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.

ICT for Development and Education: Exit LIFI

claude80By Claude Almansi
Staff Writer

Thanks –

to all members of the LIFI (Laboratorio di Ingegneria della Formazione e Innovazione, or Laboratory of Educational Engineering and Innovation) team [1] for their concrete and theoretical work in the field of ICT (Information and Communications Technologies) for development and education, which I had the privilege to follow rather closely as translator of many of their texts since 1998.

Thanks also to Lynn Zimmerman and Steve Eskow for the discussion they started in this blog on the imperialistic characteristics of online and traditional approaches to teaching: her “Access: The New Imperialism?” and his “The Campus: The Old Imperialism?” articles are very relevant to the social and cultural situation in which the LIFI team had to operate: while Switzerland became technically highly connected fairly early, ICT literacy progressed more slowly, and powers-that-be in education were – and still are to some extent – very wary of these “new” technologies. It is in this background claude_jan29that the LIFI team nevertheless managed to offer opportunities for vocational training (both basic and lifelong) via ICT to people living in remote Alpine areas, but also in (African) Guinea, where creating new brick-and-mortar schools would have been much more expensive.

Progetto Poschiavo – LIFI movingAlps

In 1997, a group of researchers based in Lugano (CH) started organizing sustainable development and training projects that used online technology (video conference, virtual learning platform, e-mail, etc.) to connect people in remote areas with experts from a range of academic institutions.

The success of the first, Progetto Poschiavo (1997-2004), limited to one Alpine valley, led to further projects, among which movingAlps [2] (2004-2008), which covered Val Bregaglia, Vallemaggia and Val d’Anniviers.

These projects were characterized by a multidisciplinary approach combining economic analysis and cultural anthropology, in order to first gather data about the potential resources of the area and the wishes of the inhabitants, and only then help them to structure, finance and enact their own development initiatives.

During movingAlps, these researchers were based at the Università della Svizzera Italiana [3], where they created LIFI [4] and offered courses based on these concrete experiences. But in2008, the university council decided, to put an end to LIFI. There may have been administrative reasons for this decision – the status of LIFI was exceptional – yet it seems rather paradoxical in the year in which Michael Wesch became one of the CASE/Carnegie U.S. Professors of the Year for Doctoral and Research Universities (see [5]) for his own use of cultural anthropology in research and teaching about our present information society.

Taking Stock

Fortunately, the knowledge gathered in these projects remains available in two forms: the texts gathered in the movingAlps Vademecum (downloadable in Italian, German and French from [6]; see also the movingAlps Vademecum discussion in English on Innovate-Ideagora [7]) and in Graziano Terrani’s documentary “Un Successo Condannato” for Radiotelevisione della Svizzera di lingua italiana, which illustrates vividly the activities and results of movingAlps, for instance:

  • Punto Bregaglia, a business conference and training centre in Val Bregaglia [8],
  • PercorsoArianna [9], which fostered the creation of women’s micro-enterprises,
  • minimovingAlps [10], where pre-school children freely photographed their environment, which led to further initiatives, like the creation of a “Gnomes’ Village” playground in Avegno, where the children were directly involved in the design, and Cià c’am va [11], a series of itineraries in Val Bregaglia based on the photographs taken by the local kids, which offers activities for families with young children.

ciacamva_dianaFrom the site of Cià c’am va [11].

Participants’ Viewpoints

From Graziano Terrani’s documentary (GTD):

Maurizio Michael (Centro Punto Bregaglia): On the one hand, Punto Bregaglia strives to pursue what has been done so far within movingAlps, hence to provide a continuity and to reinforce those activities and initiatives. And on the other hand, it offers a space to local enterprises wishing to grow and cooperate towards the development of our area. . . .

Romana Rotanzi (PercorsoArianna): When movingAlps started here, it seemed aimed at teaching us how to fish rather than at giving us just one fish, I mean that its purpose was to give people the bases enabling them to do a thousand things. I didn’t want to be left out. So I was very pleased when I heard that we could learn how to use computers without having to go to Locarno – which, for me, means one hour’s journey. This training offer arrived when my children had reached school age. And with some cleverness and a few work-arounds, you can do it all, if you want to. I don’t feel in the marginalized anymore, it is as if I lived in Milan – why not? I too can find anything via the internet, now that I know how to use it . . . .

Gaby Minoggio (PercorsoArianna): At first, it seemed to be just a computer course. But afterwards, we discovered that it was a far more comprehensive kind of training, aimed at making women realize and exploit their know-how and potential. And I thought that a training offer here in the valley was an opportunity not to be missed. It was a full evolutionary process for us six women, which now we manage ourselves: training, at first, and then this evolution through our activities . . . . So, obviously, we are satisfied with our involvement.


Logo of the percorsoArianna project.


Giuliana Messi, of the movingAlps team in Lugano, says in GTD:

When you manage a project, it is right to leave it after a while, and let people continue on their own. I think that the 3-4 projects started in Vallemaggia last well. And then there are less visible, yet important, things: for instance, women who participated in percorsoArianna who tell me that they have become reference persons for others, and so on – this is positive empowerment.

And in fact, several initiatives started within movingAlps are still going on after the end of the project. Apart from the Punto Bregaglia business and communication center, in Val d’Anniviers: a census of local architectural and artistic works and a gathering of traditional legends and tales, for instance. Participants have found alternatives to the infrastructure offered by movingAlps. Again, from GTD:

Adriana Tenda Claude (PercorsoArianna): We have opened a blog as a way to replace the room we were able to use for our monthly meetings . . . before, and also, partly, the virtual learning platform we had for the two years of PercorsoArianna. Also to stimulate the development of our projects.


Screenshot of the movingAlps virtual learning platform

Nevertheless, other initiative ideas were not yet sufficiently developed to be able to continue on their own.

Moreover, the work of the LIFI team has been characterized by the use of the data gathered in former projects to start new ones: apart from movingAlps, the initial Poschiavo project had also led to Projet Guinée, in collaboration with the Institut Supérieur des Sciences de l’Education (ISSEG) in Conakry, which aimed at the development of literacy through the creation of cooperative microentreprises (see Amadou Tidjane Diallo, “Aphabétisation, développement communautaire et utilisation des TIC dans la formation,” 2003 [12].

ma_initiative_develDevelopment process of movingAlps initiatives (from movingAlps Vademecum).

True, the summary of the movingAlps data in the above-mentioned Vademecum (see above and [6]) and in other LIFI publications (see [13]) are available for the development of further projects. But it will not be the same as the possibility to refer to a team working with the necessary infrastructure in one place. Hence the understandable disappointment expressed by its director, Dieter Schürch, at the end of Graziano Terrani’s documentary:

Involving such a conspicuous number of people, creating a team of collaborators from several fields, organizing a series of activities that have enabled these regions to launch sustainable initiatives – and being unable to continue – this is very sad. The fact that we cannot carry on beyond this deadline does not only harm these projects and regions, but also the image of the University where we were working until now, I think.