Friday, December 05, 2008

Blackboard as part of the Military-Industrial Complex

I've been working on various things that have to do with taking advantage of social software to create active, collaborative learning environments for students. When I talk about using social software, I'm talking about using blogs or wikis or Facebook or Twitter or other freely available web applications and leveraging them for educational purposes. Anyone can do this without having access to an educational institution. I could set up a whole class using Blogger, Facebook and pbwiki.

Blackboard was originally created as a simple way for faculty to put course material online back in the day when putting up a web site meant knowing how to code html and navigate the pathways on a server to get your files in the right place. Most faculty didn't know how to do this. And so Blackboard and a couple of other companies sprung up as solutions to this problem. Ten years ago, this was great! The web was very interactive anyway and this made it easier for people to post syllabi and course documents. Blackboard was not, however, any kind of innovative technology. It certainly didn't change the teaching and learning game. It was, and is, still built primarily as a one-way communication medium. Faculty post information and students read it.

Social-software oriented education allows students to create a more personalized learning environment and create a many-to-many communication channel. They no longer have to (nor can they, if done right!) sit and wait for information to flow from the professor to them. They can post their own information, ask questions of each other, see out new information and share it, comment on it, all without needing the professor to intervene. Social-software oriented classes that are open and public also benefit from interacting people not in the class, creating a broader audience for their work and learning from broader perspectives beyond the confined walls of school.

The factory-model of education treats, as the video below explains, students as widgets, as one size fits all. Blackboard perpetuates this model by not allowing for much customization, few communication tools, especially those that allow many-to-many communication, by keeping everything behind a password and not allowing for interconnection even within a single institution. Faculty cannot share course materials. Students cannot interact with students from other classes, much less with people outside of the class. Blackboard is built on the concepts of education from the industrial age, even though it was built in the information age.

As I say all the time, the software matters when it comes to using it for teaching and learning. The layout, its flexibility and interface, its ease of use all will affect the teaching and learning experience. Blackboard creates a really unfriendly learning environment. It's contained and closed off, which gives the message that education only happens within the confines of a "course" and not in the interstices of courses. One can learn, it says, only the information I give you. It pretends, as Michael Wesch is fond of saying, that information is scarce, when it's not. It makes education and learning narrow and defined when learning is huge and broad and takes place all the time over a lifetime and that is the message we need to be sending.

I used to think Blackboard was okay as a stepping stone to other things, but now I think it's not. I think it's okay to use it to keep your copyrighted materials and maybe your grades, but I don't think it's okay to use if for learning.