This semester, I’m collaborating with colleagues at another institution to design and implement a hybrid course with four sections of students across two universities. If you’ve missed the first two installments in the series, in the first post, I overview the course purpose and structure. In the second, I discussed the opportunities and challenges with implementing an online community of practice. We’re now a few weeks into the semester, and things seem to be going well so far. While it has been time consuming to design the structure for the course, it seems to be coming together. One recurring realization I’ve had over the last few weeks – tools matter.
We’re using BlackBoard as the primary learning management system (LMS) for the collaboration. Specifically, we’re making use of the discussion fora, pages to host rich media cases, the essay testing features for reader response items, and the online grading tool. I’m a relatively experienced BlackBoard user – although in the past my use was limited primarily to the discussion board and gradebook, including the wonderful rubric tool. What’s been new to me this semester is the content hosting (in the form of creating pages with embedded text, images, and video clips) and the test creation tool. I recognize that these are new to me, but I’ve rarely been as frustrated as when using these two functions in BlackBoard. This frustration is despite the wonderful support (technical and pedagogical) from our helpful IT staff. Rather than structuring this post as a “BlackBoard bash,” I want to reflect for a moment on the importance of selecting the right tool to support any kind of technology-enhanced teaching.
Any digital tool has it’s own affordances and constraints. Every tool does some things really well (affordances) and just gets in the way at other times (constraints). My prior use of BlackBoard (primarily discussions and the grade center) has focused primarily on the affordances of the LMS. This has worked well for me and my students in the past. In going deeper with the tool this semester I’ve run (repeatedly) into the constraints. I can’t tell you how frustrating something simple like embedding a YouTube video on a page has been. I keep lamenting how easy it would be to do the same task in another tool – like wikispaces. It wouldn’t be so frustrating if there were an easy work-around, but even with significant support, some of the limitations have been a major source of frustration.
In the end, I think we’ve bent BlackBoard to our will and it will (for the most part) serve our needs. This experience, however, has underscored the point for me how important choosing the right tool is for the best possible experience. Were I to undertake a similar course in the future, I would look long and hard at the different LMS options (I’m looking at you, Canvas). I will make sure that what I want to do (at least the major functions of the course) are not only possible, but hopefully pleasant to use. Because, in a course like this, you find yourself spending a good deal of time in the LMS. For a hybrid or online teaching experience to be productive and rewarding, you have to enjoy using the tools.
Any advice on alternatives for this kind of experience? I’m eager to explore other options.,