Students to Give Feedback on Blackboard, Other Technologies

Elizabeth Dobbins, News Editor

After finals end and students move out, most activities on campus will shut down, but efforts to evaluate and expand the ways technology is used in the classroom will be powering on. On May 27, Oberlin Center for Technologically Enhanced Teaching will host a day of instructional workshops for faculty on subjects ranging from the presentation software Prezi to Blackboard to the use of clickers in the classroom and — right in the middle of this day — will host the first official student-led panel focused on providing feedback and suggestions regarding technology in the classroom.

Director of OCTET Albert Borronni views this panel as an opportunity for his organization, as well as professors, to gain a better understanding of which technology and features are useful for students.

“I’d like to see us start a more substantive conversation with students about what they see as working and not working, useful in their learning,” Borronni said. “There’s a lot of initiatives that come about or try to come about — computational modeling, e-portfolios, all this other stuff — and sometimes I think we forget to ask the students if this will be beneficial.”

Last year, OCTET held a similar panel during its yearly Teaching and Technology Workshop, but the panel was informally organized and the students who participated were selected because they happened to be in Mudd during the event. Borronni hopes that by advertising this panel through Blackboard and other media the panel can attract a greater diversity of students and opinions, as well as inspire faculty to try different ways of integrating technology into their courses.

“I’m hoping to see faculty come,” he said. “I’m hoping to see faculty integrate some of this. I’m hoping to see faculty get engaged and work with each other and talk to each other about what they’re doing, and then I’m hoping next semester for them to come back to us and say ‘Hey, I heard about this. I really want to do this.’”

Associate Professor Al Porterfield has attended several OCTET workshops over the past few years and has integrated Blackboard into his courses by using the site as a way of communicating with students, hosting multiple-choice quizzes, posting documents and providing online grades. He says the site is convenient or at least more convenient than creating websites for his courses, which he used to do, but the system has some design flaws, such as unclear links and no function for increasing the time on quizzes for students with exemptions from the Office of Disabilities.

College sophomore Andres Cuervo agrees, and this belief, in addition to an interest in the intersection of technology and teaching, motivated Cuervo to sit on the panel this May.

“Blackboard hasn’t been introduced to its content creators effectively: teachers,” Cuervo said in an email to the Review. “There’s still confusion and resentment, amongst everyone from Computer Science to English teachers I’ve had, about it being a restrictive, confusing interface. I think it’s actually a serious detriment that Blackboard is so frequently customized by the CIT staff here. If there’s anyone who has worked on it with experience in interaction design and information architecture, I can’t find much evidence in the current state of the Blackboard site.”

Despite Porterfield and Cuervo’s mixed feelings about Blackboard, 85 percent of the 110 people who responded to the Spring 2013 Faculty Teaching and Tech Survey agreed that Oberlin should provide an institutionally supported and integrated learning management system, like Blackboard.

Members of a committee that met several times in spring 2014 debated whether Blackboard, out of the many learning systems on the market, is the correct choice for Oberlin. In a report dated April 3, 2014, the committee listed their concerns, which included the high cost of Blackboard but also the difficulty of transitioning to a new learning management system.

Porterfield, one of the members of the committee, expressed similar conclusions.

“I think what the group decided overall is that there is no perfect system, and Blackboard is quite expensive,” he said. “There are actually some free systems, but Blackboard also has a number of nice features, [and] now the faculty have sort of adapted to it, and if you were to go to a whole new system and if you were to say, ‘Look, we could save thousands of dollars each year by using this free system. All you faculty have to do is learn the new system,’ there’d be an insurrection. A lot of people don’t want to have to deal with new technology; they want to devote their attention to teaching and not the bells and whistles that they use to teach.”

Chief Technology Officer John Bucher declined to share the yearly cost of Blackboard, but stated it was similar in price to other large management systems.

“It’s on par with the Oracle database software that we buy and banner databases,” he said. “It’s your typical large system, business system type of software. It’s priced accordingly.”

According to the report, the College’s two-year contract with Blackboard ends on June 30 of this year. Bucher said the College plans to sign a contract with Blackboard for one more year and use this time to investigate other products and compare them to Blackboard.

Until then, OCTET hopes to get more student feedback on Blackboard and the use of other technologies through the panel on May 27.

College senior Alex Abramowitz, another member of the upcoming panel, warns that the College should be thoughtful about integrating technology.

“We can’t just use technology for its own sake,” said Abramowitz in an email to the Review. “It’s very expensive and is often unnecessary. It can also be extremely frustrating when professors who don’t really understand it are relying on it.”

However, Cuervo is excited about possible new developments and said they hope to see a better integration of mobile devices in the classroom.

“The most barebones incorporation of technology in the classroom would be better integration with mobile devices,” Cuervo said. “Instead of letting phones and computers be a distraction in the classroom, let them be an interactive anonymous forum for participation. That might be an interesting way to maintain and ensure class participation from even the most disengaged or shy students.”