A Graduate's View of the Course Management System

By Ryan Tansey, Recent Graduate, University of Puget Sound

(Two years ago I asked my son Ryan to review his university’s use of the campus CMS. At the time he issued an “Incomplete” with the comment, “my teachers are finally learning how to Blackboard.” With his recent graduation, I asked him to issue a final mark to his professors. -- Frank Tansey)

Two years ago when I wrote my first viewpoint for SmartClassroom (then eLearning Dialogue), I issued my university an “Incomplete,” with the suggestion that faculty spend more time developing their Blackboard skills. Now as a recent graduate of the University of Puget Sound, I am ready to issue a final grade, with one notable change to the primary criterion for the evaluation. For this viewpoint, evaluation is primarily based on how the campus use of Blackboard added value to my education.

The Good

Those faculty who actively put material online and clarified assignments made it easier for everyone to maximize their time in class. The instructional time in these classes began sooner and lasted longer. We were not burdened with handout distributions and assignment clarifications. I found the classroom discussions in these courses broader and livelier.

Faculty who created assignments that required Blackboard participation had students who came to class better prepared to participate in classroom discussions. For example, one of my professors who was enthusiastic about Blackboard required all students to generate at least one question and two comments for every reading assignment. As a result, the classroom discussions were among students who had their passion for the topic kindled by the Blackboard assignment.

During my time at the university, I went from printing out my classroom assignments to quickly and easily submitting them online. A side benefit was the archiving of both my submissions, as well as easy access to all of the faculty-generated course materials. To me it was also fantastic to get immediate feedback – including grades on any of my assignments and information about where I stood vis-à-vis my classmates.

As a busy, involved student, it was easy to communicate with my professors who used Blackboard. My schedule was packed with both extracurricular and academic requirements, along with work. Likewise, my professors’ schedules were full. Rather than hoping to find a professor during office hours, students could instead communicate online at our own individual convenience. I got more feedback and help through Blackboard than I did from face-to-face meetings during office hours.

The Bad

It would be easy to say that the negative features were found in classes that did not use Blackboard at all. Interestingly, it was those classes where the professors only partially used Blackboard that were the most frustrating. In these situations, professors would sporadically post material, would occasionally respond to online queries, and would redundantly distribute materials both online and in class. I would never know if new material had been posted unless I checked regularly. It was frustrating to not be able to rely on regular updates.

It was especially frustrating when a faculty member would not require students to sign up for the Blackboard instance of the course. More than once, a faculty member might post an assignment that a substantial portion of the class would never see. This resulted in our using class time to resolve issues that could have been easily avoided by requiring full student participation via Blackboard.

Often, professors had little or no instruction on Blackboard capabilities. Furthermore, many faculty members were not willing to learn about Blackboard. Professors who were content to use just the basic features – grades and syllabus – barely enhanced their classes. On the other hand, departments that actively and consistently utilized the depth of online capabilities had a stronger foundation for classroom learning without having time diverted away from instruction in the classroom.

Recommendations

It is hard to believe that the university could spend a large amount of money on an effective instructional tool like Blackboard, but spend so little effort helping faculty and students learn how to effectively use this valuable tool. I realize that not all faculty embrace technology and change. However, to buy into this assumption means that a valuable resource sits underutilized. More importantly, valuable instructional time is lost in nearly every classroom session.

The university needs to demonstrate to faculty the advantages of supplementing personalized in-classroom instruction with a technology that promotes active learning in the student body. We need to build enthusiasm in the faculty. I realize that it is difficult to make individual faculty adopt any new technology, yet faculty peers and department heads are currently untapped resources. Little effort has been made to provide easily implemented exemplars. Active campus leadership is necessary to ensure global adoption of this valuable resource.

In addition, we need to provide consistent instruction for both faculty and students. The current laissez-faire training is insufficient to educate the faculty. Training is infrequently available, and there is a lack of easy-to-find supplemental material. From my position as an IT help desk consultant, I noticed a large number of unnecessary calls from confused professors. Rarely are the questions complex, but because faculty are largely learning on their own, they stumble through the basics. A training class posted on Blackboard about Blackboard could get faculty quickly up-to-speed. Simple steps like this are needed to ensure consistent and easily available instruction for the faculty.

The Grade

Last time I issued an “Incomplete” grade to faculty for their use of Blackboard. As I leave the university, I cannot issue the same grade. The expectations are now higher; I am looking to see how Blackboard usage enhanced my undergraduate education. I will admit to cutting the university a little slack as I award a “B” as its final grade.

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