A Student View of CMS

At the end of the last school year my son made an interesting comment: "My teachers are finally learning how to use Blackboard." The statement immediately struck home as a missing component to our explorations of eLearning. Here are his current thoughts on the impact of the CMS on his education. --Frank Tansey

In my freshman year, the University of Puget Sound was just beginning to use Blackboard. It wasn't universal by any means. Some of my classes had it and others didn't--at least that's how it appeared.

If a faculty member was using Blackboard, the use was limited. There might be an online syllabus, but little else. For the most part even a class that had a bit more course material was hampered by the lack of knowledge on the part of the faculty. The concept of Blackboard as course management system, and what was built in, was Greek to most professors. Typically we were given a URL and told to go there. There was no explanation; we were on our own to explore and discover.

By the spring semester things began to change. Increasingly we would find our assignments online. Materials that clarified the standard syllabus were added in response to student questions. Then standard course resources, such as instructions for papers and general resources began to be posted.

Still in the end, there were no special features. It was more like a personal Web site built from a template.

Gaining Traction

By my sophomore year, students were beginning to ask for features. We saw the tab for grades and convinced one professor to start posting our grades to this section. I really liked knowing where I stood. Then class lists were posted. There must have been some coordination with the Registrar's Office because I doubt if faculty would have been taking the time to build these lists.

Class lists were a big step forward. Students began to use these list to find study mates. We weren't using Blackboard resources to study, but it was much easier for us to contact classmates and form study groups.

The next big step forward was the use of the discussion board to collaborate on course assignments. While we had all been discussion board users, Blackboard discussion boards were more productive and civil because we knew the face behind the name.

From the perspective of a struggling student, when my professors started posting course documents, this was a big step forward. No longer was I buying course packs at the bookstore or visiting the reserve reading room hoping to find the material available. When I lost some course material I could find it on Blackboard and download a new copy.

Increasingly, guides, style manuals, and other generic resources approved by the professor were available to us. The focus on Blackboard as a class tool was increasing.

What's Missing?

One problem with having a CMS with powerful tools is the number of professors who are simply not using the built-in tools. This year, only one of my teachers is using Blackboard, and for the most part it feels like the first year experience.

On the other hand, a few of my friends are in classes where the professors are using more and more of the features. In some ways these students have a big advantage in those classes because they can tap all the resources the professor has posted.

I would love to see more of the features used. For example, I know that online testing is available but is not being used. In a few of my classes we spend time with in-class writing assignments. If this were shifted to a Blackboard assignment, we could spend more time on in-class lectures and discussions. It would also mean we could submit our work easily and securely, and we would know that the work had been read. Since Blackboard can control our access to the test and limit our time, this would be just like a timed assignment in class.

It would be great to expand the amount of supplemental material. Not every student learns in the same way. Simulations might be helpful in some classes. Not all learning is reading material. It would also be helpful to have more structured work on the discussion boards. Right now it is pretty basic and often initiated by the students rather than the faculty.

I know that the campus is conducting Blackboard training for faculty. In fact I can see it from my workstation in the Office for Information Services. What is not clear is what it will take to teach the faculty how to take real advantage of Blackboard.

Making the Grade

So where do we stand? I am not sure that things have really changed that much. Most of my learning is still depends on class attendance and class reading assignments. Blackboard so far has just made some material easier to find and less expensive.

Since most students are more computer-savvy than their professors, it would be great if we could help the professors learn how to use Blackboard. We point out apparent features, but we really don't know all that can be done. I wish we could be more helpful.

If I were just using Blackboard to pass a course, I would probably fail. But if I was just attending the lectures and did not do the reading assignments, my grade wouldn't be very good. The more learning resources students have, the more likely we will find a combination that works for each individual.

In this case I can see the advantages of Blackboard, but they remain mostly unused. To use them all would require faculty to learn another teaching technique--not to change what they do well, but to augment what they do well with a new tool.

For now, I am giving my professors an "incomplete" and I hope they take this as a strong suggestion to spend more time developing their Blackboard skills.

We would welcome other viewpoints from the student perspective to add to this discussion.

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