You know how it is, you listen and read to some “stuff” (and seriously great stuff that is worth listening to and reading). It sets all sorts of triggers in your head about how you work, what you do, and more importantly what you can do to in response. You get a great title for a blog post, then you see from your network that someone else has pretty much written what you had been thinking, but far more eloquently than you. At this point, dear reader, you really can just read this post The False Binary of LMS vs Open from D’Arcy Norman.
However, as the roots of this post were really seeded by listening to Audrey Watter’s recent Beyond the LMS presentation at the University of Newcastle, and as I’m still thinking about her ALT-C keynote and the importance of non North American narratives, I’m going to continue with my tuppence worth.
“Blackboard sucks” – that’s the consensus right? But as Audrey pointed out, even the new LMS/VLE kids on the block are selling their products by saying things like “it’s like just like Blackboard, except it’s blue like Facebook”. They are all about management, administration and not about the learner. They are built on a very traditional model of education. They are walled gardens. If you haven’t listened to Audrey’s presentation, you must.
As I was doing just that on Friday, a number of things were swirling through my head. At this point I probably should mention that here at GCU Blackboard is our VLE and for quite a while I have been mulling about writing a post titled “why I quite like Blackboard”.
Had it taken less than a year for me to be indoctrinated by the evil dictatorship that is Blackboard and by default all other VLEs? Am now I a willing conspirator in maintaining their status quo? Shouldn’t I be leading the insurgency or at least doing more to fight for open? At the sametime, scarily I was thinking terribly un-pc thoughts about benign dictators holding things together, and wondering if I could write a witty, yet well informed post comparing educational technology to the current situation in the Middle East or closer to home the Scottish independence referendum. I quickly realised that I probably couldn’t.
This morning via my networks came across D’Arcy’s post. And as I said, he had kind of written my post. Like D’Arcy, I work with and support the need for the boring, but oh so important administrative functions that our iteration of Blackboard support and that are needed for teaching and learning just now. If we got rid of Bb, I think it is fair to say there would be a fair amount of chaos for our students and staff alike. I have been in several meetings over the last year where a new shiny (and sometimes not so shiny) thing has been talked about with almost awe and wonder. This despite the fact that it just duplicates what are already doing within Bb but without the crucial integration “thangs” that automagically assign modules to students and staff. In these cases I have very much been advocating sticking to the ‘devil we know”, and trying to have a more holistic conversation about learning, where and how it (could) takes place in our context. I don’t want us to just move to something else that does the same thing only with a slightly nicer interface – if we are going to jump I want that jump to matter.
Too often our some of my colleagues really have no idea about what our students and staff are actually doing in terms of collaboration, networking. Because they don’t see it everyday, they think it doesn’t take place. Bb is one of our most stable systems too which again often goes unnoticed and unreported or there is an assumption that no-one uses it.
We are encouraging and seeing more sophisticated use of learning technology across our institution, we are committed to blended learning not only in the sense of blending f2f and online teaching, but also in terms of blending the systems we use. We can (and do) blend third party systems with Bb. Increased use of specs like LTI is opening up new possibilities. Bb themselves are going through some big changes and have been very supportive in listening and reacting to our need. Oh yes, I hear you sigh, that’s because they want to continue to get your business. Which of course is true, but from what I can gather that hasn’t always been the case.
Of course, changing culture is the key to making any technology have an impact in education (or anywhere else), and Audrey did highlight that in her talk. Much as I would love to experiment with more open, connected, student owned technologies such as the example she gave of the “domain of their own” the University of Maryland Washington, the culture in my institution isn’t quite ready for that yet. But it is a great example and one I will be sharing with colleagues and looking to see if we could do anything similar. I am seeing an increasing positive trend in terms of portfolio development which encourages and facilitates networking and open sharing by students.
Networks are also crucial for staff to share ideas, narratives, experiences, and often for me a sanity check. Realistically I don’t have enough influence in my institution to make sweeping changes, but I hope that I can bring ideas back from my network which can help move forward, or at least open up some different debates around our thinking and development of learning and teaching. I need to hear people like Audrey to make me reflect on my practice and share ideas with my internal nework.
So, although in one sense I may be living within a dictatorship, I do believe it is a changing one, one that is trying to catch up with evolving expectations. I may not be leading an insurgency but I hope that I am able to influence changes from within so that we have a truly flexible infrastructure and support mechanisms to allow the space and security for some radical thinking and changes to take place.