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.

And:

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.