Blackboard Reinforces the Status Quo

Tom PreskettBy Tom Preskett

According to Lisa M. Lane, in “Insidious Pedagogy: How Course Management Systems Impact Teaching” (First Monday, 5 Oct. 2009):

Course management systems (CMSs), used throughout colleges and universities for presenting online or technology-enhanced classes, are not pedagogically neutral shells for course content. They influence pedagogy by presenting default formats designed to guide the instructor toward creating a course in a certain way. This is particularly true of integrated systems (such as Blackboard/WebCT) . . . . Blackboard “tends to encourage a linear pathway through the content,” and its default is to support easy uploading and text entry to achieve that goal.

I’ve always approached this from the opposite angle and said that VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) are designed for the current education market rather than to improve or change practice in any way. So it’s file repositories and grading books all the way. Remember, unlike Web 2.0, many of these VLEs are commercial products and, in business, you give the customers what they want, and customers don’t want their pedagogy challenged. You also have to remember that a lot of the collaborative tools have been added on as VLEs react to what is going on out in the real world. But when they are add-ons they don’t really impact the intrinsic design or structure. They could redesign as new versions, but they don’t. Certainly, each “new” version of Blackboard is so simliar to the last that it’s almost indistinguishable. Maybe the consistency is important to them, but it’s a real missed opportunity. By the way, I’m quoting Lisa’s use of CMS, but I use LMS (Learning Management System) and VLE. I steer clear of CMS because it can get mixed up with Content Management System.

A CMS must be designed around a central pedagogy: consistency of interface relies on consistency of approach. It is only important to recognize that the interface of any software reflects its intent.

I’d not thought about it in these terms before. Although I agree with this, I’m not sure that Blackboard is designed with any particular pedagogy in mind. I think it’s more a case of designing around the prevailing perception of what teaching is. Moodle is deliberately different. The collaborative tools are much more prominent, and the grading system is rubbish, probably deliberately so.

Lisa then characterises most educators as “web novices.” She says:

These users were trying to reduce their cognitive load by limiting their use of the software, while Web experts were able to keep their goal in mind easily while searching more deeply.


When faced with a different interface or online environment, novices are inclined to utilize only the aspects they understand from a non-Web context.

It’s a double-whammy. First, you have a majority whose personal ICT (Information and Communication Technology) skills don’t allow them to easily explore and experiment with the full range of what a VLE has to offer. Second, you have a majority who are content, if not happy, with the prevailing pedagogy of current teaching. Thus, there is no desire or compulsion to embrace, explore, or experiment with software that challenges this. I also feel the knowledge of pedagogy within education is pretty limited, but I don’t base this on any hard facts. Anyway, both these issues are massive barriers to the adoption and use of Web 2.0 type tools . If you’ve read my articles in ETC and my blog, then you’ll know how sad that makes me.

More attacks on the Blackboard functionality:

Most professors think in terms of the semester, and how their pedagogical goals can be achieved within the context of time, rather than space . . . . Blackboard’s default organization accepts neither of these approaches in its initial interface.

You can, of course, change this, which is what I often advise my academics to do. But why have it like this? What it does validate and reinforce is the notion that content, course news, and grading is all the VLE is good for. It’s not for teaching or learning, but to retrieve information. It’s a passive rather than active relationship, Web 1.0 not Web 2.0.

She continues:

There is more satisfaction in mastering a few elements than in experimenting. Instructors move very slowly into features of the CMS that support less-instructivist models, and experience with the CMS over time does not necessarily lead to more creative pedagogy, or even to more expanive use of system features.

So we have a situation where educators struggle to get to grips with what a VLE can do AND they don’t really want to anyway. That’s not good.

5 Responses

  1. Tom,

    I think your comments relate to what some of us discussed alomst a year ago about teacher resistance to change. (My piece was called: Resistance to Technology: Conscious or Unconscious?) I think you are right that teachers can easily see and use the passive aspects of Blackboard and other VLEs because it is similar enough to what they have traditionally done that they can say “oh yes, I recognize this. I am comfortable with it.” What would you suggest for helping teachers move beyond this passive use to the more active use that VLEs are capable of? Lynn

  2. Thanks for commenting Lynn. I don’t think I’ve read that piece, I will seek it out.

    What would you suggest for helping teachers move beyond this passive use to the more active use that VLEs are capable of? That’s a good question. My utopian answer approaches the issue from a pedagogical point of view – promoting a collaborative and personalised approach. I would use the phrase teaching methods instead of pedagogy to keep things simple and talk in terms of allowing the learner to be creative and involved in the learning process – active rather than passive. I don’t think many educators would disagree that these techniques have a positive impact in principle. Once this is established, the idea that a particular Learning Technology artefacts or tool can be used to achieve such an approach, can be introduced. It’s important the Learning Technology itself isn’t seen as what’s valuable or important but the value or particular pedagogical stance behind it. That’s the utopia. The reality is different.

    In Higher Education, for a standard lecturer in my context the standard way of teaching is lecturing with a bit of group discussion. It’s all face-to-face even though a VLE exists. It’s a tough sell to challenge both the delivery and the pedagogy that lies behind this. Where we are at in my institution is challenging the delivery by introducing the VLE as a tool for file repository and maybe assignment submission and grade management. This is seen as an important first step. However, we seem to have been on this first step for quite a while now. I have been talking about the other tools available both within and outside our VLE but they fall, largely, on deaf ears.

    So the main barrier is promoting the collaborative and personalised approaches to learning mentioned earlier. Promoting them challenges the way an educator teaches. Who am I to challenge this? People will reject such an advance for a variety of natural human reasons. You could also argue that this isn’t my job. I’m a Learning Technologist not a pedagogical adviser (not that such a thing exists). The problem is that I think that changing the way we teach is at the heart of what a Learning Technologist is trying to do. So what can I do? My goal is to build up enough of an educator base so that an element of peer pressure exists. This would also give validity the Learning Technologies. Apart from that, keep chipping away.

    I’d be interested to hear what others think.

  3. One thing that Ning gives me that WordPress doesn’t is 15 minutes to edit my responses.

    That sentence should of course read “. . .what you want in teaching. . .”

  4. !!!!!!!

    “. . .what you want done in teaching. . .”

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