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teaching, learning, and education

Busy spring turns to busy summer

Last fall, I proposed to the teaching committee that I would develop an online version of the writing class I teach, as I was aware there were students who would appreciate being able to take the class off-cycle. The department offers four or five sections of the course each semester, but it can still be hard for students to schedule the class, especially if they want to take a semester abroad. I had some reservations—and some in the department were also skeptical—because the University offers a financial incentive for Departments to increase teaching via Continuing and Professional Education (CPE). Students pay for CPE teaching separately—it's not part of their regular tuition—and some departments have been unable to meet students' needs through their "regular" teaching, forcing students to either take classes in the summer or delay graduation. Upon reflection, the teaching committee decided to support my proposal and it moved forward.

It turned out the CPE was also offering small grants to support the transition of classes from face-to-face to on-line instruction. I applied for and was award one of these grants that also required me to participate in an on-line training program for Blackboard. Unfortunately, the awareness of the grant program and my receipt of the award happened so late that I had already made commitments that I knew would interfere with some of the deadlines. And it wasn't clear to me that the "training" would be of any particular help anyway: I've developed on-line classes before and have used Blackboard before. But I figured it might be a useful refresher and the money was not insignificant, so I did it.

I had forgotten how terrible Blackboard is. I mean, I knew, but it's really awful. The interface is horrible. It's clunky and unattractive and inflexible. I remember the first time I used it—we were the first cohort to adopt it—and I reported back to my colleagues how awful it was, they thought I was exaggerating. But when they all had to use it the following semester, they hated it even worse than we had. My strong background in web authoring and technology made it easier for me than for my colleagues. The campus switched to Moodle not long after that and, in spite of an assault on Moodle mounted by a dean, we managed to fight it off for the campus. But CPE remains in the clutches of Blackboard. And it's just as bad as it used to be. Perhaps worse. They have this clunky "portal" bolted on the front now, that you have to interact with if you want to use an avatar and not appear just as a missing-person's placeholder. They want you to to give them information about yourself and populate it with "tiles" that are sort-of like badges. Except no-one does so its rather like a ghost town. And the tiles they have are extremely limited. I pointed out that their "languages" tile didn't list Esperanto which made it unusable for me. The CPE folks submitted a request for me, but Blackboard said they weren't going to add it. But I was impressed they bothered to make the request.

As the semester progressed, I got farther and farther behind. My blog ends near the end of Spring Break when I co-organized NERDSummit. It was great fun and important work, but I did it at the expense of completing the Blackboard training. Then I got talked into going to Libreplanet, which was fantastic, but put me farther behind. Finally, they told me to finish it by a date certain or I would lose the funding. They might have cut me off anyway, but the class had been listed and was filling up, so they really didn't want to do that. I took a weekend and powered through the training. It was awful.

I mean, it was worse than awful. It was filled with textbook-perfect examples of how not to teach. I felt like someone had put a ring in my nose and was dragging my face around on a book and calling it "teaching". They would have videos of powerpoint lectures that you were forced to leave running on your computer to get "credit". The assessment was a quiz you could take as many times as you like where I knew 85% of the answers before beginning the unit. And where many of the questions turned on trivia: Is the menu entry you click on called "Item" or "Object"? About the only unit where you did something that was related to "teaching" was a tool they had licensed called "voicethread". In their course, they had a typo and called it "voicethreat" which was hysterical because the tool requires you to install Flash. I indicated to them that I had quit installing Flash on any of my computers several years ago and believe it a disservice to encourage students to engage in an unsafe behavior to complete a course. Eventually, I received a dispensation that even if I didn't complete the activity, I could still be considered to have "completed" the training. So I skipped it.

I was starting to get caught up toward the end of the semester, when I came down with a spring cold which put me behind again. They threatened again to cancel my class if I didn't get the materials posted. I had gotten them roughed out, but had been reluctant to actually post them because they are all so inter-dependent that I would make a revision in one and then need to go revise three other documents. But I went ahead finally and posted everything.

I've basically created the course in Libreoffice documents, saved as PDF files, and am only using Blackboard in the most minimal way possible. The goal is to be as platform independent as possible so I can switch to something else—anything else—when feasible.

But this weekend, I've finally had a moment to take a deep breath. On Friday, my chair reviewed the course with me. And today CPE is reviewing the course. When they share their review with me, I'll have about three weeks to make revision before the course materials are visible to the students.

It's going to be interesting to see how the course works as an online class. The timeline is extremely short—only 6 weeks—for what is supposed to be 3-credit class. I'm not convinced students can make themselves write that much. But we'll see. The class is full and has a long waiting list. I set the limit at 15, but I'm still concerned about the amount of time that will required to provide feedback to the students. Two of the weeks, I'll be in St. Croix however, which will make for pleasant surroundings while I teach anyway.

Summer is finally here!

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