in the class you are in. Having some running score, like in a video game, is very different from having to figure it out on your own. Unless of course your class is some expensive cattle-pen where you get a grade rather than a bolt through your skull in the end. In which case, your LMS is really just about enabling management to deskill the classroom."

This is very, very true. "How do we give students access to grades at all times?" is a trick question; students shouldn't have access to grades at all times. They're relatively meaningless as metrics of education and thus they only get in the way of progress.
posted by koeselitz at 8:22 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is very, very true. "How do we give students access to grades at all times?" is a trick question; students shouldn't have access to grades at all times. They're relatively meaningless as metrics of education and thus they only get in the way of progress.

So far as I understand the argument in the FPP, this is exactly what he means by institutional software. It's software that's been coded and designed to support the sort of learning which fits well (arguably) in a very specific set of cases, and is actively harmful in other sorts of classes (he teaches writing, composition and rhetoric and bases his argument off this example - for context this was delivered at a conference about teaching writing).

However, due to the huge investments Universities put into these rentier capitalism systems, professors are often forced into boxes they'd rather not be in.
posted by codacorolla at 8:26 PM on September 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, that's exactly true. In fact, honestly that's why I come out all "guns blazing" in discussions about Blackboard - because it's flat wrong, in almost every way, for teaching the humanities, particularly in the smaller classes I'm familiar with. As I said above, there are better ways to distribute readings - hell, even photocopies handed out in class are more convenient for students, though not for teachers - and better, more old-fashioned ways to keep and record grades. And Blackboard makes it much more difficult for students to submit work to teachers; email works much better. So teachers who are forced to use Blackboard are being cornered and forced into a model of education that really doesn't make sense.

With all the strange top-heavy things going on in higher education these days, somehow the feeling that administrators are forcing an ill-fitting model of education on unwilling teachers and students is painfully familiar.
posted by koeselitz at 8:36 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I disagree that email is better for submitting papers than uploading. I stringently disagree that English lit professors hand-writing their feedback in incomprehensibly gobbledy-gook (99% of my undergrad experience) is better than having to actually type it out so I can see what it says.
posted by bleep at 8:40 PM on September 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


"there are better ways to distribute readings - hell, even photocopies handed out in class are more convenient for students, though not for teachers - and better, more old-fashioned ways to keep and record grades. And Blackboard makes it much more difficult for students to submit work to teachers; email works much better"

My experience with all three use-cases you mention is the exact opposite. Using an LMS makes distributing readings, tracking grades and accepting student submissions much easier then the older equivalents.
posted by oddman at 8:40 PM on September 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


In conclusion, using LMSes is a land of contrasts.
posted by Going To Maine at 9:08 PM on September 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


This is very, very true. "How do we give students access to grades at all times?" is a trick question; students shouldn't have access to grades at all times. They're relatively meaningless as metrics of education and thus they only get in the way of progress.

I'm pretty sure refusing to give students' access to their grades over the course of the semester is a sure fire way to see your student evaluations plummet through the floor. For me, the number of "what's my grade" questions I got dropped dramatically after I started using LMSs to post grades, as opposed to my old paper grade book. One thing computers, even LMSs, do well, is math. And frankly, I don't understand the pedagogical value of not telling students how they are doing in a course.

And I definitely don't want students to email me assignments-that's the easiest way for them to gt lost in the shuffle, and for students to claim they submitted assignments they didn't do. Again, one major advantage of all LMSs that I've used is that they log interaction with the system. Assignments in the Dropbox are time-stamped. (And I will say that I did think D2L's Dropbox was much less prone to eating uploaded documents than was Blackboard's when I used it).

And I remember the days when I had to carry around an accordion file with extra copies of handouts and syllabi, because some percentage of students always, always loses copies of whatever you give them in class. If everything is on the LMS, they can just re-download to their hearts' content.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 9:17 PM on September 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


bleep: "I disagree that email is better for submitting papers than uploading. I stringently disagree that English lit professors hand-writing their feedback in incomprehensibly gobbledy-gook (99% of my undergrad experience) is better than having to actually type it out so I can see what it says."

I don't say assignments should be handed back on paper - I agree that typed comments are better than written comments. Doing it all electronically is a good idea, but there are a lot of better ways to do that (I think) than Blackboard.

As far as whether email is better than Blackboard - well, I think I can attest to that from experience. I'm just returning to Boston College to finish my Master's, and I have a class where the teacher asked us to upload there blackboard to turn in assignments. I'm not an idiot, but I spent two hours trying to figure out how to do so, finally giving up in disgust and figuring my permissions weren't set up right, or I didn't have the right version of Java (only later did I discover that fake Java error seems to be prevalent on many Blackboard campuses) or something. When I sent a profusely apologetic email to the professor with my paper attached, he sheepishly replied that he was just going to request the assignments by email anyway, since he could not figure out how to enable uploads. He's not a dumb person, either; and he was able to upload plenty of readings on his own. These settings just seem hidden and difficult, and there are enough things that consistently go wrong that a student who comes to the conclusion that it's not possible to make it work is often being completely rational.

DiscourseMarker: "And frankly, I don't understand the pedagogical value of not telling students how they are doing in a course."

My point was that grades are not an accurate representation of how well a student is doing in a course; no single-letter assessment can be. This is still my alma mater's philosophy, and frankly it seems to work well; I agree with it in principle. But I appreciate that this begins to move beyond the scope of this discussion.
posted by koeselitz at 9:49 PM on September 28, 2013


Ha. Two minutes ago I just emailed my professor because I yet again have an issue with Blackboard that I could not for the life of me figure out. And I don't feel like I'm that inept with this kind of thing. Reading between the lines, I think that my instructors hate Blackboard as much as the students do, but they can't exactly go on a tirade against it.
posted by zardoz at 10:24 PM on September 28, 2013


hell, even photocopies handed out in class are more convenient for students, though not for teachers

wtf is this I don't even. If I wanted a pile of papers I'd go buy scrap paper, if I want something to read I'll take it in pdf format on my ipad. Ideally, as a single zip file download at the start of semester.
posted by jacalata at 10:26 PM on September 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


jacalata: "Ideally, as a single zip file download at the start of semester."

You just gave every institution that engages in academic espionage a big sloppy kiss.
posted by boo_radley at 10:30 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's fine to argue that you should hand out readings as paper in class because of academic espionage. It's not true to argue that I want you to do it.
posted by jacalata at 10:58 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


jacalata: "wtf is this I don't even. If I wanted a pile of papers I'd go buy scrap paper, if I want something to read I'll take it in pdf format on my ipad. Ideally, as a single zip file download at the start of semester."

Ha. Yep! Guess what Blackboard doesn't support? Any of these things. Zip file bundle downloads don't seem to be supported at all. Files are not downloadable, by design, although with most desktop browsers these days you can get around that by using "print to PDF." And Blackboard is generally horrendous on an iPad - I have never once gotten a document to work correctly on mine, since you apparently can't turn the pages at all. That makes sense, I guess. Like I said, it's a Java app, like many complicated web pages were ten years ago. So opening up a document from Blackboard directly on an iPad - which ought to be incredibly easy - is actually impossible if you want to see more than the first page and a half.

So, I ask you, for most students is this process - try to open it on mobile device, fail, open it on desktop computer, try to download, fail, finally figure out you can print to PDF - is this process more difficult than keeping track of a stack of papers? Yeah, I think so. Keep in mind this is coming from a guy who scans in his textbooks so he can carry them on his iPad instead of lugging the things around. I like using electronic versions, and I hate hard copies. So you have to understand - Blackboard had to go a long way to make me say I prefer paper copies to the way they do things. I've figured out a workflow on it, but many students I meet haven't.

Apparently the popular thing to do is just print out paper copies from Blackboard and carry them around. That is what all the other students in my class did. So: what the hell is the point of this useless system? I should get PDFs in a format I can use, and they should actually be obtainable in sane ways.
posted by koeselitz at 11:02 PM on September 28, 2013


huh - it has actually been a long time since I used Blackboard, the last courses I took used an e-documents option run by the school library, I think, which actually did offer all the readings as a zip of pdfs, and I didn't realise Blackboard didn't support anything like that. So I guess I might actually prefer paper copies over the process you describe.
posted by jacalata at 11:12 PM on September 28, 2013


I used blackboard as a student, and use moodle now. I don't have any real issues with either. Like humanfont said, it's just a way to turn in work and see my grades. I could do without the discussion forums, but that's mostly because I've had lame "classmates" who won't participate substantially, so they're worthless.

My annoyance with using both, though is the assumption that I'm using a microsoft windows computer. Blackboard required me to use one of three different browsers on my mac, depending what exactly I wanted to do. My school requires submissions in .doc or .rtf, when .pdf would be so much easier for me both to submit, and to read other people's documents the way they were supposed to look. The instructors are constantly having to rant about file names. Apparently if everyone names their files "Assignment 3" the instructor's batch download results in a confusing mess. Seems like something that would be easy to fix in the programming.

No matter what, typing out math is going to suck. It takes me just as long to type all my math assignments into the stupid computer as it did to do the work with a pencil first. (Even after I found a LaTeX editor - so much faster than a crappy mouse driven equation editor like MathType.) That's wasted time.
posted by ctmf at 2:26 AM on September 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


koeselitz: Blackboard is nowhere near as smart as you think it is. The PDFs you upload to Blackboard aren't controlled by Blackboard...you open them in your browser, and your browser behaves however you have told it to behave, or how the maker of your browser told it to behave. If you're looking at a PDF you got from a Blackboard course, you're no longer looking at Blackboard. Right-click and save any PDF link you see in Blackboard and you can open it in any other PDF reader you have on your computer. These are browser issues you're dealing with, not Blackboard issues. Blackboard does not make or provide a PDF reader.

You can upload zip files into Blackboard to be downloaded by students. Again: it's really not that smart. It doesn't care what the format is. It doesn't make a zip file for you, though. You have to know how to do that part if that's what you want to do.
posted by Hildegarde at 2:29 AM on September 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm a faculty trainer/troubleshooter/consultant/first-person-to-call-when-things-go-pear-shaped. I'm also a librarian. I don't work for Blackboard, I support instructors who use it, and I support them in using technologies outside of Blackboard when that's what they need to make their classes work the way they want (google docs, youtube, soundcloud, audacity, wikipedia, tumblr, twitter, facebook, google plus, clickers, wordpress, whatever). Arguments about how Blackboard is the opposite of teaching are frankly laughable; it's a tool, like any other tool. The job of teaching rests with teachers, not tools.

Blackboard is most often used as a reference source and starting point for students, and an easy way for the school to help the instructor see who's in their class and communicate with them without the instructor having to worry about enrollment and lists of ids. That's what it does. The teaching isn't going to come attached. That's a different job.

Believe it or not, lot of the instructors I work with really like Blackboard. And tell me so frequently. I'm not it's biggest fan by a longshot and I'm certainly not a salesman for it, but I know what it can do and I make sure the instructors at my institution know it too. There's a lot of ignorance and confusion at work in the hatred of any LMS, and a lot of fear as well. Personally, I've come to understand my job as working to reducing fear and ignorance rather than making sure anyone uses any tool in a particular way. There are not enough people doing the kind of work I do. I don't mean doing it the way I do it, though I'd love to make that argument (ha!), but I mean there isn't enough support for faculty using technology in their teaching across the board, and it hurts everyone.

96% of courses at my institution use Blackboard in some capacity; a shocking number of those use the grade center in Blackboard to reveal grades. I haven't crunched the numbers to see exactly how many of that 96% are using it for grades, but it's way higher than I would have expected. A rock-solid way to ensure that students only see their own grades is a real winner among the folks I support, and I make sure they know how to do that in the easiest and least painful way.

Students at my institution will bully instructors into using Blackboard if they don't already, which is why we moved from the 80-odd percentage range a few years ago into the 90s really fast. It's not exactly that our students love Blackboard, but they love that they don't have to remember a bunch of different websites, or learn a bunch of different interfaces in order to see their deadlines, grades, readings, and syllabi. When four of their courses are available there but a fifth is some personal website somewhere on the internet, they get annoyed. I work with a couple of folks who have no use for the tools in Blackboard, but have been pressured by students to open up the course on Blackboard to act as the link to the course website. Even those people are moving into the grade center now, though.

In my experience, accepting assignments via email opens you up to so much drama, and relieves students of the benefit of any proof that their assignment was received. It's the single easiest way to get yourself an extension on a deadline, and the vast majority of students know it. I'm not a fan of always assuming students are going to cheat, but everyone benefits from reliable, trustable systems that abide by their own rules. The number of times I've had to help instructors deal with students who claimed they emailed an assignment when no such email was ever received...I can't even tell you. If it actually happened that way, that's a terrible and terrifying experience for the student, but if it's a lie to get an extension, it's just not fair, is it. Email has an excellent core metaphor that many people understand, but it's not the answer to everything. The volume of scams and failures that results from using an email address as a dropbox is such a constant feature that it's now in our list of top three things to tell instructors to never do if they want to ensure a smooth term.

In my experience, a lot of the confusion around using Blackboard comes from the fact that an empty course site comes with a generic menu on the lefthand side. The generic menu is completely editable, but most instructors don't know that, so they all have folders called "Course Materials" or "Course Information" that they use in radically different ways. So students look at courses with identical menus, but no consistency in what those menu items mean. In recent years we have spent a lot more time talking how to modify and personalize that menu, and how to insert the tools you want to use either into the menu directly, or into a folder, right alongside the readings, lecture notes, assignments, whatever. (So you could insert a discussion board to capture questions about a particular assignment in the same place the instructions for the assignment live, and where the dropbox for that assignment is.) When the instructors I work with see how to modify the system to fit how they teach and how the language they use in the course, we seem to get better results, and they seem much happier.

I am very happy to sit down with anyone and talk about Blackboard's problems. I am very upfront with our faculty about the pitfalls and glitches it has, and what will and won't be difficult/impossible. I'd also be very happy to take on and roll out a completely different kind of system if there were a better one. As far as I can tell, there really isn't. Most of the criticisms I hear of Blackboard aren't the big conceptual ones I'd love to dig into and really flesh out as an alternative. They're usually rooted in not knowing how to make minor modifications so that the course site runs the way an instructor wants it to, or they're based in assumptions about what "all" instructors do and want that are just wrong.

There is a certain cache in hating on an institutional system. That's fine, I guess, but it's not particularly thoughtful or insightful. I always open up these kinds of articles in the hopes that someone is going to engage with the idea of LMSes in a way that will really blow my mind, but that hasn't happened just yet. I remain optimistic.
posted by Hildegarde at 3:12 AM on September 29, 2013 [13 favorites]


I find it insulting to interact with platform called "Desire2Learn" in a higher education setting.

What's next, accepting assignments written in l33tspeak?
posted by spitbull at 4:27 AM on September 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Students at my institution will bully instructors into using Blackboard if they don't already, which is why we moved from the 80-odd percentage range a few years ago into the 90s really fast.

I actually got an audible "Oh, thank god" when I said I didn't use Moodle for anything but grades this semester. There seems to be a strong desire among students to have their grades accessible and I can imagine that people like turning in assignments via Moodle (it doesn't come up in my subject), but I suspect that that's where the near-universal acclamation among students stops. Occasionally, I get a student who thinks that they should go looking for quiz solutions or something in Moodle and not on my website, but it's rare.

That said, my best friend really likes Blackboard because it means she's not carrying stacks of paper around all the time. She uses track changes in Word to give comments, I think. It kind of astonishes me that she has students who universally have Word, but perhaps LibreOffice has advanced to the point where it can handle comments in a Word document. (I don't know these things because I so seldom use a word processor.)

No matter what, typing out math is going to suck. It takes me just as long to type all my math assignments into the stupid computer as it did to do the work with a pencil first. (Even after I found a LaTeX editor - so much faster than a crappy mouse driven equation editor like MathType.) That's wasted time.

I LaTeXed row reduction. Why on earth I did this, I don't know. But it was surprisingly not that painful eventually. I think I just didn't have that much work my first year of college.

I tried using Moodle for homework in a math class a couple of summers back. It turned into a headache. There's a LaTeX plugin for Moodle, so writing the problems was okay, but I was prone to making typos and Moodle can't really match equivalent answers (you have to include as many equivalent forms as you can think of), so I spent a bunch of time repairing students' scores. We have some courses that use WeBWork. I have no idea how that goes over, but it comes with some pre-written problems and I think the department's been using it long enough that the typos have been caught.
posted by hoyland at 5:06 AM on September 29, 2013


I never minded Blackboard as a student but I've never known an instructor who didn't despise it.

I believe it.

A couple of years ago, until I was sidelined by back surgery, I was set to do some remote instruction in graphic design for our statewide community college system. Before I could start, I had to familiarize myself with Blackboard.

Now, my last job prior to this was doing UI design for a software startup, so I had a fairly good feel for what works and what doesn't and how things should just. fucking. work. Learning to use Blackboard was akin to pulling all of my teeth out, then packing the still-bleeding holes in my gums with salt. Jesus, you can't possible make something that bad on purpose, can you???

Luckily, I had to undergo emergency back surgery, so I was spared the true pain of working in Blackboard for an entire semester.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:44 AM on September 29, 2013


Okay, but the linked article/video is specifically about how LMS are distorting the educational process because they're "institution-focused" rather than "learning-focused." The complaints in here are about the mechanics of LMS, not the pedagogy behind them. I am legitimately interested in what this guy's point is, but I simply can't figure out the answer to any of these questions:

1. What is it about LMS that make them not learner-centered?
2. What are the alternatives?
3. Why are they different?

The mechanics of LMS being annoying vs. e-mail / hand-outs / grade reporting etc. is not, at all, what he's talking about. He's specifically saying there's something about the educational experience mediated through LMS that is not about the students, but that somehow more "open" structures could be.

The flipped classroom approach that charlie don't surf mentions is the closest anybody has gotten to addressing the potential problems with having an LMS - it doesn't empower/force students to take control of their education because it provides such a clear "instruction guide" to the subject that students can go through the motions without thinking about it. That could be a legitimate critique, but again, I don't see it in this article because we are jumping into the middle of a conversation without the basic principles declined. And, to be honest, LMS are a perfect tool for teaching a flipped classroom.

Rant over, re-commence complaints about java errors.
posted by one_bean at 9:25 AM on September 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


one bean, I had the same questions after reading the article. But that's the problem, the author didn't actually explain his assertion about LMSs being "institution-focused," and didn't give any real examples, so basically, I have no idea what he's talking about. I suspect that's why we ended up talking about java errors* and such-like, because they guy in the FPP isn't here to explain his point.


*I last taught at a Blackboard institution in 2007, and I have to say I find it very sad that apparently that java error is still a thing. I would've thought they could've fixed that by now.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 10:05 AM on September 29, 2013


This is very, very true. "How do we give students access to grades at all times?" is a trick question; students shouldn't have access to grades at all times. They're relatively meaningless as metrics of education and thus they only get in the way of progress.

I think you are very fortunate if this is meaningless to you, honestly. That you are in a position where you are unconcerned with grades and not constantly assessing whether you can afford to stay in a class or continue in your major is a point of privilege you may not be aware of. It is completely alien to the experiences of the college students I know, honestly.

College is incredibly expensive and for most students cost is a definite concern. Scholarships are almost always GPA-dependent. Students on scholarships need to know their grades to determine if dropping a class is the most economically beneficial route to take.

Say a required course at the intermediate level is offered by two professors. One of these educators, by word of mouth, is much preferred to the other; students succeed (by whatever metric you want to apply) more often with that professor.

A smart, capable student, on a budget, with scholarships and about a 3.0 GPA tries to take the class taught by the preferred professor, but because the demand is so high, and the student is schedule-constrained--maybe the student is a sophomore who due to testing or aptitude is ready for a junior level class, but juniors get preference when registering so this student missed out--the student can't get in to the "good" professor's class. The other professor's class, though, is open.

The student has a choice: try again in the junior year for the preferred professor, or go ahead and take e required class with the other professor now. There's no guarantee the course will be available and schedule-accessible with the desired professor next time, so the student decides to take the course now. This approach is a sound one--you can drop the course if you have to and still have a chance to take it again, this hedging your bet

The student takes the class, and is initially mystified and overwhelmed, but puts in the work, gets a bit of a grip on the material. The first test, the student bombed horribly. The class grade will largely be determined by 2-4 tests. When the second test comes up, the student goes in more confidently, but now the pressure is on, because to make up for that 1st low test score all the other grades have to be stellar.

The student needs to know that test grade, and soon. A few points' difference on that test will determine that student's future. Because to keep the scholarship that pays the bills, that GPA has to stay at 3.0 or above. Economically, the smart choice is to drop the course while there is still time if that GPA is in danger, and try to sign up next semester with the preferred professor.

Thing is, this is not AT ALL an uncommon situation, and students may face the same dilemma several times during their college education.

So if your institution doesn't believe in grades, or possibly if you are in the social sciences where all your grades are based on essays, you are already at an advantage. Doubly so if money is no object, of course.

The medical, engineering, science, finance, technology and math majors in universities across the country on limited budgets do not have that luxury.
posted by misha at 10:21 AM on September 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I wrote a single sentence, "I was the only student that read every assignment before class, attended every class, participated in every discussion, and always handed in my homework on time." For this I was raised from a B+ to an A. Damn that teacher was harsh. But still, is it too much to ask, for students to do the work and attend classes? Apparently it is.

At my university in the late 80's that mere obedience would've been rewarded with a C (maybe C+).
posted by srboisvert at 10:44 AM on September 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


The student needs to know that test grade, and soon. A few points' difference on that test will determine that student's future. Because to keep the scholarship that pays the bills, that GPA has to stay at 3.0 or above. Economically, the smart choice is to drop the course while there is still time if that GPA is in danger, and try to sign up next semester with the preferred professor.

This is all independent of whether the grades are available online, though. Exams are scheduled and graded with an eye to when the drop deadline is. That student's exam will be handed back before the drop deadline, no frantic checking of Blackboard or whatever involved.
posted by hoyland at 12:08 PM on September 29, 2013


And in fully online classes, the equivalent of handing the student's graded paper back physically is...?
posted by MrVisible at 12:20 PM on September 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


misha: “College is incredibly expensive and for most students cost is a definite concern. Scholarships are almost always GPA-dependent. Students on scholarships need to know their grades to determine if dropping a class is the most economically beneficial route to take.”

The kind of GPA-dependent scholarships that used to be common are, in my experience, insanely rare nowadays. Most funding comes in the form of student loans and need-based scholarships that aren't GPA-dependent. You are free to provide statistics if you have some to change my mind on that, though.

“Economically, the smart choice is to drop the course while there is still time if that GPA is in danger, and try to sign up next semester with the preferred professor.”

Add/drop is usually about three weeks. And most of the GPA-dependent scholarships I've seen don't allow you to add or drop after that period. Again, maybe I'm wrong, and I'd appreciate being corrected if I am.

None of this really matters, anyway. Students have always been able to track their grades. They were able to track their grades real-time in 1900, and they can do so now. They've never been some huge secret. Grades are only a secret to those students who (a) refuse to ask a professor or go to the registrar to find them out or (b) can't do the math and keep track of how they're doing.

This is not a point of privilege, anyhow. As I said, relatively few students nowadays are in school on GPA-dependent scholarships; and many universities that do offer such scholarships are moving away from them toward the need-based model that Harvard seems to be pioneering where scholarships are not GPA-dependent. As well they should – for the reasons I listed above.

“The medical, engineering, science, finance, technology and math majors in universities across the country on limited budgets do not have that luxury.”

As I said above, the discrepancy in our perspectives probably comes from the fact that I'm strictly talking about education in the humanities here. Keep in mind that I don't know much about how university-level STEM courses work.

And please don't tell me I'm "privileged" because I'm in humanities. This is generally how it works over here on this side of academia. I'm not some rich trust-funder just because I know that. I can barely make rent over here.
posted by koeselitz at 12:36 PM on September 29, 2013


Add/drop is usually about three weeks. And most of the GPA-dependent scholarships I've seen don't allow you to add or drop after that period. Again, maybe I'm wrong, and I'd appreciate being corrected if I am.

When I started college the add/drop and pass/no pass deadlines were week 8. (Berkeley's online registration system, Tele-Bears, stops/stopped after week 5, so adding and dropping after that involved the Online Add/Drop System, which was a piece of paper.*) After my first year, add/drop went to week 5 (except for 'impacted' classes, like Chem 1A, where it was week 2) and pass/no pass went to week 10 in compensation. (I think the deadline for P/NP to letter grade was week 5, but I don't remember.) You could only withdraw for a W in the event of serious illness or suchlike.

Where I am now, add/drop and pass/no pass are week two(!), but you can 'withdraw' (and get a W on your transcript) at will until week 8. I think undergrads get an at will withdrawal after the deadline once in their lives, but I'm not certain.

I believe in both cases the deadlines for grad students were somewhat flexible if you talked to the right people.

*I'm endlessly amused by Tele-Bears being a website, with the touch-tone system gone, and OLADS being a piece of paper (and took that to someone with access to the registration system, which was where the 'online' in the name camefrom).
posted by hoyland at 12:46 PM on September 29, 2013


None of this really matters, anyway. Students have always been able to track their grades. They were able to track their grades real-time in 1900, and they can do so now. They've never been some huge secret. Grades are only a secret to those students who (a) refuse to ask a professor or go to the registrar to find them out or (b) can't do the math and keep track of how they're doing.

Students today are coming into universities having always had their grades online - they are not being taught how to calculate grades themselves, or how to ask a professor. There's another perfectly legitimate critique of LMS. It takes the "learning" out of the hands of the students, makes them less responsible for their own education. And yes, amazingly, knowing how to calculate your grade or knowing you should ask a professor is a point of privilege.
posted by one_bean at 12:55 PM on September 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


The kind of GPA-dependent scholarships that used to be common are, in my experience, insanely rare nowadays. Most funding comes in the form of student loans and need-based scholarships that aren't GPA-dependent. You are free to provide statistics if you have some to change my mind on that, though.

Okay.

Florida Financial Aid Requirements. The Bright Futures scholarships are, by far, thr most popular and accessible scholarship program students for students in e enitire state of Florida. It is required for each level that the student meets BOTH academic and minimum hours requirements. GPA matters.

Also, we have already had people coming in to say that some professors have hundreds of students, so the idea that students can easily just go ask their professor their grade is not born out in this thread or my own experience. And some professors do not, or are not allowed to, give back tests, so the idea that students can just take out all their tests and start computing their GPAs is pretty much a relic of the past.

Those concerns are why so many universities switched to online systems like Blackboard. I think you are more of the anomaly in this thread, koeselitz, than you are willing to acknowledge.
posted by misha at 1:18 PM on September 29, 2013


Re: relieving me of the responsibility of knowing how to calculate my grade -- bunk.

Maybe it's just because Moodle does the calculation poorly, but I still have to do it myself. What's nice is I can see the list of what I got on each thing vs. what was possible all at once.

Moodle tells you what grade you would get in the course if you stopped working right now. That is, I'm 4 weeks into my classes and they all show F. Turns out though, that my lowest score is 93% if I only count the work that I was supposed to have done by now.
posted by ctmf at 1:21 PM on September 29, 2013


Moodle tells you what grade you would get in the course if you stopped working right now. That is, I'm 4 weeks into my classes and they all show F. Turns out though, that my lowest score is 93% if I only count the work that I was supposed to have done by now.

That's a UI thing that your professor hasn't set up properly.
posted by one_bean at 1:23 PM on September 29, 2013


That's a UI thing that your professor hasn't set up properly.

I leave that default setting intentionally, actually. If you change it, students end up thinking they're doing way better than they actually are because ignoring the existence of the final gives way too much weight to homework and quizzes, so even students who will fail the course badly in the end tend to appear to have a decent chance of passing.

This semester, I spent some time fiddling with Moodle to try and maximise transparency in the grades, creating unnecessary categories purely so that their weights are visible when students look at their grades (I have a 'midterms' category worth 45% of three equally-weighted midterms instead of three midterms each worth 15%, for instance). Hopefully, this will make it clearer how much of the grade is left 'in play'.
posted by hoyland at 3:06 PM on September 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Those concerns are why so many universities switched to online systems like Blackboard. I think you are more of the anomaly in this thread, koeselitz, than you are willing to acknowledge.

I think it is very unlikely that anything to do with helping the students, per se, is why so many universities adopted things like blackboard (and predecessors), though I think the reason is related. My guess is that it is in large part because using one of these systems neatly outsources the (huge) problem of FERPA compliance for providing detailed grade information, into a single solution. This then keeps (most) professors from doing things we aren't supposed to do like distribute grades via email, posting them on a wall, or whatever. And in fact, as far as I can tell, providing a FERPA compliant means of distributing interim grades to students is about the only good thing blackboard has ever done for me. (This semester I'm using a combo of google drive and Piazza for everything else, and it is Better.)

I also agree with others that the best way to keep track of how you are doing in a class, no matter what technology there is, is to actually communicate with your professor & TAs. Undergrads don't automatically figure this out for whatever reason, and near-realtime grade information can make this harder to figure out. On the other hand, if an LMS were ever to be done right, I think it could actually ease and facilitate communication. I've pretty much never heard of a blackboard or webct based course discussion forum going well (or basically at all, except under force of grading), but Piazza (though not perfect either) is making me realize that perhaps this could be done right.
posted by advil at 3:33 PM on September 29, 2013


advil, can you say more about why you like Piazza? And have your students complained about having to learn a different LMS?
posted by one_bean at 4:11 PM on September 29, 2013


The thing that is SO FRUSTRATING about Blackboard is that it leaves out so many common tasks that teachers want to do. I haven't used it in a few semesters (which I'm sure is like SIX UPGRADES WORTH because God knows nothing's better than having to learn all new shit every year), and a lot of its functionality was pretty good (I was an early adopter and a course modeler for my department). But it drove me CRAZY that you couldn't keep an attendance roster in Blackboard (or at least, separate from gradebook and without futzing around with gradebook). It drove me CRAZY that you couldn't "group and drop" grades. You couldn't tell it "take these six quizzes and keep the best five scores." Now, you can do fancy things with weighting that approximate the same task, but if I could reliably weight grades by percentage I would not be teaching liberal arts. I just want to GROUP AND DROP, which is a thing teachers do all the time. (There is a reasonably slick way to "drop" individual grades, but you have to find them by hand and pick out each one by hand.)

The most aggravating thing was when they got rid of the instructor view that let you look at and work with a single student's grades in a vertical list and made it so you'd just see one endless horizontal line on the student grade spreadsheet. (Picking out one quiz grade out of twelve to drop, by hand, would not be nearly such a hassle if I weren't looking at 4 quiz grades at a time in a terrible horizontal spreadsheet view.) You can run a report on a single student that lets you see just that student's grades, but you can't edit those grades while in the report view.

The addition of the ability to grade discussion board discussions was great, since a lot of online course instructors do that, but Blackboard makes it really hard to read a whole discussion and then go back and grade. You can either grade as you go, or REMEMBER EVERYTHING and grade all at once blindly at the end. (Also even after training it's a pretty confusing function and I got a LOT of student complaints about it.)

It has so many options -- more than you need in most cases -- but can't do all these common tasks that any teacher would say, "Oh, yeah, that's a thing I want." That's what makes it such frustrating software! Why are there no teachers focus group-ing this thing?

Also entering quiz questions one at a time SUCKS BALLS. I understand there is a way to enter them in batches but that is an administrator function at my institution. My other option is to e-mail my quiz to the Blackboard support office and have them enter it for me, which is fine, but why can't I enter five questions at a time and not have to constantly reload the screen? WHYYYYYYYY?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:45 PM on September 29, 2013


The only decent homework software I ever used was LON-CAPA, developed at my alma mater. It was awesome because it lets you do damn near anything, up to and including printing out individualized exams for classes of 500+ students, where each exam was a different set of questions with different options for answers in a different random order, with the student's university ID photo printed on the front page to help discourage stand-ins during exams.

The downside is you need to know web programming and Perl to make use of a lot of the advanced features, but it's great software. And from what I recall, it doesn't cost much to implement.
posted by caution live frogs at 5:08 PM on September 29, 2013


There are at least two distinct sets of skills that are involved in teaching online.

The first is the skillset that's comprised of everything you learned about your subject, and about how to teach it, in school and in your teaching experience. This is essential to being a good teacher.

The second is the skillset that's involved in creating and maintaining an online course, and in using that course effectively as a medium for teaching.

Without that second skillset, you could bee the world's greatest teacher, and your online students will still hate you because you haven't been able to master the medium. You won't be a good online teacher without putting the (oftentimes onerous) work of learning how to use your tools.

Having an online teacher who hates their LMS, and refuses to learn anything, is incredibly frustrating to students and support staff alike. There's tons of documentation out there; most of the time help from technicians and instructional designers is a phone call away. And still we hear all the time that the LMS won't do this, or that it doesn't work this way, when if the instructor had bothered to take ten minutes to do the research, they would have found out it does, in fact, do the things they want it to.

Teaching isn't easy. Teaching online adds another layer of difficulty. But it can be overcome, and the medium can be very effective for conveying your subject in an interesting, involving, comprehensive way. Take the time to learn the system, and make it work for you. Avoiding it is just making your students frustrated and angry, and impairing your ability to do your job.

Hearing instructors complain about how hard it is to learn an interface evokes the same feelings in me as hearing guitarists complain about how hard it is to learn scales. It's difficult, it can be frustrating, but it's necessary. Buckle down, do the work, and your students will thank you for it.

Nobody wants a teacher who's forgotten how to learn.
posted by MrVisible at 5:13 PM on September 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I find it insulting to interact with a platform called "Desire2Learn" in a higher education setting. What's next, accepting assignments written in l33tspeak?
posted by spitbull
That was my feeling in the L.A. iPad thread when jamaro mentioned that a popular educational app calls itself iStudiez Pro.

Possible tag line for their ads:
"4 out of 5 lolcats recommend iStudiez Pro for their students who chew gum who can haz lurning!"
posted by blueberry at 5:19 PM on September 29, 2013


We had three different systems over the course of either 3 or 4 years. Which meant that each autumn, about half of the professors would say something like "Unlike last year, we're now using something new called WebCT/Blackboard/D2L... so I'll have the syllabus and such up as soon as I have some free time to learn how to do it. Until that time, I'm sending a sheet around; write your email address on there so I can send everyone the readings/assignments/whatever..."

But all three systems weren't bad compared to the Skinner box that was the MasteringChemistry online testing interface.
posted by blueberry at 5:40 PM on September 29, 2013


Hearing instructors complain about how hard it is to learn an interface evokes the same feelings in me as hearing guitarists complain about how hard it is to learn scales. It's difficult, it can be frustrating, but it's necessary. Buckle down, do the work, and your students will thank you for it. [...] Nobody wants a teacher who's forgotten how to learn.

I had a slightly harsher response here that I decided to tone down, so I'll just say this: there's a rather large difference between a teacher who has "forgotten how to learn" and a teacher who chooses to spend their finite time learning things that are far more important to the content of their course; support staff who would fail to recognize this are not being helpful.

advil, can you say more about why you like Piazza? And have your students complained about having to learn a different LMS?

On a more positive note, Piazza just seems so far to be a very intuitive, well-designed, and pleasant interface for things like posting notes and assignments to students, and having them post and collaboratively answer questions / have discussions about readings. It is partly that it is a fairly intuitive interface for anyone who has used a real CMS (unlike blackboard). It is also clear that it is designed by people who have some clue about building a web app that involves javascript (unlike blackboard). I should say I haven't yet used it extensively and we aren't that far into the semester, so this is a preliminary evaluation; also, there seem to be various key things (mainly grade tracking) that it just doesn't do at all, or if it does, I haven't found; I don't think it is yet intended as a complete LMS.

Students have not complained, rather the opposite (in my experience, students hate blackboard just as much as instructors). However, this particular class is a graduate class, and it is cross-listed in the computer science department where Piazza has apparently gotten lots of early adopters, so a lot of them had encountered it before both as students and TAs. In fact the students basically requested that my co-instructor and I set up a Piazza for the course.
posted by advil at 7:18 PM on September 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I had a slightly harsher response here that I decided to tone down, so I'll just say this: there's a rather large difference between a teacher who has "forgotten how to learn" and a teacher who chooses to spend their finite time learning things that are far more important to the content of their course; support staff who would fail to recognize this are not being helpful.

To the students, there's no difference between the two. They still have to deal with a teacher who doesn't know their tools.

But hey, this is a teachable moment. Tell me, Advil... how would you deal with a student who didn't want to do the work in your course because there are things that are far more important?
posted by MrVisible at 9:40 PM on September 29, 2013


misha: "Florida Financial Aid Requirements. The Bright Futures scholarships are, by far, thr most popular and accessible scholarship program students for students in e enitire state of Florida..."

Ah. And what percentage of Florida students are on these scholarships? What percentage of Florida students are on scholarships at all? This was my point, misha - that in the past decades scholarship money dried up as giving and funding shifted to different forms of assistance.

I am still willing to bet that 90% of students are not on scholarship. It wouldn't matter if they were - as I said, it's entirely a separate question. But very few students are on scholarships nowadays.

"Those concerns are why so many universities switched to online systems like Blackboard. I think you are more of the anomaly in this thread, koeselitz, than you are willing to acknowledge."

I've acknowledged it many times. I'm talking about how the humanities ought to be taught. And I can list at least one school that does it this precise way: my alma mater. Grades are a distraction from learning, and grade-based scholarships are a massive mistake that is being corrected by leading universities everywhere.
posted by koeselitz at 10:59 PM on September 29, 2013


Ah. And what percentage of Florida students are on these scholarships? What percentage of Florida students are on scholarships at all? This was my point, misha - that in the past decades scholarship money dried up as giving and funding shifted to different forms of assistance.

I am still willing to bet that 90% of students are not on scholarship. It wouldn't matter if they were - as I said, it's entirely a separate question. But very few students are on scholarships nowadays.


Since you ask, 37% of all Florida high school graduates were eligible for Bright Futures in 2012. That's about 63,000 students. So in this state, you would have lost your bet.

Grades are a distraction from learning, and grade-based scholarships are a massive mistake that is being corrected by leading universities everywhere.

I guess we will have to disagree on this. I think grades serve a purpose. Not everyone can, or should, major in the humanities. Try teaching a math course with no grades, or an economics course. Grades are entirely cromulent when you are dealing with numbers, which are hardly subjective. You want accountants to know how to do your taxes. You test them. You grade them. There are no As for effort, and that's okay with me.
posted by misha at 11:34 PM on September 29, 2013


For the record, MrVisible, that is super condescending.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 1:52 AM on September 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


Try teaching a math course with no grades, or an economics course.

I sort of feel like you're imagining a world of the math major that's at odds with my experience. It's true in calculus courses that you can sit down and work out your current grade (or go consult Moodle), but I honestly don't recall being told in upper level courses how grades were even calculated. Even in calculus classes, there's the issue of the curve. I can tell students that the lowest passing score will probably be somewhere between 50 and 60, but I don't know what it'll actually be until a few hours before I actually hand in the grades. My flatmate in college was a biology major and we'd sit down with my calculator and work out what she'd need to get on the final to get X in the course, but this was something I'd never imagine a math major doing or really anyone who wasn't trying to get into med school.
posted by hoyland at 5:28 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


misha: “I guess we will have to disagree on this. I think grades serve a purpose. Not everyone can, or should, major in the humanities. Try teaching a math course with no grades, or an economics course. Grades are entirely cromulent when you are dealing with numbers, which are hardly subjective. You want accountants to know how to do your taxes. You test them. You grade them. There are no As for effort, and that's okay with me.”

That is how I learned calculus. It's how I learned fluid dynamics, and it's how I read Einstein. I believe it worked better that way. The idea that grades can encapsulate a student's understanding of the subject seems ridiculous to me. Grades are only an accurate reflection of learning if by "learning" you mean basic facility at accomplishing a task – and learning is not really about accomplishing a task. Math, for example, is widely misunderstood on this point. Plenty of people who are "good at math" know absolutely nothing about mathematics. I was like this before I arrived at college; I was great at calculus in high school because I was great at repeating the equations they told me without explanation, but I had no idea what the hell it was I was doing.

I guess there are probably situations where this isn't the case. I wanted to say maybe being a car mechanic is strictly a task-based thing, but that takes critical thinking skills that can't be graded in any thorough or coherent fashion. The only kind of college course I can imagine in which grades are an accurate representation of progress would be a college course in working in a factory.
posted by koeselitz at 5:58 AM on September 30, 2013


But hey, this is a teachable moment. Tell me, Advil... how would you deal with a student who didn't want to do the work in your course because there are things that are far more important?

I would probably tell someone asking the condescending rhetorical question that they don't seem to have a clue what goes on in a classroom in higher ed, or what the realities and priorities are for university professors; if as implied they are actually working in one of these areas, I would then suggest that they look into figuring them out.

In any case, it's not as if I've ever really failed to do anything in blackboard (or webct before it). It just always gets in the way for things that should be a tiny portion of my time (compare uploading files in blackboard vs. wordpress, for example), and consequently I've ended up choosing different tools that don't get in the way, and the students have a better experience anyways.
posted by advil at 5:59 AM on September 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


MrVisible: “But hey, this is a teachable moment. Tell me, Advil... how would you deal with a student who didn't want to do the work in your course because there are things that are far more important?”

If a student comes to me and says "hey, I'm having trouble learning about political philosophy in this political philosophy class because you've assigned all these weird worksheets on the fundamentals of programming web apps in Fortran," then I should shut the fuck up and listen to the goddamned student.
posted by koeselitz at 6:05 AM on September 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Even in calculus classes, there's the issue of the curve. I can tell students that the lowest passing score will probably be somewhere between 50 and 60, but I don't know what it'll actually be until a few hours before I actually hand in the grades.

You grade math classes on a curve?
posted by jacalata at 10:23 AM on September 30, 2013


Also, for reference: as a CS student, I absolutely built spreadsheets that told me what grade I would end up with for various scores on the remaining assessments, and I never intended to go to any kind of grad school. One of my lecturers even provided this feature ("if you get 50%/60/70... on each remaining assignment, you will get an A/B/B") on the course page.
posted by jacalata at 10:28 AM on September 30, 2013


Also, for reference: as a CS student, I absolutely built spreadsheets that told me what grade I would end up with for various scores on the remaining assessments..

Yeah, I remember when I was in high school, I decided to see if I could graduate with honors at a 3.25 GPA. I was kind of blowing off my high school grades because I was focusing on the college courses I was taking. So I carefully calculated the rest of my high school grades, against my previous grades. I could get Honors if I got nothing lower than a B, with 75% As. I just made it to 3.30. And they raised the Honors level to 3.35 GPA. Ooh was I mad.

You grade math classes on a curve?

I am a professional scorer of standardized math exams. I can't tell you the specific criterion we use for scoring, but I should mention how the curve works, according to one scorer who was a high school math teacher. He said there are bumps in the curve, there's a cluster around 60% (F) that don't study and don't get it. There's another cluster around 70 (D to C) that kinda get it but don't study. There's another cluster around 80 who study, but don't completely get it. Then another around 90 to 100 that do study, and they get it. He described one student who flunked his class and had to repeat it. She went from C level to A. He asked her what happened, she said, "well this time, I studied."
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:34 PM on September 30, 2013


charlie don't surf: I was referring to his comment that I can tell students that the lowest passing score will probably be somewhere between 50 and 60, but I don't know what it'll actually be until a few hours before I actually hand in the grades.. I don't see why you can't set a pass cutoff in advance, because I don't think 'how well the rest of the class understood calculus' should be a factor in whether or not you passed.
posted by jacalata at 3:37 PM on September 30, 2013


I am a math professor and I grade math classes on a curve. Every math professor I know grades on a curve. In the loose sense, of course, meaning that you don't set strict cutoffs before you find out how hard the test was. Grading on a strict curve, where you determine in advance that you're going to fail the lowest 5% and give A's to the top 10%, no matter how well the former do or how badly the latter do, that's very bad. But I've hardly ever seen that done.
posted by escabeche at 4:11 PM on September 30, 2013


Yeah, the thing to understand is that for math there's computation and there's comprehension - ie, ability to successfully navigate rules and manipulate symbols to get to a new idea. Computers by their very nature - kick ass at computation, so it really doesn't make sense to grade people on being really good at computing, especially at the post-secondary level. We need people who understand the math conceptually in such a way that they're able to identify when math might be useful in a given situation, and have enough ability to reason about math to be able to tell a computer (or supporting math person) what needs to be done.

In a big way, it's a question of testing regurgitation vs testing for synthesis. Regurgitation is being able to memorize definitions and facts, synthesis is the ability to put the ideas together to make things you haven't seen before, to follow through consequences.

But writing questions that gets at comprehension is tough. It's easy to write something that's too much of a jump, leading people to bomb a question. On the other hand, such harder questions are useful for recognizing when someone's actually really awesome, and is worth giving extra encouragement to.

That said, I tend to put in a good bit of regurgitation questions in an exam, too, to recall relevant ideas for a given problem. So something asking for synthesis about (say) derivatives might ask first for the definition of the derivative.

In curving, I find there's usually pretty natural cut offs for A's and F's. There's generally a pretty significant gap (as charlie mentions) that becomes the F cutoff, and another that marks where the A's start. In-between the boundaries can be a bit mushier, though.

I'm actually pretty anti-grade, philosophically. It encourages students to focus on the grade game more than on learning, and means I have to deal with endless variations on 'do I have to know this?' For starters. OTOH, it's definitely a stick that encourages people to study, so.....
posted by kaibutsu at 5:02 PM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


I do find this pretty mind boggling - attending university in Australia and France, every course I took had defined score->grade outcomes in the syllabus at the start of semester (and I took classes across several departments including languages, philosophy and CS at three universities, so this isn't a one-off experience).

Here's a sample grade plan, for a random math course at UQ

Here is the university wide mapping at Melbourne University
posted by jacalata at 5:45 PM on September 30, 2013


Sure, we have the same (current course: 50% final, 30% midterm 10% online homework, 10% quizzes). But there's no rules of the form "90%+ on the final is an A", etc. Of course, I use that defined weighting, so students know not to blow their final. But on the final it could be that the high score is something like a 90%, and anyone who shows up to the room breathing manages at least 20%. So it comes out as determining a curve on the final that appropriately reflects the work of the students, which in turn has affects the final grade.
posted by kaibutsu at 6:50 PM on September 30, 2013


I don't see why you can't set a pass cutoff in advance, because I don't think 'how well the rest of the class understood calculus' should be a factor in whether or not you passed.

I work in educational testing, my last assignment was "equating" which is a method of normalizing scores across the entire population of students. In a sense, this is a method of determining how well a student population is capable of understanding the subject. There are students who absolutely ace the subject, and show a thorough understanding of a problem. Then there are students who absolutely ace it and then make one minuscule error and get a B instead of an A. Then there are students who produce absolutely wrong answers that should get an F but they only made a minor calculation error and otherwise their process and computation were absolutely correct, and they can get a B but not an A.

So it is my general opinion that an absolute, arbitrary standard for passing a class is only going to be useful in measuring the top percentiles. Lower than that, even around the 95th percentile, it's almost entirely useless.

I admit I may be biased on this topic. In my own college calculus course, I took an Honors section with an experimental Infinitesimal Calc textbook. Even with the best math students in the entire university, this course had the lowest pass rate of any calc course given in recent history. I recall doing outside studies in regular Calc methods, and then producing correct answers on a test, and then getting tests back marked wrong, with the instructors writing in red pen "This isn't how we taught this in class." With our exceptionally stringent standards, I figure a C in Honors Calc was probably worth an A+ in any other calc class. So arbitrary standards may have little meaning even between class sections.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:02 PM on September 30, 2013


koeselitz: "If a student comes to me and says "hey, I'm having trouble learning about political philosophy in this political philosophy class because you've assigned all these weird worksheets on the fundamentals of programming web apps in Fortran," then I should shut the fuck up and listen to the goddamned student."

Originally, I read your postings as "the concept of an LMS is fundamentally flawed and unfixable" but reading the thread holistically you seem just mean Blackboard is a shitty product.

I don't mean to defend blackboard too fiercely here but the java pop up warning typically occurs because A) java B) sysadmins who don't understand the application well enough to generate a valid code signed .jar. Depending on their java settings, they might have to click once to trust the app, but beyond that it shouldn't be the daily annoyance you seem to have.

What's sad is what it's used for: stuff like rendering equations. I haven't had the pleasure of using screen readers, but I'm guessing they just fail at java applet polynomials. Whereas Wikipedia informs me that MathML gets along fine, because it embeds the structure of an equation into the document, rather than just pixels.

Unfortunately, while MathML is supported in basically every office suite and desktop math program, only one browser passes browser tests. Chrome had it for like one release and turned it off because it wasn't finished or something.
posted by pwnguin at 10:23 PM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sure, we have the same (current course: 50% final, 30% midterm 10% online homework, 10% quizzes). But there's no rules of the form "90%+ on the final is an A", etc.

I seriously didn't always get the percentage breakdown as an undergraduate. This is definitely a culture of the department thing--imagine my surprise when I started grad school and was handed a syllabus in a math class! I'd never had one before--if there was a grade breakdown, it was transmitted verbally or on the website. (This was not universal--lower level German classes had syllabi, upper level ones didn't. Actually, I have no idea how grades were calculated in some of my German classes. I guess there was one assignment and that was that.)

I did actually have a course where the professor declared >90% an A, >80% B and so on. Except that according to that standard, everyone failed the midterm. So he made us take the midterm again. By the end of the semester, that still didn't work, so we had to do presentations for extra credit (up to like 10% or something absurd). I honestly have no idea if he stood firm when assigning the final grades or had to give up to get a realistic distribution.
posted by hoyland at 4:49 AM on October 1, 2013


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