Educational Technology as Community Development Tool

By Zan Tansey, Assistant Community Development Educator, Weinstein Hall, New York University

New York University is the largest private university in the United States. This urban university has a residence hall program that houses 11,701 students in 23 facilities. The facilities themselves are located across the Manhattan landscape, although many are within the general footprint of the campus. About a third of housed students are freshmen, though the campus provides housing to 57% of all undergraduates and 23% of all students. As one might expect, the university serves a very diverse student population.

With such a diverse resident population and this distributed environment, the NYU Resident Education program faces a major challenge in developing community among the full range of residents.

To meet this need, NYU looked for a system that the students would find easy to use, and one that had the power to promote collaboration. Addressing this challenge, the Department of Residential Education began using the campus’s Blackboard system, which provides students with a means of communicating and collaborating within their courses. The thinking at the time was that, rather than educating students on how to use a new system, most students were already using Blackboard in the classes and were fully familiar with the key modules of the system.

Beginning in the fall of 2001 an individualized Blackboard page was created for each residence hall. Much like a course home page, each of the hall residents was “registered” for the hall “course.” While the structure was the same – a course orientation – the goal was different. These Blackboard pages were not delivering course content. They were facilitating the development of community by utilizing the same tools found in campus courses.

One benefit of using Blackboard as a community development tool was the students’ familiarity with the technology. Many instructors utilize the technology at NYU, and students were familiar, not only with how to access the Blackboard resources, but also with the format of the sites and the key tools within Blackboard. The layout of the page, as well as the aesthetics of the site, were familiar to students. This made navigation simple and user-friendly. For Resident Education, this meant no training of the students was necessary.

In addition to Blackboard, NYU provides all students with access to a well-developed Web portal. Each student at NYU accesses his or her Web mail, registration, and financial records through a single online service known as NYUhome. A key part of each student’s personal home page features the student’s personal Blackboard pages, including their courses and residence hall pages. Having the residence community-building efforts appear on the NYUhome page was a big plus.

While Blackboard course material is generally mandatory, usage of the residence hall material is optional. Still the barriers to accessing and using the tool are low and familiarity bred usage. This addressed a major obstacle to participation, a desired outcome from the beginning.

Various features of Blackboard were easily adapted to the residential hall uses. The announcement feature was utilized to highlight upcoming events in the residence hall. The discussion boards were utilized in the same way as other social networking tools that students often use, such as MySpace or Facebook. Mostly this was a place where students asked and answered questions and made personal connections with other residents they may not have had an opportunity to interact with face-to-face. Some residence halls uploaded pictures, flyers, and newsletters to the residence hall page. And finally, the drop box was used for things like submissions for trivia contests or other document submissions to the administrative staff of the halls.

While the students were familiar with Blackboard and used it regularly in the classes, Blackboard was not designed as a community development tool. It was possible to use the Blackboard forums and other collaboration tools, but as other Web social networking services came onto the scene, the deficiencies of the system became more apparent.

Soon many residents were using Facebook, MySpace, and other networking sites as the preferred tools for social networking. This made it difficult for the Resident Education Program to promote the Blackboard system as the community networking solution. Over time, many of the residence halls also began creating freestanding Web sites that could be customized to meet the needs of the hall and its particular resident population, versus using the more limited structure of the Blackboard sites.

As a department, Residential Education is continuing to take advantage of the resources the university invests into the Blackboard technology, both in its prominence and maintenance. But while Residential Education still plans to create and maintain individual residence hall specific Blackboard sites, the pushto develop these pages as a major hub for online community development is no longer a key objective. Rather, in looking forward to meet the needs of community development for students online, Residential Education recognizes the limitations of Blackboard and has shifted its focus to the utilization of a variety of technologies, both customizable and more socially-oriented, such as custom-designed Web sites and social networking services.

Zan Tansey is Assistant Community Development Educator at Weinstein Hall, New York University.

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